Kindling Neighborly Connections between People and Nature.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Lichens of Locke Mountain

It was a calm and sunny morning in the folded mountains of Pennsylvania. Erin and I stood at one of the quartz sandstone outcrops on the north side of Locke Mountain; we could see the valley far below and the start of the Allegheny Plateau on the horizon.

I'll say this up front. We cheated. We got into our car and drove to the top of the mountain. Locke Mountain Road goes right up to the top and down the other side. We parked at the pull-off at the peak of the long ridge.

From our parking spot we made our way along the trail which contours the ridge. 

Sometimes the trail is a place for reflection. Today I began reflecting on the many reasons why I have ascended mountains thus far in my life of 33 years. As I list my reasons perhaps a few may resonate with you, or maybe your reasons for ascending mountains are all together different than mine, and in that case I'd love to hear yours!

I've ascended mountains to explore the answers to these questions:

What’s below?

What’s above?
What’s beyond?

I've taken to steep and jagged landscapes in order to say that I've conquered mountains.

I've ascended various peaks because it is a test of strength and because it shows character. 

I've ascended mountains for the joy of it.

These are most of my reasons, but there is still one I've not mentioned yet. We'll get there.

What’s above and what's below? To the poet, heaven is above, the earth is below, and the mountaintop is a thin space betwixt the two. But what if it’s as Elizabeth Barrett Browning says; 
“Earth's crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God, But only he who sees takes off his shoes; The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.” ― Elizabeth Barrett Browning
If we approach the mountains as explorers we should also approach the mountains as neighbors; as neighbors to the wildlife who call the mountains home and as neighbors to the mountains themselves. After all, wildlife and wild spaces are dependent upon people treating each with the love, kindness, compassion and care that is due a neighbor.

My favorite reason for going to the mountain trails is to find out who lives there. Sauntering up mountains is a great way to find the joy of getting to know our wild neighbors. The better we know our wild neighbors the better equipped we are to be a neighbor to each.

Where the mountains are high enough, the one who saunters up them is likely to come across different habitat zones, and each habitat zone containing a unique species composition.

This is one of the reasons I enjoy the Adirondack (ADK) high peaks so much. At the base of the ADK high peaks its predominantly deciduous forest. As a person makes his/her way along the trail that is increasing in elevation, eventually there are more pines and less oaks and maples. Farther and higher still is the spruce-fir zone. Above that is the Krummholz zone which is marked by stunted windswept spruce-fir forests. Higher still is the Alpine tundra, a habitat zone marked by the absence of trees, rocky peaks, and low growing vegetation. Each habitat zone in the mountains hosts a different composition of animals, plants, insects, etc.

But today I was not in the ADK's, I was on top of Locke Mountain a few miles to the south-east of Hollidaysburg. 

There was no alpine tundra, Krummholz, or even a spruce-fir zone to be found on Locke Mountain because the elevation change simply isn't there. However, there are at least two to three habitat zones that I did note while we were there.

First was the lowland deciduous/mixed forest in the valley extending about 3/4 up the mountain slope. Second was the stunted deciduous/mixed forest at the top of the ridge extending about 1/4 mile down on either side. Third were the rocky outcroppings just shy of the top. Each of these hold many of the same species but each of these three habitat zones is home to a unique species composition.

I mostly enjoyed the rocky outcroppings which were marked by a significant diversity of lichens.  Lichens are an organisms that consist of fungus and algae living in a way that their pairing constitutes something altogether different.

This is an oversimplification, but the algae part of the lichen makes energy from sunlight by way of photosynthesis. The algae part of the lichen is surrounded and protected by the fungus part of the lichen which has the ability to absorb water and nutrients in the air. Lichens readily absorb pollutants from the air as well. In addition, some species of lichen are more tolerant of pollution than others. As a result, lichens can serve as indicators of air quality and the greatest diversity of lichens can be found where the air is the cleanest (lacking pollutants of any kind).

Lichens generally grow on soil, trees, logs, rocks, and can be found on almost any surface.

Lichens are grouped into three major categories; foliose, fruiticose, crustose.

Foliose lichens have a leafy appearance and texture. Fruiticose lichens look like vertical projections. Crustose lichens have the texture and appearance of being embedded in the rocks to which they cling.

Here are some of the lichens we found on Locke Moutain. As you'll see, its fairly simple to determine if a lichen is foliose, crustose, or fruiticose. I've attempted to identify some of them, but I have much to learn when it comes to lichen ID. I'm about 75% sure of the ones I did make a species ID on.


Greenshield lichen

Toadskin lichen



Powderhorn lichen
Trumpet lichen

Reindeer lichen

Reindeer lichen (zoomed in)

Some words from my field notebook:

Way up high where the air is clear,
Atop the ridge of Locke Mountain, 
Where bright golden sun shines in sapphire sky,
Where birch bows down giving way to prevailing wind,
Where lichens cling to rocks of scree in great diversity,
Hard and crusty they've become,
But a drop of water then they'll be,
Full of life in vibrant shades of gray and green.
As chickadee and downy woodpecker work the ridge,
We rest with comfort on a gnarly birch,
Enjoying a beautiful mountain day.

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