The Belly Button of the World

A reading from Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer. 2013, p. 274-275.


Umbilicaria is often the victim of its own success. Accumulation is its undoing. Slowly, slowly, the lichens build up a thin layer of debris around them, perhaps their own exfoliations, or dust, or falling needles—the flotsam of the forest.

The dusting of organic matter holds the moisture that the bare rock could not hold, and gradually an accretion of soil creates a habitat for mosses and ferns. Through the laws of ecological succession, the lichens have done their work of laying the foundation for others, and now the others have come.

I know a whole escarpment covered with rock tripe. Water trickles down fissures in the cliff face, and the trees have closed in, making a shady paradise for mosses. The lichens colonized in an earlier day, before the forest was thick and moist. Today they look like an encampment of floppy canvas tents on the rock, some now tattered, with sagging rooflines. When I scan the oldest tripe with my hand lens I see they are crusted over with algae and other crustose lichens like microscopic barnacles. Some have slippery green streaks where blue-green algae have made themselves at home. These epiphytes can impede the photosynthesis of the lichen by blocking out the sun. A deep pillow of Hypnum moss catches my eye, vivid against the dull lichens. I move along the ledge to admire its plush contours. Sticking out from its base, like a ruffle around a pillow or the edges of Umbilicaria thallus, nearly engulfed by the moss. Its time has come to an end.

The lichen, in a single body, unites the two great pathways of life: the so-called grazing food chain based on the building up of beings, and the detrital food chain based on taking them apart. Producers and decomposers, the light and the darkness, the givers and receivers wrapped in each other’s arms, the warp and the weft of the same blanket so closely woven that it’s impossible to discern the giving from the taking. Some of Earth’s oldest beings, lichens are born from reciprocity. Our elders share the teachings that these rocks, the glacial erratics, are the oldest of grandfathers, the carriers of prophecy, and our teachers. Sometimes I go to sit among them, the proverbial naval gazer at the belly button of the world.

These ancients carry teachings in the ways that they live. They remind us of the enduring power that arises from mutualism, from the sharing of the gifts carried by each species. Balanced reciprocity has enabled them to flourish under the most stressful of conditions. Their success is measured not by consumption and growth, but by graceful longevity and simplicity, by persistence while the world changed around them. It is changing now.


Recorded June 27, 2020

Location: Belchertown, MA

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