Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Lichen, Moss, Shrubs, Trees

There is a place in New Zealand (never mind where) you can go up high and see the steam coming out of cracks in the earth. Go to that place, walk downhill for half an hour or so, then follow the track for two days. Do this and you come across a lot of natural stuff that is rich and varied and worth writing about.

High up there are great curving dunes of shingle, dotted with weird rocks and clumps of earth with moss and small bushes covering them. The rocks are gray, flat-faced; the moss is varied, and the small shrubs are low and stiff. There are one or two tussocks and one or two mountain daisies, little explosions of rigid leaves.

There is lichen up high, too. Go into the mountains and look around and you start to appreciate the hardiness but also the scaly beauty of these little spreading growths. They grow on the peaks of mountains, feeding on the rocks like rust and spreading about in dots and in patches. It grows in bright green beds, minutely mottled. It grows also in frosty white patches, and in little flaky black flowerings.

Here is moss. Here is a white growth, greenish at the edges, that spreads over the plain in soft, rounded cushions. It is white in the sun like lumps of spring snow. From a distance these lumps look smooth and homogenous, but up close you can see that they are made up of thousands of little starry heads, each one no wider than a sandfly and all massed together to make a soft smooth pin-cushion hump.

There are other small things close to the ground. Some are all starry like biddids. One is white and dense and clumped together in tight little constellations. Down here is something also made of tiny heads, but each head is less like a star and more like a little tussock, a finely furred little tuft.

The rocks are little forests of life. Lichen in layers, like the blemishes on elderly skin; velvety moss in dark crimson, almost black; small shrubs; tiny, delicate, bell-shaped flowers, with white petals minutely veined and centres yellow as buttercups.

Shrubs, shrubs, shrubs. Here is a shrub which, from afar, is a mass of up-going fingers, all densely fractalled so that you have fingers growing out of fingers growing out of fingers, and all as vertical as cacti. Up close you notice that each one of those fingers is decorated with minute, overlapping leaves, all tightly arranged to give the appearance of scales. The leaves are all neatly stacked so that all the way down each of those scaly fingers you get the same cross-section, a stubby, four-pointed star.

Over there is another shrub of the same form, only the fingers are thinner and the scales finer; perhaps it is a younger version of the other shrub, or a different shrub altogether. And over there is another plant, with tighter scales. Here the leaves are slightly opened, the tips displaced slightly from the stem, to make a cylindrical pinecone.

And next to it is something else, with the scales are almost fully open. Here the leaves are not flat and wide, as on the other plants, but thin and sharp, with a faint line down their centre like the slim grooved paddles on a racing kayak. And over there, on another mini forest of greenery, the scales are round, round as dinner plates but no bigger than your pupils, and they are fully opened now. The leaves are imperfectly aligned, so if you were very small those leaves would function as an staircase, and you could wind your way up the stem going from one leathery plate to the next in a green spiral.

There are other shrubs too, ones with tiny tiny spikes for leaves, and little green bracken-like things with tidy no-nonsense leaves in a tidy no-nonsense green, and with the tidy fronds overlapping in different directions to make a tidy green thatched canopy two inches off the ground. Daisies with stiff green leaves aggressively spiked and a yellow-green flame at each base. Tussock stems elegantly bowed, bending under the weight of the white pointy leaves at their tips.

And the colours? Christmas-tree green, olive, yellow-green, orange-green, red-green. Pale green seasoned with yellow. Traffic-light green tinged with orange. Green stems tipped with white, so that a tree of these stems looks like a tree on a frosty morning in winter. Green-yellow stems tipped with a brighter green-yellow, so that even at midday a tree of these stems looks as if it is catching the evening sun. Overall, the colour very blended and varied, mixed and layered and dappled, with no smooth gradings and no sharp edges. Complex, richly patterned, life-like.

After the tussock and the low stiff shrubs there is the beech forest. Beech leaves are small and round, no larger than your little fingernail. They grow in numbers in horizontal sheets on the many-fingered branches that extend horizontally out from the trunks, giving the forest its distinctive tiered look. When you look up to the canopy and see the sun or the sky coming through, the sun or the sky appears in a million layered circles and semi-circles and thwarted arcs, all winking and shifting like city lights in the evening.

Every tree, even the small ones, are striped and dappled by lichen. It is luxuriously textured stuff. Here it is stuck fast to the tree like a patch of dry skin; on the tree just there, leaning over slightly, it is blistered and peeling like hot paint; in this trunk, a dead trunk with wrinkles under its limbs as under an armpit, the lichen has a tubular structure, like coral. Sometimes the tubes open outwards in little round crates with white rims.

Through it all is a white, loosely bunched thing that consists in tiny filaments branching off eachother and branching again and again. It gets thinner at each branch, like the network of veins and capillaries that you see in diagrams of the human lungs. This veinous white stuff, tinged with pale green, is in the tangled hair of the trees, on the trunks, and on the top of the wooden poles that mark the track on the walk.

When I walked through all this flora, the small shrubs in the open area and the dark green and mottled beech forest, it was wet and raining slightly. Little globes of rain bowed the tussocks into semi-circles, and spider-webs into drooping hammocks. In one place the web was so fine that all you knew of it was the collection of tiny but precisely reflective drops that threaded themselves onto its invisible wires, and the drops were suspended in the air like a system of glass planets. The rain made the green of the leaves a richer and deeper green, and the trees were stained black.