Is SLG a Fungus, Algae or Lichen?

And more to the point, what should we be?

This morning I went to the hill that was calling my name yesterday.  Anticipation soared.

At the top of the steps, out of sight from below, was a park.  I wandered around and noted the tangibles:  well planned and maintained flower beds; nicely laid out irrigation system; groomed pathways; clean benches to sit on; an esthetically pleasing fence, serving more as a demarcation than an inhibitor; a few people wandering through; a crow sounding the alarm over my presence and purpose.

The central dynamic of the park was boulders.  Only the tops were visible, a yard or two above the surrounding land, but they were the kind that gave the impression of being rooted 300 feet deep in the soil.

I picked a bench, sat down with my notebook at the ready and waited.

Silence reigned supreme.

I pinged the earth and received an acknowledgement that it was there and knew I was here, but had nothing to say to me.  None of the people seemed to be connection points.  I pondered moving to a different bench.  Nope.  Scanned the buildings and got nothing.

I quieted my diligent soul and just settled in to wait until my spirit announced with a complete lack of ambiguity that this was not a productive exercise.

I got up and wandered over to the rocks, wondering if they would feel different.  They didn’t, but once there I observed the dozen different kinds of lichens that graced their surface and I felt awe rise within me.

After a season of observing and savoring, I headed back to the web and settled in to decode the message.

Lichens are composed of two kinds of living organisms; fungi and algae.

Interestingly, each can and does exist alone and they not only exist, they thrive.  Wikipedia speculates that there are 1.5 to 5 million species of fungi in the eponymous kingdom.  They concede that a mere 5% have been categorized so far.  Even allowing for a 50% margin of error (my standard for web-based trivia) it is clear that fungi don’t need algae to have purpose, meaning and fulfillment in the world.

The algae tribe is a bit more modest in size and distribution.  There are around 8,000 species of which a mere 1,500 are cyanobacteria which is a fancy word for blue green — the type that interface with fungi to form lichens.

So we have two tribes that exist widely, have high diversity, thrive as distinct species, but which can come together in a merger so intimate that for a long time researchers did not realize that inside the fungus was a completely engulfed algae, still functioning according to its original design.

It is an extreme illustration of a symbiotic relationship where two living organisms have a mutually dependent and mutually productive relationship, creating something together that is more dynamic than either of them alone.

The core factor is that the two are not parasitic with one devouring the other.  The algae is a photobiont meaning it does the photosynthesis, taking carbon dioxide and water from the air and uses light to convert those into carbohydrates like sugar which the plant then uses.

The fungus is the mycobiont which provides the structure that houses the photobiont factory and which anchors the whole organism to the rock or other medium where they grow.

Lichens thrive where other life forms cannot.  You find them in the hottest deserts and the coldest latitudes.  They have been found on rocks three kilometers deep in the earth.  In 2005 the Russians sent two kinds of lichens to space on a Soyez capsule.  They exposed them to the vacuum, lack of gravity, and extreme temperatures of outer space for 15 days.  When they were returned to earth, they were undamaged by a climate that destroys most living things.

Over 20,000 kinds of lichens have been identified so far.

Botany lesson over, I went back to awe and to the huge question of “So what?”

I have long marveled at the sight of lichens on a boulder in a desert so arid even cacti are scarcely found.  They thrive in northern climates to the extent that in some areas, a single acre of undisturbed nature as much as 500 pounds of lichens a year for grazing animals and birds.

How can so much beauty and so much vitality come from such inauspicious organisms often placed in hostile environments?

It moves me to awe.

After the awe came the rub.

The message is clear.  “Two are better than one,” to quote one of my least favorite preachers.  Clearly God is inviting me to consider a lifestyle change as part of Sapphire going to the next level.

Now the riddle.  Which am I currently, the mycobiont or the photobiont?

The photobiont sounds really cool.  Use sunlight, water and carbon dioxide.  Produce sugar and oxygen, benefiting my host with the sugar and the world at large with the oxygen.  Cool stuff.

Or not.

It is the algae — the photobiont — that gets swallowed up by the larger organism until it is really hard to even find the algae any more.


I have had a number of larger organizations that have urged me to allow them to swallow me up so that we could have a wonderfully symbiotic relationship.  I have habitually declined such all encompassing mergers out of deeply entrenched fear that the promised symbiosis could so easily segue into a devouring parasitic relationship.

So . . . was I wrong and I need to deal with that fear and enter into such an organizational  relationship where I loose myself in the process of becoming vastly more transformational with someone else’s life structures multiplying the effectiveness of my photosynthesis?

There is a rather monstrous lack of inner exultation over this possibility.

Onward to Plan B.

Maybe I am the mycobiont — the fungus.  There is a sentence that makes my vaunted legitimacy quiver!

What do I want to be when I grow up?  Arthur the Fungus.  Be still my beating heart.

But being ruthlessly honest, let’s try it on for size.

The mycobiont (so much nicer a word than fungus) creates a structure that enables the photobiont that is within the lichen to thrive and not be destroyed.

