Decoding Lichen Glyphs from the Islands of the Morning
These mysterious runelike glyphs are based on the natural growth forms of “Script Lichens”, a distinctive group of lichens that grow on tree bark.

LICHENS are double organisms.   The lichen fungus lives in a complex partnership with one or more species of Cyanobacteria or green algae. Lichens are made of a felted mass of fungus threads and may look and feel like paper or thin fabric. In cross-section under the microscope, many have a structure like a quilt. Between two thin but dense feltlike layers, there is a thicker "batting" layer of loose, airy threads, with algal cells scattered among them like beads. This layer absorbs water and provides air exchange. The algae provide energy through photosynthesis. The outer layers protect the algal cells from drought, cold, and UV damage.  Lichens are sensitive to air pollution and disturbances in microclimate, so they are usually more conspicuous and diverse in healthy old growth ecosystems. 

The lichen family Graphidaceae contains hundreds of species worldwide, and includes the "Script Lichens" which form pale gray patches on living tree bark.  Most Graphids are tropical, but a few grow in humid temperate climates. Graphis scripta is the best known, and grows throughout Europe, northern Asia, and much of the U.S. and Canada. Graphids have distinctive linear spore-bearing structures called lirellae (“little furrows”). Individual lirellae are about a millimeter long. They are usually black and may be narrow and ridged or broad and sunken. Growth patterns range from short lines and dots to letterlike, radiating, or mazelike figures:

graphid lirellae forms


For this project, several Graphis and Phaeographis species were photographed at Buxton Woods and Nags Head Woods on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. No specimens were collected, and the lichens were not identified to species (for most lichens, species identification requires chemical tests and microscopic examination). The most intriguing and beautiful glyphs were chosen from the photos. Two drawings were made of each glyph: a realistic portrait traced from the photo, and a simplified line symbol. Interpretations were assigned intuitively based on the shape of the glyph, with inspiration from the natural landscape where they were found.  But the appeal and significance of the glyphs need not be limited to one place.  Script Lichens grow worldwide, and similar glyphs are found among many species.

On the map, Cape Hatteras is hooked like the blunt claw of a seabird. Facing the sunrise, it is an ever-changing whirl of waves, sand, and wings. Vanishing and reappearing with the tides, it is constantly eroding and re-creating itself. Behind the dunes, in the broadest, most sheltered part of the island, a hardwood forest grows on ancient dunes. The tangled roots protect the island's secret and most precious resource: fresh water. These tiny forests are the most stable parts of the Outer Banks. Most storms have little effect on them, and erosion damages them only in areas that are already disturbed. These fragments of wooded dunes, freshwater ponds, swamp forest, and coastal shrublands are protected by the State of North Carolina Coastal Reserve System, Nature Conservancy, and the National Park Service.  They include Buxton Woods on Hatteras Island, Nags Head Woods on Bodie Island behind the dunes of Jockey's Ridge, Kitty Hawk Woods and Duck Woods in the northern Outer Banks, and Bald Head Woods at Cape Fear. Most of the woodland is vigorous second growth, but there is some old growth coastal deciduous forest with a handful of unusually large ancient trees. The diverse lichen flora includes Mid-Atlantic coastal endemics, several tropical species at the northern limit of their range, and more than a dozen species of Graphids.
The namesake of the town of Buxton is a town in Derbyshire, England, that is famous for its holy wells and healing springs. The Romans named it Aquae Arnemetiae, "the spring within the sacred grove". Here on the Islands of the Morning, all waters are sacred, whether salt, brackish, or fresh, and the trees grow upon holy ground.

