In defense of lichen
August 5, 2005
October 12, 1987Biologist Bob Lewis wanted to show me one of his favorite micro-environments, a deep slot of limestone whose shadows and late snowmelt nourished a pocket of lichens and mosses unsuspected from the open world above, and so far spared by that world’s visitors. But as we approached we encountered the torso of a young man who was dangling over the edge by a rope, scraping off lichen with a wire brush. “What are you doing?” asked Bob.”Cleaning a climb.”Bob was quiet a moment. “Do you know how long it takes lichen to grow?””This stuff will be back next year.”I was amazed that Bob could walk off calmly without further comment. “How long does it take to grow back?” I asked.”More like 125 years.”We poked above the area, then returned through the bottom of the slot 10 minutes later. The young man was now halfway down the rope and a companion, previously unseen and also armed with a wire brush, dangled 30 feet away. Scraps of lichen and dead moss paled at our feet. “Don’t you think these creatures have just as much right to their lives as you do?” Bob yelled up.”Do you eat meat?” shot back the climber we had talked to.”I live to eat,” said Bob. “I don’t kill for my sport.””Do you ski?””Of course I ski.””Then what do you think about the ski industry cutting miles of trees for your sport? Do you think that’s moral?””Did you ever fight in a war?” broke in the second climber before Bob could defend his skiing.”Yes,” said Bob, who served in the 10th Mountain Division.”Bet you killed people.””No,” said Bob, “I was lucky enough not to have to. And you’re lucky there isn’t a war going on right now, so you don’t have to face the problem.””We don’t ski and we don’t eat meat,” explained the first, dropping a notch down his rope. “We’re pacifists.””How much of this are you going to scrape?” asked Bob.”We’re preparing seven or eight climbs. This cliff is really dirty. But there’ll be plenty of your moss left.””I don’t know much about lichen,” I said, hoping to establish our credentials, “but my friend here is a professional biologist, and he says it takes over a hundred years to grow.”Scraping was the only reply.”Is this considered ethical within the sport of mountain climbing?” asked Bob.”It’s considered necessary,” said the first, “or you’ll slip and fall.””Well I’ve done lots of climbs,” said Bob, “and I’ve never scraped any lichen.””Where, for instance?””Longs Peak, for instance.””That’s because someone else has cleaned the climb for you, first,” beamed the other, pleased with his trump.”All the standard climbs are cleaned, or you couldn’t do them,” said the first, also smiling.”I have a friend who’s editor of a climbing magazine,” said Bob, “and I’m going to ask him about this.””It was the editor of a climbing magazine who told us about this place,” shot back the first. A quick exchange established that they were talking about the same person. “So ask away.””Besides,” said the second as if clinching the matter, “for us this isn’t just a sport. After we clean a climb, we bring people here and photograph them rappelling for magazines. We’re basically photographers and you’re talking about our living.”This seemed at variance with their position that the ski industry was immoral for stripping trees in pursuit of its livelihood, and I thought it rather lost them the moral high ground. “And climbing always seemed so benign,” I said, lamely enough, as we walked away. It was only after we were around the bend, out of sight, that I thought, too late as usual, of what we should have said – that if they were going to kill that much moss and lichen, they should at least have the decency to eat it.