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Everything was perfect on a utopian island nation... until the invasive hallucinogenic lichen arrived.
Reed Mingault is the daughter of a Marine and hasn’t spent more than a few years in one place in her life. Her formative years, when not moving cross country and across oceans, were spent on horseback and handling birds of prey, and she’ll happily tell you more than you wanted to know about either. She draws, paints, dabbles in illuminated calligraphy, and is fascinated by pre-industrial handicrafts. Reed lives with her geneticist husband, precocious daughter, and fey cat Pooka. Reed can be found on twitter at @MilvusScribe.
It started as nothing. A little bit of blue-green fuzz caught in a crack of a boulder in Te-iani’s garden. It fluttered in the wind that brought it, and Te-iani admired the color before starting his day. It began with weeding and ended in the village plaza to share his garden’s bounty. Kapua had harvested her fruit trees and had promised him a basket and pastries. Te-iani was looking forward to the sweets and the harmless gossip.
It started as nothing. But it grew. Not especially fast—lichens are not known for their explosive growth—but steady, multiplying into thousands of puffs of blue-green, like miniature tumbleweeds.
Nakue had to clear it out of their irrigation channels with a shovel. They had barrels full already from clearing the lichen out of their garden plots and fields, where they choked the young seedlings and smothered the pasture grasses. It gathered across the wildlands in great blue drifts and dunes, vexing the wildlife.
The goats ate them with glee, so Nakue pressed the lichen-puffs into bricks and carefully offered them to the rest of their livestock. And when their most fractious ram turned as sweet as he’d been as a bottle-fed lamb, they tried some themself.
The lichen was bitter on their tongue, but sweet in the blood. The bitterness faded as their senses heightened into sacred euphoria. Everywhere they looked, they saw themself. In the grasses in the fields, in the waves pounding the shore, in the birds crying overhead—They were the world, and the world was them, and they all hummed benevolence to each other in brightly colored hymns.
Nakue couldn’t deprive their friends of this communion with the world; they had to share this wondrous sacrament. This—joymoss.
They gave their friend Kaikua a brick. Perhaps Kaikua, the best cook Nakue knew—the best cook in all the village—might be able to make something less bitter out of it, to make the eating of it as joyful as its effects.
Kaikua steeped joymoss in water, crushed it with spices, and cooked it with the bounties of earth and sea. Attempts and trials, hunting out the best ways to help their village rid their fields of joymoss and feed their people too. That was how their island dealt with an imbalance: use it, or eat it, until all was stable again. There were no shortages of mouths ready to try his experiments.
Until Kaikua ran out. Of ingredients, of cooking fuel, of seats at his table. Kaikua’s daughter turned away friends at the door with apologies. The village could not get enough of the feelings the joymoss engendered, of the spiritual high even the smallest bite produced as tales of Kaikua’s venture spread.
And then a neighbor arrived with a basket of ingredients in offering… and the string of pearlescent-shell beads Kaikua had secretly coveted for years. He found an extra seat somewhere for them and began to think.
Kaikua’s Restaurant began; joymoss cuisine for five beads a plate.
Ha-ielune held her wife and children close and watched the labor of their hands and an entire year’s income go up in a pyre of foul-smelling smoke. Prices were up; a bale of joymoss for six pearls each and she had been expecting a good sale on the season’s harvest. Perhaps even enough to send her son to school on the mainland this year.
Instead the broker ordered it all burnt. There was too much, he’d explained. It’d crash the prices for everyone, and then where would they be? He’d offered her a paltry bead per bale each and told her to be thankful for that much. No one else was buying; Ha-ielune had to take his offer.
And then the fire. Burnt joymoss tasted only of profanity.
If she and her family were lucky, they might get enough to eat until next season from fishing and foraging in the barren joymoss-ravaged wildlands.
Joymoss, indeed. Ha-eilune thought they ought to call it greedmoss.
Kuari-te made sure the strap of his bag was secure across his chest. It was a long way from the new, modern mainland pharmacy in town back home to the cooperative. The route wound through some of the poorest districts. Joymoss victims—addicts of euphoria and ruined farmers —lined the sidewalks with their begging bowls and hand-written signs. Brokers and dealers and star chefs lived on the other side of the town, in sprawling, polished villas, where they didn’t have to see.
This never would have happened in his great-grandfather’s day. Te-iani’s people took care of each other; no one lacked for food or care. He’d always called it a true utopia.
Kuari-te paused at an intersection. A woman and her two children begged there, and Kuari-te saw himself in the youngest’s dirty, hunger-pinched face. He stopped and spoke quietly with them: Do you want to come with me? The cooperative settlement will see you’re fed—we still follow the ways of our ancestors, and no one goes without.
The small family followed him, to food and beds and welcome. And there were three more sharing the next joymoss sacrament.
