The trouble with lichen


I had another short article in the Guardian’s lovely Country Diary section a few days ago, about lichen land grabs and the slow wars waged over centuries.

Find the full text here, or after the break.

Lichens stake their claim, millimetre by millimetre

Kinloch, Skye
Though the land is deserted now, the signature of human habitation is deeply imprinted upon it

Cal Flyn,

The Guardian, Thursday 29 September 2016

High about the shoreline, looking across the Sound of Sleat, lie the remains of the township of Leitir Fura. Abandoned by their inhabitants in the early 19th century, the low stone blackhouses have been laid bare by the elements in the subsequent decades, their exoskeletons crumbling as – stone by stone – they return to the earth.

Though the land is deserted, the signature of human habitation is deeply imprinted upon it. Buildings that have entirely subsided linger as ghostly apparitions, their presence announced by changes in the pattern of vegetation: neat oblong forests of bracken, or tough reedy tussocks in tight, straight-edged formation.

Here and there, walls stand to chest-height still, their faces atlases of gold and white as crustose lichen colonies stake their claims. Vast territories stretch out unrivalled across rocky plains; elsewhere, convoluted borders hint at centuries-old disputes as these empires grow and clash at the rate of one millimetre a year.

The clean air of the Hebrides and the lack of disruption is ideal for lichen growth. The silver birches lining the old drovers’ road we follow to the township are dressed in a lacy finery of peppermint green – a mix of foliose and fruticose lichens – but hazel trees dominate on the sea-facing slope. Their trunks bear an unusual ornament: white script lichen, endemic to the west coast of Scotland. It grows in smooth white plaques engraved with dark lines, like hieroglyphs, from which it takes its name.

According to tradition, the township got its name from the Fura Mhor, a great oak tree so large that 40 cattle could stand in the shade of its branches. Two children set it on fire, and their families were evicted as a result, or so the story goes. Perhaps it is true; they are all gone now.

We turn back as the rain draws in, picking our way between fat-bellied licorice slugs that seem to squelch under every footstep. The path edges are choked with brambles, their petals long fallen away to reveal fruit growing in their place, with the colour flooding into their faces.

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