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Readers thinking that lichen doesn’t sound like the most scintillating topic for a book have a valid concern. After all, these organisms created by the relationship between fungi and algae or cyanobacteria famously do nothing, and often do it for a very long time. They don’t move, they don’t think, they simply exist in the small spaces they inhabit. Nevertheless, artist and activist A. Laurie Palmer does her best to find, or generate, meaning and metaphor through an inventive examination of her unlikely subject.

The latest book in the University of Minnesota’s intriguing Art After Nature series, The Lichen Museum values what might be thought of as the postmodern aspect of these “composite beings whose collective constitutions mess with our grammar and complicate … attempts to write their multiplicity.” Appropriately, Palmer crafts her book “as a composite organism, composed with multiple voices and ideas from other writers, makers, thinkers, and watchers, and from interviews with lichenologists.” The Lichen Museum contains travel writing, memoir, history, science writing, black and white and color photographs, and a whole lot of theorizing, which, depending on your taste, either gives the book intellectual heft or bogs it down just when it’s about to take off (a little of both, in my opinion).

At times, you feel the author’s considerable ingenuity straining as she comes up with one more way to look at lichen. They allow us to re-see our relationships with one another, to capitalism, to sentience, to language, to racism and crime and just about any other issue that might present itself. And yet as far-fetched as some of the analogies might initially seem, Palmer always finds a way to turn the lichen’s scale and stasis into an opportunity for genuine reflection: “Freedom and independence are associated with movement — the ability to get away, to leave and return, to explore and exploit. If you are attached, if you stay in place, you risk becoming an object and possibly an object to be used.”

At one point, in an effort to tweak “the typical way of understanding” that “doesn’t reimpose a colonizing approach,” she wonders whether the algae “willingly” give themselves to the fungi. She acknowledges she is reinforcing “the mutualistic myth,” which one lichenologist says is “similar to believing that domestic cattle have a comparable relationship because we provide them with food and shelter and increase their populations before we slaughter them.” Of course Palmer doesn’t really think fungi and algae are sapient beings, yet she asks: “Why does it feel that there is so much at stake in unraveling this question of who is in charge?” Her thoughtful answer is that “human values have been applied to these things in what seem like ‘neutral’ descriptions that actually reflect historical structural relationships that can change, are changing, and might be helped to change through describing differently.”

Ultimately, lichen are symbols for something we should aspire to: “small-scale, local and sustainable relationships of material coexistence, even relationships of reciprocity.” They provide a way to “interrupt the narratives that have created, and continue to contribute” to the slow-moving path of destruction our planet is on, offering “a tiny gesture” in the direction of sustainability “by opening up an improbable connection between worlds.” At the very least, The Lichen Museum invites readers to slow down long enough to contemplate their environment and the many living things in it that they ignore every day, at their mutual peril.

This review originally appeared in the California Review of Books.

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