Infiltrating the British Lichen Society

Above: Xanthoria Parietina under a microscope. Photo by Mark Powell.

“Symbiosis” literally means “living together”. The term became popular in the late 1800s, to describe the mutualistic relationship in lichen. A composite organism, lichen is defined by a stable symbiotic association between a fungus, an alga and/or cyanobacteria. The fungal layer literally shields its partner(s) from external conditions, such as wind or UV light. The algae and/or cyanobacteria reciprocates by producing sugars through photosynthesis.

My mission to infiltrate the British Lichen Society (BLS) is a story of artistic energy within a scientific structure. Over the course of an informal weekend workshop, I permeated the membranes of the Society, confronted the limitations of my own knowledge and tapped into the wisdom of others. With no formal training in Biology, I learned practical skills using microscopes, chemicals, and UV torches. By osmosis, I also encountered value systems and scientific languages that were completely unfamiliar. All the while, I couldn’t help worrying that my lack of scientific knowledge would leave me exposed and alone.

Fortunately, BLS members are supportive, much like the lichenised fungi they study. Their shared passion has created a warm sense of community over the years. Every winter, they convene at a hotel in North Yorkshire and establish a pop-up laboratory in a function room. For three days, rows of members peer into microscopes intently, scrawl notes, and buzz excitedly amongst themselves.

Inspecting X. Parietina under the microscope.

I was the unexpected designer-in-residence, and the youngest member of the Society, by quite a stretch. As I was such a curiosity to the others, explaining my presence became a repeated affirmation. “No, not a Scientist — I’m from the Royal College of Art — interested in lichen as a biological indicator of air quality — it’s really about embodied, ecological ways to communicate atmospheric pollution in general”.

It was heartening that most of my interlocutors took my art school musings seriously. In fact, several of them confirmed or called into question my assumptions, coming back to me with advice and recommendations.

Of course, there were times during the weekend where I did feel lost and out of my depth; I discovered that it requires a lot of energy, patience and determination to immerse yourself in a new discipline. I had read enough lichenology papers to at least ask relevant questions, even if the answers eluded me.

But a beginner’s mind has its advantages. I have new mentors now — notable biological minds who I can email or call at any time with queries. Two are even coming to my exhibition. Without their mentorship, I would never have had the guts to start devising my own lichen surveys with qualitative data, or even pursue a pseudo-scientific methodology. Staying humble in the wake of their experience, rather than cherry-picking theories from lichenology papers without visiting the country itself, has made me a more intrepid and rigorous researcher.

Thanks to members of the BLS for their ongoing support.