Spaces Between Branches

'The space between us and another  – between two subjects  – might have its own life, its own agency, one that exerts force back onto the subjects involved in them.' Lichenologist Nastassja Noell takes her paint box into the forest and perceives our relationship with trees and life from a radically different perspective.
is a lichenologist who struggles to stay within the fenced pastures of science. She has led lichen biodiversity research projects throughout the Americas, co-authored the book Delmarva Lichens (Torrey), and her writing has appeared in scientific journals as well as Radical Mycology, Patagon Journal, and NW Travel. Nastassja lives in the Southern Appalachians, in a cove forest that whispers stories while she sleeps..
The leaves scuffle beneath my heavy feet. I try to stay on the trail, avoiding where the blue ghost fireflies are surely resting amongst the violets and nettles. Stepping carefully, I find a clearing. and lay myself down to watch the forest.

A hawk whistles in the pines up ahead, a yearning low call that echoes my own. I’d prefer to keep walking, exploring, but if I continue onwards, the weight that is now dragging my footsteps will move to my hips, my shoulders and then my heart. 

The weight is a virus, one that’s been hounding my body for more than a decade, pulling me down like oily fingerprints on a moth’s wings. When the virus grows strong and heavy, it’s best to listen to my body and rest. Lying on my stomach, I imagine myself as a blue ghost firefly in the forest duff, waiting for the time when I might wander and glow. 

Most people, when given the chance to settle down on the forest floor, lie on their back and stare upwards. But I find my restlessness increases in this position. There’s so much to see in the canopy. I start scanning the branches. For birds. Squirrel nests. Moss. Lichens. There’s a burning itch to name something. I’m a lichenologist, I study biodiversity, it’s what I’ve been trained to do. But a rapidly thinking mind can be torture in an unmoveable body. So I look in another direction. Along the horizon of the forest. Towards something I’ve always seen but rarely noticed: the spaces between the branches.

Most of us have been trained to focus our attention on discrete forms. The ridged linear bark pattern of tulip poplars, or the thin peeling skin of yellow birch. We look for the ways their branches split and twist. Whether twigs are opposite from one another like maples, or alternate like witch hazel. If branches swirl out from the centre of a tree trunk like the whirling dervishes of many pines, or ladder up like oaks. Our minds have been honed to perceive the world as filled with objects (as things that have forces exerted upon them) or as subjects (the ones exerting the force). A false duality that Western culture seeks to delineate through language and political debate. But there is so much more than a flat philosophical axis happening in the forest, in our lives.

Between each branch and adjacent branches, there are shapes. Hexagons, Parallelograms. The most fantastic unnameable shapes. I can’t look away. Which is odd, because the shapes don’t move. Winds shift them slightly. But even on the stillest of days, like today, there is something about the spaces between the branches that is just as compelling, perhaps even more compelling, than most of my naturalist forays.

Something arises from the spaces between the branches that is born from that place, that forest, and me (and you). An ephemeral co-creation.

Something arises from the spaces between the branches that is born from that place, that forest, and me (and you). An ephemeral co-creation.

Cherokee philosopher Brian Burkhart, in his book Indigenizing Philosophy through the Land: a Trickster Methodology for Decolonizing Environmental Ethics and Indigenous Futures  writes that people and their philosophies arise from the land, like native wildflowers in a meadow. But European philosophers like Kant, Descartes, Hegel, and Locke uprooted their concepts from the physical place and time that nourished them, and universalised them as the highest truths. From these patriarchal roots and imagined rights of conquest grew noxious vines: master-slave dialectics, coloniality of power, and purported natural laws. These big thinkers transmitted a living poison through words, which formed into law, codifying genocide and ecocide and laying the groundwork for continents such as North America to be chopped down, dammed, and filled with white occupiers.

Looking back along the trail, I can see my home. Its log walls were culled in the 1850s from the ancient Southern Appalachian cove forest that was once here. After the white settlers clear-cut this mountainside, the stubbled ground was ploughed into tobacco fields, beans, potatoes, pasture. Now it’s a young forest. Ecological relationships are re-establishing. But this forest can never return to the particular complexity it had before the white settlers carried in their invasive colonial ideas, before the genocide and ripping away of the Cherokees from these lands. I punch my frustration into the soft ground. It’s as if the colonists were blind. And I’m part of it. 

In Western society (at least the white, upwardly mobile, middle class suburban America that I grew up in) it seems like we’ve been caught in some kind of Platonian spell of ideal forms, an incessant reaching for static, fixed, objectifications of the living world. A good person puts everyone before themselves; a successful person is productive; a useful tree is a thing that produces shade and timber. But the planet we live on is dynamic: constantly changing and in flux, with an infinite number of perspectives. Nothing is fixed.

