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Lessons from Lichens

A few months back, I attended an event in NYC, where a diverse community of thinkers and innovators converged to explore pathways toward a brighter future for our society. Little did I anticipate that the most profound insight of the event would emerge from an unexpected source - a humble patch of lichen.

The symposium was a gathering of leaders from the fields of contemplative practices, media, science, art, politics and indigenous cultures. We gathered in a large auditorium where panelists presented thoughts, ideas and performances. The audience then joined panelists in smaller breakout sessions to have more interactive discussions.

In one breakout session, panelists fashioned a makeshift campfire from leaves and twigs, adorned with twinkling lights and vibrant tissue paper. I listened as great minds shared their opinions on the roots of division in our society. Many of the ideas sounded like old stories that had been tried before. I was feeling the sensations of discouragement when I noticed a patch of lichen on a branch sitting on the pretend campfire, looking at me. It reminded me of the potential for diverse entities to thrive through collaboration.

Lichens are the product of algae, or bacteria, and fungus coming together in a symbiotic union. Their formula works. They can survive where many other plant species don’t stand a chance. They can grow on bare rock, desert sand, cleared soil, dead wood, animal bones, rusty metal and living bark. They can shut down during periods of unfavorable conditions and survive extreme heat, cold and drought. They bring together two or more life forms that need each other to thrive. In doing so, they create more abundant life where it wouldn’t normally be found. The fungus needs food, which the algae or bacteria provide through photosynthesis. The algae needs a protective structure and access to water, which the fungus provides. Together they can dominate landscapes that are otherwise uninhabitable.


They are the pioneers and often the first to set up camp on surface for future plants to grow. They are incredibly slow growing. But with slow growth comes longevity.

Because they can’t move, they have developed a variety of defenses that control light exposure, repel herbivores, kill microbes and discourage competition from plants.

They are so sensitive to polluted air that their presence has become the measurement of clean air environments.  

In contemplating the resilience and collaborative spirit of lichens, I couldn't help but wonder: what if our society embraced a similar ethos of mutual benefit among diverse groups? Could we transcend our divisions and cultivate a more harmonious coexistence? The lichen's example beckons us to explore pathways toward collective flourishing, grounded in cooperation rather than conflict.

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