Hmm . . . could fit.  I have tried hard to make this a safe place for people to partner with me without being exploited.  I have built a platform under a few people without being parasitic.  However, that is mostly in an external organizational relationship.  That doesn’t seem quite the same as totally taking over someone without in any way diminishing them.  Not sure about that picture.

Thoughts anyone?

The mycobiont creates some very esoteric acids (Sigh.  I hear those cheap shot Prophet jokes being formed already).  Those acids dissolve rock in order to access minerals needed to sustain the life processes of the lichen.

Loosely speaking I have been known to extract some nutrients from Bible stories and life situations that don’t yield much to other people.  Maybe this fits.

The mycobiont does the heavy lifting in areas that no one else is willing to touch — extreme cases where other life forms wouldn’t think of trying to be productive.

Kind of, sort of, fits.


Looks like I make a better fungus than an algae.

But if I want to be a lichen when I grow up, then obviously I need to acquire some algae friends and treat them really, really nicely.

Wonder what that would look like on Monday morning?

I also wonder if I ate too much peach and passion fruit yogurt and I just need to sleep it off and not try to get any spiritual guidance out of lichens on a rock!

Copyright October 2013 by Arthur Burk

From unit 24, just west of the lichen park

This entry was posted in Awe, Family News, Land dynamics, Perspectives, Redemptive Gifts of Land, The Culture. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Is SLG a Fungus, Algae or Lichen?

  1. Kate says:

    I just stumbled on this just now, (maybe you have this all resolved by now) and I am fascinated. As an herbalist, and deeply fascinated and connected to the natural world, I LOVE analogies from nature. I have heard from more than one teacher of mine that there is comparatively very little known about LICHEN because they are both a fungus and an algae, and scientists usually specialize in one or the other. I think this is a beautiful picture either way it falls. As far as “parasitic” comments, a lot of times we are limited by our current base of knowledge. Many of the plants we would consider parasitic often play an important unseen role (or indicator) in ecology. I have listened to a number of your teachings, most recently on cleansing time and land, and I am curious if you have extended any work into the plant world? I would be very curious to hear your heart and thoughts on this. In many ways I feel I am navigating uncharted territory and I find it hard to believe that there aren’t others feeling the same.

    Many blessings!

  2. Kate Mazur says:

    “Use sunlight, water and carbon dioxide. Produce sugar and oxygen, benefiting my host with the sugar and the world at large with the oxygen. Cool stuff.” YES!!! You’re the anchor! There is someone out there who is content & thriving in some pretty crazy environments, but who gets giddy at the idea of having your help to do a much more monumental thing…something Big which they simply cannot do without you, as there is no way for them to produce the necessary things to get to the next level. It’s simply impossible and clearly by design. Are they content? Yes and no. Both are in their game and excelling. There could be something quite dynamic and beautiful if handled with maturity, wisdom and abundant Providential guidance. Is it potentially scary to both parties? You bet. Can both proceed without each other, being utterly satisfied? Maybe. Maybe not. It depends on the longing to go to the next level. It’s not to say there is anything at all wrong with the current level. It’s awesome. Stuff flows. But what if…what if you’re the photobiont for some fantastic entity (individual or business, etc.)? Is there potential for immense, literal universe shifting synergy if the two embark upon the process of merging? Yep. Is there great risk? Absolutely. Sacrifice? Sure. Both sides are used to all that and currently doing what works and doing it quite well, thank you. But I can absolutely see where the one (you) functioning in your gifts and passions can absolutely anchor the other as they soar and function in theirs. Bliss. Earth shaking. Redeeming creation? I can feel the earth groaning with anticipation and I can hardly wait to see how this all turns out!!!! Thanks for sharing your thoughts, your journey and your process. Thrilling!

  3. Elizabeth says:

    last night I was thinking about this and the phrase “a rolling stone gathers no moss” came to mind. I won’t assume that phrase has relevance for you here, but wanted to throw it into the mix.

  4. oceanwrite says:

    I enjoyed reading this. Maybe you can be both. The fungus for one person/entity and the algae for another person/entity. Maybe God is speaking to you about being more open to things he might have for you – possibilities. We grow stronger together.

  5. Scott Cross says:

    Maybe it has little to do with becoming part of a larger entity but living many as one but in individual uniqueness.

    I was born into church, my grandfather was the Baptist pastor (evangelist really) and mom (his daughter) the organist/pianist. So I was front row stage left most of all my young life. In 1985 until 2004 I poured my life in to my church(s) which ever one it was and pour all that I could into the relationships with the various pastors. In 2004 I went to work for Encounters Network (who on a side note was regularly solicited, asked, enticed, wooed and every other that woks here into being assimilated in to a larger “symbiotic relationship”). We were together for over 6 years and became very close so I was often privy to the goings on. While working with EN it was was difficult to be an active member of a church as we hosted regular weekly and monthly meetings as well as conference as I was tagged the “pastor” for and of the ministry staff I found great joy in pouring my life out in the EN setting. Sorry to be long here…but I have not been in a organized church setting since 2004.

    I have become aware that building a man’s kingdom is not in me any more. I know all the talk and statements about how it is God’s kingdom and the like but the reality so much, if not almost all of the time it is the senior leader’s kingdom.

    Maybe the picture is how to live in positive thriving support of each gift/person no mater what the climate and area. In a true “symbiotic relationship” and not an usury relationship to advance forward a mans kingdom.

    Are you to be the platform that becomes the hosts entity. allowing others to thrive when connected in healthy thriving relationship where both become more than they might have been alone. You so much address land and land issues changing the course and restoring what is not but should have been. What does a ministry that knows and understands the land it lives in look like at the end of the day. Sometime extreme people ministries need extreme hosts.

    I might beg of you not to be assimilated into a man’s kingdom. (I do understand that I have issues with this and they might need to be address, but for now I am ok with them. {:~)> I would that I could find a safe place that is lead by a secure leader who wants to become a platform for growth of more than his/her vision.

    • SLG says:

      Well Scott, it is pretty hard on both sides of the scale. I am well aware that most religious organizations consume the individual for the sake of the vision and call it godly.

      My experience has been on the other side. I have built a lot of platforms under people only to have it become as much of a win/lose (I lose) as it has been on the other side.

      So at present, I am unaligned because I have not seen mutual life giving along a vertical structure to be viable.

      I am also passionately believing that this is God’s core design, deepest delight and our calling.

      Clearly I am missing some big pieces. There has to be a way to make it work. Therefore, I continue to look for those missing tools, and am prepared to risk again and again and fail again and again, trying to find something that works for both parties.

      It has to be there. It simply has to.

      Too much in Scripture is all about mutually life giving, deep, intimate communities.

      • Bunmi says:

        Yes and Amen!!!!

      • Donna says:

        It’s 11/8 and I just read this post. It’s making me cry. It feels as though all parts of my spirit are shouting out “It has to be there! It simply has to! The the fullness of His Kingdom and us truly being the Bride depends and it. The King will accept nothing less! “

      • Bill Manduca says:

        As I read your post, Scott’s reply, and your reply to Scott, I could not help going back to a conversation you and I had about Fathering and Sonship. What you helped me to see was that in some relationships I am in a fathering role and in some I am in the role of a son. I think this could be applied to an organization very easily.

        One question that occurred to me was why is it so important for you to be one or the other? I see this as a challenge to my Prophet DNA. Therefore, I am working to move away from either/or to both/and. To me, this approach mirrors Father’s way of dealing with us at individuals and meeting us where we are at the time. So, the bottom line is, depending on the situation, maybe you are all of the above. Staying flexible in this is what experts like Peter Senge say are learning organizations that can adapt to whatever situation they find themselves.

        Just my two cents worth.
        Dr. Bill Manduca
        Jackson, Mississippi

  6. Cheryl says:

    I vote algae, as you are a think tank. You take in, process, and then toss it out for us to taste. Perhaps here a partnership of some kind is in order. You don’t need to lose your identity, but just like an algae it can grow out of control until it begins instead of being life giving, it becomes a red tide and kills things. Without accountability or someone to actually challenge us (forgive the expression, but to play ‘devil’s advocate’) we can sometimes get a little further outside the lines than intended. Obviously it would have to be just the right partner, so I suggest a fungus. 🙂 Just a thought.

  7. Dana says:

    Might there be a clue in the new relational dynamic between you and Sally dealing with the AHS as this trip began? You didn’t “take over” Sally’s life, but you did follow Father’s lead to initiate something Sally wasn’t necessarily asking for. And it seems obvious that the land had a role to play as well….

    I also wonder if this is actually a picture of “fulfillment”. It looks like there is a “unity” between the two plants and the land simultaneously Just pondering if you are on the threshold of moving into the next blessing….

    I must also say, you have done an incredible job being an heroic life-giving leader, without being exploitative!!!. Just wanted to chime on that note!

  8. Deb Harford says:

    On the surface I am encouraged that there are times and seasons and maybe it is not just ok but good to coexist and allow God to reorder the internal and align the external as He pleases. After reading I am sensing the potential for growth with time to both. It is a place I have been struggling with lately, so, thank you Arthur.

  9. Anthony Tanjoco says:

    My first response was to vehemently oppose the thought of SLG being and/or becoming like fungus -or even lichen.

    Fungus is parasitic by nature –ALWAYS assuming the dominate roll in any relationship until it destroys the very organism it’s using. Lichens look like the utopia of symbiosis, but the reality is that many of the algae consumed in the fungi “structure” can survive on their own in the existing environment. Thus, lichen really is the plant picture of cancer (which is fungus taking the dominant roll at the human cellular level).

    No, the SLG by nature looks closer to algae -assimilating the light of God in order to shine it into the dark places of the world.

    Although the lichen caught your attention, it doesn’t feel like that was the true finding on the hunt…

  10. Amy says:

    I’m getting Colossians 1:15: Christ is the visible image of God. Christ is like the fungus (pardon the gritty simile) and God is the invisible “algae” so to speak. Whoa.

  11. Jeanne says:


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