Spaces between the Branches: Cove Forest in Blue, oil on birch panel

Striving for some idealised abstraction can lend us direction and purpose, but a fixation on any one thing renders us blind to everything else. Especially the invisible spaces between things (e.g. the space between your body and this screen). These spaces are often overlooked as lifeless, formless, nothings. In contrast, the branches become everything: your body, the forest trees, this screen. Maybe there’s something we’ve been missing. 

The space between us and another  – between two subjects  – might have its own life, its own agency, one that exerts force back onto the subjects involved in them.

Lichens are the best example of this paradox I’m trying to describe. A riddle of an organism. 

British Columbian lichenologist Trevor Goward defines lichens, in his Ways of Enlichenment essays, as a conversation, as a process. On grant applications, I have to define lichens in more concrete forms, as a symbiosis between an alga (or cyanobacterium) and a fungus. I usually go on to explain how lichens are bioindicators, place-based storytellers of climate, habitat health and time. 

Lacking root structures like most plants and fungi, lichens don’t extend themselves into an ecosystem in search of water and nutrients. Instead, lichens curl their hyphal networks within themselves and literally grow in the spaces between the branches, or the spaces between rocks and air, or the spaces between soil and light. Together, the fungi and algae breathe in air, water, and sunlight and breathe out lichen.

And yet, lichens are also a paradox: they are an emergent property that fits in the palm of your hand.

Buddhist teachers often ask: Where is the self? Point to it exactly. Do you lose your self when you lose a finger? A heart atrium? A brain cell? 

Lichens are similarly emergent. When you slice open a crustose lichen, you can point to the top layer of cortex: a surface skin of dense fungal hyphae, protecting the lichen from UV radiation and variations in the surrounding air – but the cortex is not the lichen. Beneath that cortex layer you can point to the algal layer: bright green globose cells strung together like fir trees at the top of a desert mountain range – but the algal layer is not the lichen. And beneath the algae you can point to the webby layers of hyphae, open and filled with spaces, filled with air – but those air pockets are not the lichen either. And beneath that webby layer, you can point to the substrate the lichen is growing on: the rock, the wood, or the soil, where the lichen intermixes its hyphae with that surface, like salamanders in streamsides, and birds on forest margins – but the substrate is not the lichen either.

The lichen is what emerges from the relationship between the partners. 

But relationships don’t just happen because there is space. Relationships are cultivated in place. An ancient forest in the inland rainforests of British Columbia has a very different flora of lichens than an ancient Nothofagus rainforest in the Chilean Andes, or an old growth cove forest in the Southern Appalachians. A thousand lichen species might be present in each forest, but only a few of the species overlap.

Lichen: Caloplaca Inspired #2, acrylic on paper

Lichens are place, attests Goward, the Gandalf of lichenology. When a lichen is taken out of their place, the lichen perishes. The symbiotic relationship is not just between the fungi and algae, but with the place itself. Place is the third partner. For years, researchers didn’t understand this. They’d isolate a lichen’s fungus and algae, grow them separately, and then put them back together on a delicious plate of agar. But the fungus would just grow white fuzz, while the algae would grow their bright green clumps. Nothing would happen between the two ex-partners. It took decades for researchers to stimulate a lichen to form in a Petri dish. The magic ingredient? Imitating place. 

When subjected to particular extremes in temperature and humidity and sunlight, the spaces between the fungus and algae becomes a something, not simply an object, but a subject that exerts force on itself. In other words, the relationship creates its own equilibrium in response to place. It even maintains its own atmosphere. 

And yet, the relationship changes the partners. The fungus changes from a cottony white web into the colourful twists and twirls of hyphae that create the dancing body of a lichen. And the algae grow larger, more robust, and shift their reproductive cycles according to a different sense of time. 

The lichen changes both of the partners, even though the lichen is made up of the partners. The relationship, this invisible interaction, becomes a subject with agency. It becomes visible. Touchable.

The lichen changes both of the partners, even though the lichen is made up of the partners. The relationship, this invisible interaction, becomes a subject with agency. It becomes visible. Touchable.

Lichens fall from the canopy during windstorms, and here in the Southern Appalachians, a lichen biodiversity hotspot, windfall lichens are always within reach. If you happen to pick one up, you are touching the spaces between the branches. You are peering at a miniature ecosystem. You are holding an emergence.

