What Do Swiss Cheese, Fungus and Lace Have in Common?
Updated: Feb 24, 2022
You may be familiar with Highway 20 if you've driven to the beach by way of Fort Bragg. I was on my way, just leaving Willits, when I spotted the familiar cobwebs, a common sight on the leeward side of the hilly slopes. What I believed then to be Spanish moss was hanging off oak trees like torn curtains when I first spotted it. Apparently the cats' paws of coastal fog that gets trapped in valley pockets and glades provides abundant moisture to feed the multitude of organisms.
Funny enough, It's not moss and definitely not from Spain! It's called Lace Lichen. It is in a symbiotic relationship/partnership with an alga or cyanobacteria where both actually benefit. The alga creates food from the sun which feeds the fungus. It absorbs moisture from the tree but its root system in the bark is shallow so does not harm the tree. Of course, I didn't know this at the time I spotted it. I just knew it riveted me as it would any artist.
I stopped to capture it. When I was up close, the lichen dripped from the trees as from the rafters of an abandoned dilapidated barn in a goth graphic novel. But from a distance the overall pattern looked more like a huge fish net. The regular web-like pattern resembled the crochet that foam makes on the surface of waves. The swiss cheese pattern resembled the interstices/negative space between rocks that would form if they were all strung together. Artists in Van Gogh's era and since made the air space between branches the actual subject matter of a painting, while the branches would merely serve this goal.
This particular pattern fascinated my 13 year old self. I loved biology and drew what I saw through the microscope. My beloved biology teacher inspired and encouraged me in my pursuit of scientific exploration and drawing.
Buoyed by this support, this young student took a summer art workshop in mixed media where I tried to replicate a similar bone structure pattern--similar to the pattern of Lace Lichen--but on a larger scale and in collage. I bombed. This young artist realized she was over her head technically. One had to know how to use materials well in order to actualize the idea in the real world. Visualizing is only the first step. Go figure! I was outwitted by Nature and humbled by the experience.
Luckily that young student didn't give up. The synergy between microcosm and macrocosm still fascinated me into college and became the subject of many drawings and watercolors and later in the MFA program, Spatial Arts, sculpture. I can honestly say I am grateful for the teachers willing to help me improve my technical expertise and hone my skills in charcoal, conte', watercolor, clay, and finally in steel, bronze casting. The above drawing is the result of the choice to keep going and keep growing. And yes...the name has been changed in the online gallery from Spanish Moss to Lace Lichen!
The complexity of replicating a biological structure in nature successfully can only be matched by the complexity of growth, shapes and unconscious decisions a single-celled organism has to make. All I know is that it started at a microscopic level. It grew in a self-organizing way--exponentially, arithmetically, whatever---and by fractals. It engineered its unique branching system so successfully that by the time I saw it on the oak tree, it had been able to sustain itself structurally at a large-scale, macroscopic level too. Unbelievable and spectacular!
Mother Nature is The Architect.
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Please consider that 5% of proceeds from the sale of artwork is donated to Center for Mindful Self-Compassion founded by Dr. Kristin Neff and Dr. Chris Germer.