Colouring the Landscape

I was reading a post at The Last Word on Nothing which included a quote that really resonated with me:

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes but in having new eyes  –Marcel Proust

Lately I’ve been photographing the local landscape. It’s fascinating – and difficult – because there aren’t any obvious mountains or hills, or iconic trees against a wider forest backdrop. No gurgling mountain streams, no jagged rocks and peaks.
Instead we have a lot of flat land, sky, and grass, with the coulees cutting a swath through it all to create mild – and much needed – relief. In early spring, the grey/brown/pale yellow landscape offers little in the way of eye-catching colour.

A foggy April morning in the coulees (Photo: S. Boon)

So I’ve been trying to follow Proust’s advice, renewing my gaze to find out what I’m missing. What I’ve discovered are lichens (click to enlarge).
lichensmallcloseup  lichen-1  LichenMap
Lichens growing on prairie rocks (Photos: S. Boon)

Lichens are notoriously difficult to identify. From what I can tell with my (limited) identification skills (and PDF1 & PDF2 from Saskatchewan Environment), the orange ones are likely Xanthoria spp (Sunburst lichen) while the solo green one could be Dimelaena oreina (Golden moon glow lichen). The green one mixed with the orange could be Candelariella aurella (Hidden gold speck lichen). Lichen experts can have at it in the comments! If you’re interested in doing your own lichen ID, this book comes highly recommended by prairie naturalists.
As many of you probably know, lichen is a symbiotic relationship between an algae and a fungus. The algae photosynthesizes incoming sunlight to produce carbohydrates, while the fungus provides a shelter for the algae, but also uses some of the carbs it produces. The type of lichen that grows on a particular rock is a function of the surface itself – and of the microclimate it’s living in. This makes lichen ID a fascinating combination of geology, climatology and botany.
Lichens are also an important food source for ungulates. In 2010, Canadian reporter Ed Struzik wrote about the decline in Peary caribou in Arctic Canada, which was partially due to starvation when their winter food source – lichen – was covered in an ice crust that they couldn’t penetrate. Lichens have been used medicinally as an antibacterial, and in dyes by various cultures around the globe.
What I didn’t know is that air quality has a significant effect on lichen structure and growth, making them useful indicators of changes in nitrogen, sulphur dioxide, and ozone concentrations.
Proust’s advice was dead on – discovering new things is often about looking at the landscape differently.
Moss phlox, another spring discovery on the prairies (Photo: S. Boon)

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