The Lichen Oracle:  Glyphs and Descriptions


1.  Inlet:  On barrier islands, significant natural geological changes occur within a human lifetime.  Storms periodically blow out inlets between sound and ocean, and currents fill them with sand.  The chain of islands is repeatedly cut and linked again.  A new inlet is a swirl of disordered water channels, sand bars, and mudflats, alternately exposed and inundated as the tides and currents adjust to the new shape of the land. Crabs, travellers between worlds, explore the new gate between realms.
A leatherback sea turtle crawls onto a young barrier island, a moonlit ridge of bare sand that is barely visible above the waves. By sunrise the new land cradles a nest of turtle eggs, and she slides back into the surf that shapes a growing beach. Years later in the same place, another sunrise illuminates the triple-ridged, heart shaped dome of her shell, half buried in sand on the hurricane strandline at the edge of a blown out dune. Her body is flecked with white spots that mirror the Milky Way. The black skin stretches over a galaxy of tiny interlocking bony plates. Her front flippers are crescent shaped oars that once stirred a foaming wake behind the massive arc of her shoulders. Her head droops in the sand, and the hollowed eyes weep a trickle of small white shells. The next high tide drags her body back into the waves along the same track that she took as a hatchling. Out in the deep water beyond the fossil sandbars, the shell breaks apart into a meteor shower of starry bones.

2.  Surf:  The forest and its groundwater are only twigs and dewdrops on a sandbar. The ocean shaped this place and will one day reclaim it. The island shifts constantly under the whirl of surf and tide, ripcurrent and undertow and longshore current, hurricanes and winter storms.

3.  Gulf Stream:  The Gulf Stream, the great warm River-in-Ocean, spawns floating forests of sargassum that shelter seahorses, swordfish, and violet snails floating on rafts of bubbles.  The seaweed and strange creatures wash ashore after hurricanes.

4.  Barrier Island:  The oldest dunes, crowned with oak, hickory, holly, and dogwood trees, have weathered centuries of wind, ice, and floods.  The wind in the high pines sounds like the surf that roars faintly less than a mile away. The spongy ground smells of red bay leaves, mushrooms, and ever so faintly of seaweed.

5.  Snake Bird:  In the bright surf, a cormorant dives and resurfaces with only its head and neck above the water.  In the dim tangle of the wooded swamp, a cottonmouth lifts its head, swimming barely submerged.  Its scales slide against each other, rustling like feathers.
Snakebird or feathered serpent, snake and bird lead parallel lives, reaching and responding.


6.  Drum Oak:  An ancient live oak enshrines the secret heart of the island forest. The wood is hard, heavy, and weathered smooth as a river stone. Each branch scar filled with rainwater is a black mirror window, an eye with a jellyfish lens, or an ocean in a branch. Starlight falls through the hollow trunk and reflects on the brackish water that seeps under the roots.  The Drum Oak can be heard here:

7.  Tupelo:  In the deepest swales between the old dunes, groves of swamp tupelo cradle ephemeral pools.  The pale, curved trunks shimmer with silver light that reflects in the dark, silent water. Each trunk has a swollen, hollow base and a basketlike network of exposed roots to "breathe" or absorb oxygen when submerged. Deep in the mainland swamp, lightning strikes a dead snag and ignites buried cypress knees that smolder until the wind tide drags them into the ocean. Waves throw the driftwood high up on the beach. Burrowed by shipworms, scoured by mud and sand, the shining tree-bones dry gray and light as ashes.


8.  Canoe - Blackwater:  The Great Ridge, highest of the forested dunes, offers a view of the mysterious dark freshwater lakes hidden among the oldest wooded dunes.

9.  Canoe - Sound and Tidal River:  The brackish water of the sound is quieter than the ocean, but its changing depth, currents, and response to the wind are unpredictable.

10:  Canoe - Sea Fossils and Open Ocean:  The most adventurous canoe can be as small as a floating jellyfish or as large as a school of migrating stingrays.  Near shore, it floats over gravel bars filled with Pleistocene fossil clams, heart cockles, and other cold water species that now live farther north, and older Miocene beds of sea snails and clams that are now extinct.


11.  Dune Grass:  Creeping prickly pear, waving sea oats, and a net of thorny vines anchor the beachfront sand dunes and protect them from storms.  These pioneer plants nurture wildflowers, salt-tolerant shrubs, soil crust lichens, and young pine trees.

12:  Yucca:  The dunes and sandy coastal soils are home to several types of desert plants that are more abundant in the Southwestern U.S.  Three species of yucca thrive on the Outer Banks:  Y. flaccida (Y. filamentosa), Y. aloifolia, and Y. gloriosa.

