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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Giving Thanks for the Lichens

Air Date: Week of

Commentator Alan Durning shares his appreciation for not just the small, but the tiny things in life that we have to be thankful for this and every holiday season.


CURWOOD: Holiday dinners are the time we traditionally toast our family, friends, good food, and good health. But commentator Alan Durning wishes we would also toast the little things in nature that make all these possible.

(Dinner table conversation followed by a tapping on a glass: "A toast, a toast.")

DURNING: Here's to fungus, bacteria, and yeast. To algae, protozoans and worms, to leeches, to insects, to mold! (Young boy: "Mold? Yucko!")

Imagine a holiday toast like that. Imagine the stare you'd get from your children. But when you think about it, a holiday dinner wouldn't be possible if it weren't for thousands of oozing, slimy critters.

Fungus, bacteria and worms, they gave us this turkey. See, the fungus and bacteria fertilize the soil by rotting dead plants. Then the worms loosen the dirt and allow corn to grow. Without corn, turkeys would starve. So here's to fungus, bacteria, and worms. (Girl, whispering: "Dad!")

The list of things that we should toast is endless. There's yeast, and alkali bees. Without yeast, of course, bread wouldn't rise. Without bees, we wouldn't have butter. The bees pollinate alfalfa, which feeds the cows, which make the milk, where we get butter. We owe our health in part to mold and algae and leeches. Mold is where we get penicillin; algae produce a promising new anti-cancer drug. And the saliva from leeches contains a chemical that's good for rheumatism. In fact, Earth's tiniest creatures make it a people-friendly planet.

Mycorrhiza, for instance, the hairy stuff on roots, help plants absorb phosphorous from the ground. No mycorrhiza, no plants. No plants, no oxygen, and no us. Then there's protozoa; they live in the bellies of termites, digesting dead wood. If protozoa weren't there to chew up fallen trees, the logs would pile up and forest fires would rage out of control.
(More dinner table sounds.) Now, many of these connections are pretty obscure. It's no wonder we don't toast the natural world when a feast of turkey or ham lays on the holiday table. Maybe if we could make the connections more relevant...

(Raps glass.) A toast, a toast! Here's to lichen! (Young boy: "Dad...") No, listen. Right now, there's hundreds of kinds of lichen growing in the frozen north. Lichen are what the reindeer eat. And it gives them the strength to pull a sleigh all the way around the world. So a toast to lichen and reindeer in their trip around the world. They're coming soon, son. Soon.

CURWOOD: Alan Durning is president of Northwest Environment Watch. His commentaries are produced by Terry Fitzpatrick at member station KPLU, Seattle.



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