“Lichens”, an essay on these organisms accustomed to hostile environments, erected as symbols of human precariousness

The book. The word lichen, according to its Greek root, designates both the discreet organism and the scab on the skin. For a long time, it was one of the species considered inferior, made invisible by the little interest they arouse and described by Emile Zola « a pale gray of old stone “. But at the time of the Anthropocene, artists and writers see it as an expression of the precariousness of their condition. ” Poetry is not a firework display that shines, is noticed in the distance but lasts a short time. I see it more as a night light or a lichen (…). The lichen is used to hostile environments », wrote the poet Antoine Emaz in 2006.

Hence the investigation of the writer Vincent Zonca in his book Lichens, For minimal resistance, crossing literature, philosophy, botany and biology and prefaced by the philosopher Emanuele Coccia. Considering the lichen as a mirror of the times, he probes its reflections, relying on a rich body of scientific and literary texts, from which the preceding quotations have been taken. ” How to learn from this silent and still life? (…) Should the lichen be condemned to scholarly scholarship or to the idealism of the margin and the compassion of antiheroes? He asks.

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Symbiotic between the fungus and a unicellular organism capable of photosynthesis, the lichen presents a complex and original structure. Unicellular algae or cyanobacteria nestle between the filaments of the fungus in the medulla of the lichen thallus, to provide it with their surplus energy. Very slow growing (less than 5 mm per year), the lichen grows as much on tree bark as on rocky, metal and plastic supports and withstands extreme temperatures, from – 60 ° C to + 70 ° C. . In the tundra, it provides 90% of their food for reindeer. Its dependence on ambient air also makes it an indicator of pollution, as the poet and naturalist Erasmus Darwin, Charles’ grandfather, observed.

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We can regret the author’s inclination to lean excessively on psychoanalysis his interpretations of the projections made by artists and writers on lichen. If the survey rightly invites us to assume the cultural dimension of our relationship with this organism, the literary approach here seems to take its revenge on the scientific method, rather than enriching it. When the author calls up the history of science, in particular in the chapter devoted to symbiosis, he relies above all on quotes without developing critical reflection. We do not understand in particular what links Charles Fourrier, the designer of the phalanstery, sought to establish between the “Natural and social things”, thus quoted by Vincent Zonca.

The reader will nevertheless appreciate the questions it raises and the richness of the texts selected. “We are inclined to walk in the woods in search of various objects (…). Everything is covered by the fog and you can hear the sound it makes as it drips on them. It’s a lichen day ”, wrote the American naturalist Henry David Thoreau in his journal in 1852.

Lichens, For minimal resistance, Vincent Zonca, Le Pommier, January 2021, 336 pages, 22 euros.