Lichens and the slow violence engulfing all of us, Bondi Nov 5

Donna Haraway tells us, ‘We are all lichens now. We have never been individuals. From anatomical, physiological, evolutionary, developmental, philosophic, economic, I don’t care what perspective, we are all lichens now.’[i] The phrase ‘We are all Lichens now’ she borrows from a paper called, ‘A Symbiotic View of Life’.[ii]

At Bondi’s Sculpture by the Sea, my favourite sculptures were made by wind and rain and sea spray, with life.

The violence wrought by climate change, toxic drift, deforestation, oil spills, and the environmental aftermath of war takes place gradually and often invisibly. Lichens are sensitive to atmospheric pollution such as nitrogen (N) because they receive all their nutrients and water from wet and dry atmospheric deposition (fall out). Lichens have value as bioindicators of environmental pollution, climate change, and ecological continuity. Extensive work has been undertaken in temperate areas, but in only few cases have the techniques been applied in the tropics.

Rob Nixon points out that, ‘The long dyings – the staggered and staggeringly discounted casualties, both human and ecological – are underrepresented in strategic planning as well as in human memory.’[iii]

Kate Flint is spot on when she writes, ‘Focusing our attention on the often-overlooked beauties and properties of lichens—as Ruskin’s practice of close looking encourages us to do—is a means of relating the small and the apparently unspectacular to that long process of slow environmental violence.’ [iv]

She reveals, ‘Thomas Sulman remembered Ruskin bringing in ‘lichen and fungi from Anerley Woods’ when he gave art classes at the Working Men’s College in Red Lion Square. Moving from the realm of instruction to his own practice as a meticulous observer and as a writer, Ruskin sets out with extraordinary precision the appearance of the mineral-rich rocks of the Lake District in the light of the setting sun, where ‘a very minute black lichen,—so minute as to look almost like spots of dark paint,—a little opposed and warmed by the golden Lichen geographicus, still farther subdues the paler hues of the highest granite rocks’.’ [v]


I find I am rehearsing contact with archaic life. Let’s celebrate, these patient lichens blossom, not stone . . .  Beltany Stone Circle, 21 June, 2022 Raphoe, Donegal


[i] Donna Haraway, ‘Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene: Staying with the Trouble’, lecture by Donna Haraway in Anthropocene: Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, 05/09/2014.

[ii] ‘We are all Lichens now’ comes from Scott F Gilbert, Jan Sapp and Alfred I Tauber, ‘A Symbiotic View of Life: We Have Never Been Individuals’, The Quarterly Review of Biology, vol 87, no 4, Dec 2012, p336. Biologist Scott F. Gilbert, historian of biology Jan Sapp, and historian and philosopher of science Alfred I. Tauber.

[iii] Rob Nixon, ‘Slow violence and environmental storytelling’, Nieman Foundation at Harvard, Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard UP, 2011. He continues, ‘Yet whether they make use of striking visuals, powerful analogies, or individual stories, I remain encouraged by the intrepid writers and filmmakers who, despite the odds, keep finding fresh, inventive ways to testify by devoting their imaginative energies to some of the most urgent yet invisible stories of our time.’ Relatively unseen and unheard, Aboriginal place names, threaded onto the bracelet of song lines.

[iv] Kate Flint, ‘Ruskin and Lichen’,

[v] Ruskin, 6.140 (Modern Painters 4, 1856). Kate Flint, ‘Ruskin and Lichen’,

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