I reach for a nearby lichen as the clock of universalised time ticks away on my wrist. The rest of my body still won’t move, like a thought pattern that goes round in circles but keeps forgetting itself. What might life feel like if we shed Plato’s spell and focused more on the spaces between the branches, instead of just the branches themselves? Would our political, social and economic systems spontaneously start to change? 

Since I can’t put a society in a Petri dish to experiment with this idea, I lean over and pull out a sketchbook and paint from my knapsack. I can experiment on myself. Brush in hand, I try to paint the intricate shapes between the branches of the forest in front of me. But my mind wanders and random cellular shapes emerge instead of a forest. Another sheet of paper. As the paint goes from palette to paper, I have to pay attention to both the shapes being painted and the forest emerging from between the painted shapes. Simultaneously.

Anastomosis – etching on birch panel,

In human life, this practice might be akin to giving an offering to a special tree or boulder. When I focus attention on myself and a beech tree in the same way that I focus on painting only branches on a blank sheet of paper, the offering becomes just about the foreground: me and the beech tree. But if I imagine that the offering is a way of developing a shape between me and the beech tree, the ritual becomes akin to planting a seed, a seed that is the relationship between the beech tree and me. And each subsequent offering nourishes that seed. 

From this viewpoint, we are always planting or nourishing seeds when we connect with another being. But so many of the social justice efforts that I’ve been part of have been unconsciously coloured by the collective and personal shadows of the people within the group, as if some part of us is reaching out and pouring toxic water on the developing seed. Our authoritarian urges, our needs for perfection, the unintegrated parts of our psyches that we project onto others. Some respond by suppressing it further, while others, like myself, withdraw and isolate.

But what if, instead of keeping our psyche in the background, we pulled it into the foreground as we enact our common visions? The process of giving stolen land back to the original inhabitants could be a way to bring healing to both sides affected by racial supremacy and colonial power. Construction of wildlife corridors for salamanders and bears could also be about reconnecting the parts of ourselves that have been cut off by commerce and efficiency. Annual removal of noxious invasive plants could also be about pulling up the roots of our colonialist tendencies, reducing their seed bank in our collective psyche. 

Our inner world is not so separate from our outer world – and since our outer worlds are linked, so too are our inner worlds. 

I roll over on the forest floor and look upwards, letting my eyes blur. With vision slightly unfocused, the branches of the canopy don’t seem so separate anymore. The branches anastomose together like the fungi underground in a forest, or above ground in a lichen. 

When fungi merge, anastomose, the cell wall between two cells deconstructs. The cytoplasm and organelles flood together and multiple nuclei inhabit one cell. Imagine multiple minds inhabiting one body, aware of each other, working together for the cell as a whole. They don’t kill each other off to be the sole one, instead, the nuclei operate as individuals in a collective of collectives, interlinked. A giant web of pulsating life. 

We’ve learned over the past half century of ecological research that this pulsing web is what gives life to the biosphere, and yet our attention still focuses on the separate branches. Many branches may stem from one trunk if we are thinking of evolution, or from hundreds of trunks if we are looking at a forest, but in the English language and most Western narratives, our perception fixates on the separate branches, or the unifying trunks. What happens when we shift our focus and perceive the spaces between the branches as subjects, in and of themselves? 

The world flips. The negative space shifts to the front, and the positive space shifts to the back, and suddenly what seemed before to be devoid of life, becomes everything worth living for.

Ants crawl over my legs as I watch the branches, and breathe in the spaces. Without thought, I roll over and rise onto my feet again, pack up my paints, and start down the trail. My mind watches the activity, surprised by my body’s agency  – no inner voice made the call, nor pulled any levers. The viral weight has transmuted, and the photosynthetic sugars that make up flesh, bone and leaf start to glow again. Blue ghost fireflies alight into the evening air as the leafy canopy lifts my shoulders.

Walking home, I am part of the forest’s stained glass network. One foot holds me up while the other foot reaches forward. Step by step. Spaces become branches. Branches become spaces. 

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 21

Our Spring 2022 issue is an anthology of non-fiction, fiction, poetry and artwork that revolves around the theme of confluence

 

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Comments
  1. Oh Nastassja, so moving. A renewed and recovered capacity of profound beauty emanating from the space between words and ideas and images and minds brought into the space you so carefully curated here. The power of implication and openness to being integrated. Moving into not around, by being still. Seeing from the inside. Acknowledging, honouring the liminal, the vital activator of betweenness as venerable actor, the very essence of emergence, potential and creation. Thank you for this wonderous and wonderful invitation to anastomose.

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