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  • Writer's pictureCaitlyn Smith

Lichen Inhabitants of the Palouse

Updated: 4 days ago

Every time I wandered around a cemetery as a kid, I felt calm. Inspired, even. My dad guided me through the history, telling stories of the past and those who left us behind. We calculated ages, looked for common dates, read unusual names, and noticed which headstones were cut from the same limestone. But I was oblivious to the life. The living things that surrounded the dead, breathing new air into old stone. I didn’t notice the fresh air until I visited the cemeteries in Pullman to see the sites that inspired Justin Pickard’s art featured here on EcoArts on the Palouse(Various Lichen Inhabitants: Paintings)

Lichen plasters the headstones here like mint green and yellow paint splatters. These tiny organisms, which are actually two organisms of fungus and algae that work together as one, coat the cemeteries like little sprinkles of life. They wrap around the trees and cover the pavement by the river, surviving to tell us secrets about the air quality. Since they are so sensitive, high levels of pollution will reduce photosynthesis levels to keep them from growing. This indicates that the air is potentially harmful. They also provide shelter and color to the otherwise deep greys of cemeteries. Lichen are the color within the darkness of these final resting places.

This composite organism is a life source for many creatures: a source of food for deer and snails as they meander and crawl through the forest; a shelter for baby birds, cradling and insulating them in their nests; a natural medicine for humans, promoting the healing of surface wounds as well as internal digestive issues. The little lichen is responsible for life.

Pullman City Cemetery, which is this tiny cemetery packed in tightly behind a Walmart, is teeming with the organisms. When searching for those little splatters, the stillness of the cemetery makes it easy to forget that there’s a supercenter a few feet away. The headstones are lined in lichen – coated in them. Splotches of green Lecanora grow in their ridges like cement filling potholes. The signs of life grow on a symbol of death.

Farr Cemetery, across town, does not lack lichen, either. This miniscule family cemetery is tucked back into the woods between two large houses up on the peak of Pullman. I stumbled along the path with a fear of trespassing on my mind as I searched for specific colorful patches. They weren’t hard to find. Bright yellow Xanthoria glazes a white headstone on the other side of the metal gate and wraps itself around the thin branches of the trees. The spotted yellow is beautiful among the winter-ruined grass and empty trees. The lichen, in the soft glow of the sun, filled me with a feeling of hope that spring is coming to bring back life to yet another place of death.

The arrival of spring was also felt as I wandered by the Palouse River site that inspired Justin Pickard in his art. Lecanora splattered the footbridge like little lily pads. It’s like they are part of the pavement or trying to grow over the man-made structure. I got down on my hands and knees to look at this tiny lichen trail and I realized that cemeteries were no longer places of death and darkness, they were places where nature reclaimed our bodies. They were places of rebirth.

Caitlyn Smith, Spring '20 Intern, graduated from the English Department (majoring in Creative Writing) at Washington State University where she also pursued an Editing and Publishing Certificate.

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