Part 1. In Which the Issue is Discovered
The issue is : how to be within
the literal/literary when
it is all around us
In the black scuffle, early a.m., all sounds
louder, I detract the child’s fingers from my hair
I would go out into the all-around
sit with a lichen, set fingers in its hair
See how it buries the rock quietly beneath it
See how the rock says eons in response
As there is an edge to forever, living
quietly in now
Part 2. In Which the Discovery is Developed
One day I discovered this on my desktop, hiding in plain sight. Lost in a corner in a document labeled Argument, like so many of the other things. How did it get there? How had I missed it?
In another context, I had written: likewise, as contemporary poets consider the devastating effects of humans on other plant and animal lives, some have turned toward the smallest citizens of our planet with increased attention and care; when we are gone—as individuals or species—the littlest will persist: decomposing, reproducing, and evolving—until, in some distant future, conditions on Earth grow too inhospitable even for them.
Meanwhile, a Collaborator revised the line to welcome uncertainty in: when, in some distant maybe, conditions may outstrip the requirements of archea, bacteria, even the sullen virus. But that is not what I meant.
What I wanted to write was: someday the sun will die. It will gestate and explode, putting an end, unrevisably, to Eden. But before the planet literally dies, it will have erased every aspect of our unfathomable lives. An end to all entanglement. The Earth’ll be a cold stone, harbor to nothing but an exploding star’s annihilating embrace. And that day will be, literally, the End of Days.
I’m tired of people talking about the end of the Earth when they mean the ways that humans are failing on a planetary level to live with one another and other forms of life. There are different scales to an ending: an end to an era of intellectual suspicion that was also an era of supreme material comfort for some and thus not an era of universal civilizational depression.
Given all this, what is “the life of a writer,” a writing-life?
When I was living in France, I began to crave cowboys. In Japan, I began to imagine California as a kitchen thick with an impossible pink.
Of living a life of intractable relation, “on this acceptance, literally, the life of a writer depends,” James Baldwin writes.
A Further Part. In Which Lichen is Elaborated
I hope you’ll hear the analogy hidden in my title, “Lichen Writing,” and the steep drop off that follows, when the other half of the analogy never arrives.
I’ve been interested in the compound, symbiotic, organism that is lichen for some time. But recently, I’ve tried to think more about what might stand on the other side of the analogy that lichen writing is. If lichen finds its way into writing, which of course like everything else it does, or if there might be a kind of writing modeled on lichen, what is the other thing, outside of writing, still in relation, that gets left out? Lichen writing, so in…?
Compared to a microbe, lichen can seem like charismatic mega-fauna. But if the micro lends itself, purely based on scale, to certain degrees of intellectual or imaginative neglect, might there be a sliding scale that extends beyond the micro but that never quite rises to the fully-fledged visibility of everyday objects? Though they don’t require a microscope, lichen are easily overlooked. Found endemically in almost every imaginable habitat, they nevertheless merge visibly into other forms. Unless you go to the woods looking for lichen, chances are, you will miss them for the rocks, rotting stumps, and living trees on which they grow.
At the same time, even if you regularly look at lichen, there is nevertheless a neglected layer to its visibility; you can not see its symbiosis—without which, it is not itself—in action.
“Is analogy argument?” one of Herman Melville’s not-quite-character-characters asks in The Confidence Man.
In what follows, I’ll continue my initial Argument that analogy is the neglected micro-matter of the literary; and that lichen is analogy made literal: two, co-creating, material things—a fungi and an algae—which mutually modify each other, and without that modification, are two separate, lonely, things.
The Following Part. In Which I Account for My Interest in Lichen
But first I want to back up a little to explain that what initially drew me to lichen was the homo-social floral bonding of the nineteenth century. Which, when it comes down to it, is another example of analogy playing out in literal life. Within this sphere, a shared enthusiasm for flowers could harbor, and even provide a language for, indirect forms of intimacy that, for one reason or another, required that indirection. By way of analogy as illustration and/or elaboration, I often feel that, for me, a shared passion for the literary has defined, shaped, complicated, vexed, and created space for my most meaningful relationships, especially with women. One important friendship, for example, began with a not-yet-friend literally reading A Brave New World over my shoulder.
In the mid-1840s, “man of letters” and later correspondent of Emily Dickinson, Thomas Wentworth Higginson took a series of walks in search of wildflowers in the vicinity of Cambridge, Massachusetts, with a man who would become one of the United States’s first pre-eminent lichenologists, Edward Tuckerman.
Reflecting on these shared encounters from the space of half a century later, Higginson recalled:
I must not forget to add that at all seasons I took long walks with Edward Tuckerman, then the most interesting man about Cambridge […] His room was a delightful place to visit,—a large chamber in a rambling old house, with three separate reading-tables, one for botany, one for the study of Coleridge, and one for the Greek drama. He was the simplest-hearted of men, shy, near-sighted, and lovable.
What makes Tuckerman so loveable to Higginson is the co-dependence of his different modes of knowledge—literal (scientific) and literary—combined with Tuckerman’s open door: that his study is a permeable place. Later, no doubt recalling this space with its collection of texts, and their friendly flower-walks, Higginson wrote an essay called “My Out-Door Study,” in which he advocated for the practice of literature outside books: “On this flower bank, on this ripple-marked shore, are the true literary models,” he wrote.
A Classifying Analogy Part
I can date my interest in analogy roughly to when I began reading Tuckerman’s work. In one of his books on lichen, he reflects on the importance of using “Analogy”—as well as “Affinity”—in the study of plants, and the importance of distinguishing between them. Analogy, he defines as two things “which occupy parallel places in different series,” and yet “mutually correspond to each other.” As in, how a right whale when reduced to bones appears to have a hand.
Affinity, on the other hand, he defines as things “which follow in the same series,” and because of their proximity, “seem mutually to pass into each other.” As in, humans/apes. Whereas, in our current era, a geologic period David Abrams calls the “Humilicene,” we find this analogy: humans and everything else.
In the Humilicene, the fact that there is no outside to humanness, is, as the name implies, a source of humiliation, and humility: a problem of in-extractability. Recently, in a course on environmental poetry, a student stridently argued in favor of making a broader use of the “pathetic fallacy.” Given the current state of things, her point was, shouldn’t we make ample use of every imaginative tool we have to understand our entanglement with non-humans everywhere, macro and micro; hyper, ho-hum, and neglected?
Despite the differences that Tuckerman wants to carve out for them, analogy and affinity are themselves part of the same series, merging toward if not into each other, in that they are one of many, many, different literary methods for considering the realms of possible connection between this and this. Let’s say there is also a spectrum of different modes of accounting for these ways one thing becomes, or is, another. Analogy would be at the neglected, bed-rocky, bottom, and allegory the airy peak, with simile, metaphor, metonymy, ghosting about the Purgatorial middle, and tropes of affiliation—personification, anthropomorphism, etc.—parading about diaphanously as the atmosphere grows thinner.
Fittingly with this scheme—a kind of Humboldtian map of tropes—Tuckerman believed lichen to be especially humble plants, among “the lowest forms of vegetable life.” He never accepted the symbiotic model of lichen organization, which was introduced several decades after his earliest publication. That theory produced violent debates, prompted by questions, in effect, about whether one thing can be two things at once. An argument, in other words, about analogy.
An Unfinished Part. Some Examples
This debate began when, in 1869 Swiss lichenologist Simon Schwendener’s described lichen analogously as a living example of a micro Hegelian master-slave dialectic:
“these growths are not simple plants, not individuals in the ordinary sense of the word, they are more likely colonies, composed of hundred and thousands of individuals. Of them, however, one only is in control, whilst the others, forever imprisoned, provide for themselves and their master, nourishment.
This master is a fungus […] a parasite, accustomed to live up on the work of others, its slaves are green Algae, which it […] holds on to and forces into service. It invests them as a spider her prey, with a fine meshed web, which gradually is converted into an impregnable integument, but, whilst the spider sucks out her prey and throws it aside when dead, the Fungus stimulates the Algae, found in its net, to more lively activity.”
Schwendener’s analogy stirred up outrage among some of his fellow scientists, who came to the defense, in writing, of the “noble” and “autonomous” lichen.
While there’s a lot to say about these descriptions, especially regarding the implied politics of each, in Europe in the middle of the 19th-century, what interests me most here is the way in which Schwendener, in order to describe the dual-composition of lichen, is so drawn to analogy that he piles one on top of another: lichen like fungal masters with algal slaves and/or like fungal spiders with algal prey. And this doubling, even as is amplifies the doubleness of lichen itself, also reveals a primary fungiblity to analogy. Analogy rides on top of the literal, pointing to its direct object; but that pointing can take place through a series of variations, and still indicate the same, literal, thing.
This plays out in two literary examples, from very different moments in the history of American poetry, in which lichen, set in relation to flowers, is activated, as analogy, to point to two very different things.
In that manuscript composed at the end of his life, Weeds and Wildings, with a Rose or Two—and elsewhere in his writing, most notably in Billy Budd—Herman Melville draws directly on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s writing, and on literary history stretching back to the medieval ages in the Middle East and Europe—to celebrate the Rose as the literary plant par excellence, so thick with cliché it’s impossible to extricate it from its literary trappings, and lowlier, slower, plants—especially moss, but also lichen—as creating an overlay of the literal on top of the literary. This comes together most clearly in a sketch called “Rip Van Winkle’s Lilac,” in which Melville meditates at length on a lichen-covered lilac tree—an image plucked directly from Hawthorne’s collection, Mosses from an Old Manse. While in this early work Hawthorne recoils from the combination of the floral achievement and lichenly decay, Melville embraces the combination. “Decay,” he writes, “is often a gardener.” And this fact is also a summation of the composition of lichen itself: a photosynthetic algal or bacterial producer, and a decaying, fungal, agent that gives the compound structure form.
While Melville writes of flowers, moss, and lichen in order to explore a co-dependency between the literary and the literal, the contemporary poet Brenda Hillman uses similar terms—Roses, lichen—to reflect on similar entanglements. But the terms to which her analogies correspond are opposite to Melville’s.
In a book published this past year, Extra Hidden Life Among the Days,” Hillman includes a sequence of 24 “journal poems.” The section is called “Metaphor & Simile,” and as green things do, it falls in the middle of the book. Hillman’s journal poems are sprawling, digressive, punctuated by walks, conversations, photographs of lichen and protests, and reading. She’s thinking a lot in these poems about political resistance, particularly through the lives of Róza Luxemburg and Rosa Parks—and the life of lichen.
In Hillman’s work, it is lichen that acts, analogously, as the primary literary figure—lichen is like a political “undercommons”—while the Roses, conversely, are literal: real human women obstructing the status quo other humans have created, altering it from within, not unlike an adjectival modifier in this sentence by James Baldwin’s—“On this acceptance, literally, the life of a writer depends—“ or like lichen is modified, by itself, from within.
In conclusion, what interests me about lichen most is another analogy: lichen as an irrevocable affinity, a model of in-extractable collaboration: between the human and non-human; and between humans seeking out that mutual, inhuman, energy in each other. Unlike metaphor, analogy does not have a tenor or vehicle (and to be perfectly honest, I always forget which is meant to be which). Rather, both sides of its relation are equally important. And, I think, this nicely models the entanglement of the literal within the literary. Like in writing, so in—
A Part to Be Continued