Old Man's Beard

The original mind of lichenWendy Johnson

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November wind sweeps the dregs of autumn over the rim of the world. The last hag apples of the season hang on naked branches above the reek of fermented fruit. Low on the haunches of the year, rotting cabbage is dug back into bittersweet dirt. The harvest is gathered in a shady cellar. Burgundy braids of soft-necked garlic, baskets of Iroquois white corn, and blind-eyed seed potatoes dream in the dark.

Bewitching as bounty is, I long for the blank reprieve of fallow time. Here fallow is both an adjective and a verb, a potent word with feeder roots fanning out into the Old English fealh or “arable ground.” To “fallow a field” is to lay land open with a fanged plow and leave it bare and unsown. In ancient Jewish agricultural practice, every seventh season a sabbatical, or fallow year, was observed. Mandated by old law, unplanted ground lay fallow, renewed by rest and radical absence.

In this dormant season at the margin of winter, fallow time is courted by turning a deaf ear to the last siren song of farm and field. I travel north to a place of refuge beyond the cultivated row, a favorite hidden spot, tucked into the rough folds of Bolinas Lagoon. This lagoon is a tidal estuary—a drowned valley thousands of years old, riven open by the San Andreas Fault, which runs directly through the sunken trough of brackish water.

Not far from the shoreline of the lagoon is a giant horse chestnut, or California Buckeye tree, growing at the shadow fringe of steep oak and fir woodland. The vast limbs of this tree are festooned with pale green 10-foot-long boa scarves of Old Man’s Beard lichen, Usnea barbata, one of my favorite California native plants. The center of the buckeye tree is splayed open by the weight of wind and age, its core of weathered wood shaped like a well-worn nest lined with the soft duff of fallen leaf mold. I climb up into this sylvan aerie and disappear.

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