Surviving through Reciprocity

Robin Wall Kimmerer

Scientists are interested in how the marriage of alga and fungus occurs and so they’ve tried to identify the factors that induce two species to live as one. But when researchers put the two together in the laboratory and provide them with ideal conditions for both alga and fungus, they gave each other the cold shoulder and proceeded to live separate lives, in the same culture dish, like the most platonic of roommates. The scientists were puzzled and began to tinker with the habitat, altering one factor and then another, but still no lichen. It was only when they severely curtailed the resources, when they created harsh and stressful conditions, that the two would turn toward each other and begin to cooperate. Only with severe need did the hyphae curl around the alga; only when the alga was stressed did it welcome the advances.

When times are easy and there’s plenty to go around, individual species can go it alone. But when conditions are harsh and life is tenuous, it takes a team sworn to reciprocity to keep life going forward. In a world of scarcity, interconnection and mutual aid become critical for survival. So say the lichens.

An excerpt (pp. 272) from Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants.