Spring Starts Small

Two round spots of lichen growing on a rock

If you blink, you might miss them—lichens show a sign of Spring

Sometime in January a hint of green appeared on the brown plastic doormat leading into the house. The moisture and cool air had started something growing in this otherwise inhospitable environment. The mat covered a concrete porch several steps above the ground. Kept dry by a roof and on the sheltered side of the house, it hardly seemed a fertile spot for abundant plant life.

A few weeks later visible but miniscule plants began punctuating the now-bright green film with tiny first leaves barely clearing the surface of the mat. This rectangle began to take on the appearance of a well-tended garden albeit on a tiny scale.

My curiosity piqued, I turned to other specimens in the miniature world I rarely notice and would never know without my glasses. I began to notice lichens and mushrooms, insects and algae. There are mildews and mosses, tadpoles and larvae everywhere. Some of this life will grow to become recognizable plants and animals–frogs, dragonflies, chanterelles, or poppies. But some will remain small–even microscopic–in a part of the world where I rarely venture.

For many years I have been watching the slow growth of a lichen colony on a sheer rock wall along the road I travel daily. I first noticed it as a gray-white quarter-sized patch that glowed with eerie fluorescence at night at exactly the spot where my headlights landed as I rounded a bend in the road. I have heard that lichens can be used as an indicator of the presence or absence of air pollution. They disappear totally in areas of heavy pollution. So I have adopted this colony as my own personal monitor of the quality of the air I breathe.

It always heartens me when I spy it. And, I am happy to report it has been growing, although at such a rate I would never know if I hadn’t been monitoring it for decades. It has achieved a diameter of almost four inches in the course of twenty years. During cool moist winter it plumps up, swells ever so slightly, and ends up a little larger in the spring than it was in the fall, somehow binding itself firmly to this uncompromising surface. In summer it dries out and looks like a scaly scab on the iron-red rock.

Other mosses and lichens, some orange and chartreuse, decorate the brown skeletal frames of the trees that are dripping with rain. The tree on the patio is now clad in mossy elegance on the side away from the sun. This velvet robe in rich green points north as clearly as a compass. The regal raiment turns shabby and brown in the summer, more burlap than velvet, waiting to be revived with the first rains of winter.

These tiny life forms are as distant as the stars from my world in both size and conception. They too speak of space imagined but not understood. But in them the richness of spring is apparent. Ephemeral or enduring, their size only hints at the changes to come.