Carrie Moore is a microbial ecologist researching life in the deep subsurface. She lives with her wife, water bottle, dog, and two cats in Germany. She loves exploring new places by bike, eating bread, and looking at nice moss.
CASE STUDY: THE INVASIVE LICHEN INCIDENT IN IBU
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
Working Group II
a. THE ISLAND
The island of Ibu lies east of the Maldives on the Equator with a population of 10,000 human inhabitants. The Ibunese subsist on a diet of seafood, fruit, rock tripe and roots. Traditional homes are built inside caves and lava tubes, with few permanent structures existing above ground. The island maintains its historical sovereignty with minimal interactions with outside nations. The sudden arrival of nearly 2,000 Ibunese refugees on the shores of Sri Lanka and Malaysia in 2035 was the first indication of a crisis. The United Nations delegated researchers to investigate and compile this report.
b. THE INTRODUCTION OF INVASIVE LICHEN
Interviews with refugees indicate the arrival of droves of migrating shore birds, Arenaria interpres, in November of 2030. Island inhabitants had never seen these birds before, though this observation is consistent with many migratory patterns being disrupted by poleward shift in wind patterns associated with global warming. Three weeks following the appearance of the migratory birds, yellow blooms of lichen began growing uncontrollably on rock surfaces across the island. 16s rRNA sequencing and phylogenetic analysis confirmed the lichen is a species native to Siberia. The West Siberian Plain is the breeding ground for A. interpres, leading researchers to hypothesize that birds carrying lichen tissue or spores introduced the lichen to the island. Adapted for the cold, dry and low-light conditions of the Siberian tundra, the lichen has a high water use efficiency and grows at an extremely fast rate in the tropical ecosystem. Researchers classified the lichen an invasive species on Ibu with major impact.
c. PSYCOACTIVE PROPERTIES OF THE LICHEN
Refugees report the lichen causes hallucinations when consumed as soup or tea. Metabolite profiling of the lichen revealed 7 compounds not synthesized in the Siberian lichen samples. Psychoactive molecules may be produced as protection against heat and UV radiation stress. Hallucinogenic properties have had significant impact in the response of the Ibunese people to this crisis.
II. ENVIRONMENTAL CONSEQUENCES
a. GEOLOGIC IMPACT
Lichens are generally slow-growing organisms that exert gentle weathering pressure on rock substrates by excreting organic acids and pushing fungal hyphae into the rock surface. The invasive lichen’s high growth rate exerts weathering pressure that is already visible on the island. Field observations revealed cracking and thinning of lava tube homes.
b. BIOLOGICAL IMPACT
The rapid mobilization of heavy metals and minerals from weathered rocks has damaged the health of surrounding soils and fruit tree forests. Species diversity of grasses and trees has decreased, with many plants unable to adapt to the rapid change in soil composition. Additionally, the lichen rapidly outcompeted the endemic rock tripe and mosses, two resources traditionally used for food and building material.
III. SOCIOECONOMIC CONSEQUENCES
Since 2035, thousands of Ibunese have migrated off the island. Interviews with refugees revealed two primary factors behind the decision to leave Ibu: 1) losing access to a traditional way of life (i.e. deep-sea fishing, fruit forest management) and 2) hallucinogenic visions of sinking islands and extreme weather. Though the UN is developing an assistance program, currently Ibunese face serious challenges with integration and safety in their receiving nations.
b. A POPULATION DIVIDED
The Ibunese remaining on the island are determined to adapt to a rapidly changing ecosystem, despite new food scarcity and structurally compromised cave dwellings. They report being guided by lichen-induced visions of seaweed forests and wooden homes. With a significantly reduced population, new rituals and celebrations centering change and creativity are beginning to take root in the culture, replacing traditional rituals celebrating good harvests.
This case study highlights the extensive secondary and even tertiary effects of climate change on the environment and human populations. The traditional knowledge and lifestyle of an entire culture was completely disrupted over 5-years following the introduction of an invasive species.
Both of these possibilities are just beginnings. Reed's euphoric lichen is the start of an examination of how exploitation of natural resources can motivate exploitation of people. Carrie's case study is the foundation of a brilliant look at the way climate change can cause small things to become enormous.
How would the invasive lichen change your utopia? How might a society shift around the introduction of a changing ecosystem?
Do whatever you want with these questions. You can write something down in the comments or on social media or in a notebook nobody will ever see. You can draw or paint or sit down a friend and talk their ear off about your ideas. You can stare at the horizon and imagine, letting the infinite landscape of your mind unfold just a little farther than it did yesterday. No matter what you do, take pride in the knowledge that you’re creating something that has never existed before. You’re building a little corner of a whole new world.
No matter what you do, please find ways to support Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, support Black people and communities, and participate in local mutual aid.
In the meantime, care for yourself and the people around you. Believe that the world can be better than it is now. Never give up.