Country diary: Lichen shows that there is life among the dead

·2-min read

There’s a butterfly on the hedge. A handsome red admiral, it’s gone all of a sudden, and we follow it to the village sign, where it poises, all statuesque legs and cantilevering wings. Then it’s off again, into a churchyard. And we follow it there too.

There’s vibrancy here, though, of a different kind. The light of the late afternoon peers through the ring of trees, giving the jostled gravestones a glow that lends the ethereal to something that, if we’re honest, is generally anything but. These old bludgeons of stone, etched solemnly when new, are so old that even the descendants of those who erected them probably now have their own. But as we wander through the yard, enjoying the afternoon and looking for the butterfly, I notice that time has been kind to the gravestones. The glow around their edges is diffused, blurry. Life has enlivened them, at last.

Like a picture on a sombre wall or, indeed, a butterfly on a village sign, lichen adorns these old stones with an art no sculptor could emulate. Whorls and rosettes of Xanthoria in yellow and white galaxies, lending a half-living feel to these markers of the long dead. The presence of lichen (whether rhymed with “kitchen” or “liken”) is perhaps the ultimate statement of permanence: you find it, in species numbering over a thousand, on mountains, ancient walls, stone buildings – and graves. You can guess age by size: less than a millimetre a year.

A union of algae and fungus, their colonisation occurs in generational clusters, with reproduction reliant on complementary diaspora reconnecting across generations of local growth. The living pile on to the foundations of the dead, generation after generation. In some places, the lichen is opulent and snackable; in others, it seems more rock than organism, such as in these places, where rocks have – or once had – names of their own scratched into them.

An irony, in a graveyard full of grandiose gestures to lives and deeds, that the purpose of life is simply to strive to live, and keep living. And that even the most basic can bring beauty to that lacking it.

• Country Diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary

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