13:  Pocosin:  On the mainland, pocosins or wooded swamps flourish behind the barrier islands that protect them from salt water and erosion.  Pond pine and Atlantic white cedar flourish beside the tidal rivers that feed the brackish estuary of the sound. Pitcher plants, orchids, arums, and other rare plants thrive under flowering shrubs.  The maze of black creeks hides alligators, rainbow snakes, turtles, and the endangered red wolf and red-cockaded woodpecker.

14:  Palmetto Path Palmettos thrive in the wooded swamp at Buxton Woods.  The stiff, pleated fans look flamboyantly tropical, but Sabal minor creeps no further north than this tiny island refuge.   The roots shrink from the film of ice, thin and transparent as snakeskin, that the pools shed in late winter.

15:  Thorns and Coastal Thicket:  Impenetrable evergreen thickets of wax myrtle, dewberry, coastal red cedar, and other salt-tolerant shrubs grow between the dunes and the forest, impervious to wind and sea spray.  Greenbriers with thorns like curved claws creep over dunes, tangle in shrubs, and hang in curtains on trees armed with spiral staircases of polished spikes. Vine tendrils weave branches together and their roots anchor the earth.


16:  Fresh Water Eye:  Deep below the shells and roots, the sand hides thousands of years of rain in a precious lens of fresh water that gives life to the islands.  The radiating lichen pattern might mirror a tuft of Ramalina lichen on a branch, a spreading live oak, a windswept cedar on a dune, seaweed caught in offshore foam, or a ghost crab burrow on the beach, with its mound of sand covered in radiating tracks.  The Path to the Moon shimmers on the ocean surface at night, flickering in the surf and stretching to the horizon. It curves into a maze as it wanders through the swamp creeks.

17:  Lanterns:  Tamed fire lights the way and gives comfort on stormy days and during the deep, restless nights.  Twin lanterns illuminate the edge of the water, mark a dune path or a forest clearing, and light the door of home.

18:  Shelter:  Shelter is ephemeral but essential, whether found or made, since the island environment is one of extremes.  Though ephemeral, such a retreat offers necessary rest and confers endurance over time.

19:  Collection of Beach Treasures:  Garnet sand, pelican feather, brown chert pebbles, pearly jingle shells, moon snails and whelk trumpets, wave-tumbled purple quahog chips, and fishbone pins filling a clam shell.

HUMAN ARCHETYPES  Human-like figures are common Graphid glyphs.  Those shown here are particularly evocative 

20:  Stick Walker:  The Stick Walker is the bearer of the Lichen Oracle itself, a pilgrim or wandering naturalist carrying a staff covered in lettered lichen messages from the Meeting of Waters, where salt ocean, brackish sound, and freshwater creek meet.

21:  Snake Catcher:  An opportunist, with observant eye, quick hands, and active mind. A Trickster, able to call power, banish fear, untangle obstacles, and neutralize danger, but holds much hidden. Once released, the snake crawls away unharmed.

22:  Fish Watcher:  An ancient hunter, survivor, dreamer, bound to the land but embracing the beauty and diversity of the ocean.  The glyphs show the fisher with a hook, and the hook itself.

23:  Wind Caller:  Strong arms hold an object that interacts with the wind: a musical instrument, a spinning ornament or signal, or a device for measuring wind speed and direction.

24:  Storm Dancer:  An adept in the moon trance, calling the ecstatic mapmaker's view of the coast, walking unseen through the eye of a hurricane, facing the calm dawn with curiosity and a new wonder-tale.

25:  Antler Carrier:  The glyphs show a deer and a horned dancer who carries a giant antler.  A young whitetail deer runs on the beach at dawn, leaving hoofprints in the sand and a fallen spike in the surf, tangled in antler-shaped seaweed with a piece of branched coral. The wanderer’s forked stick becomes a human figure with upraised arms, a hand with spread fingers, an antler gate or ladder. There is something moonlike in the waxing of the mirrored crescent curves, and the way the aged bone wanes and splinters in late winter, so the Vernal Equinox Moon will have no horns but its own.  The forest reveals more natural images that echo the lichen deer glyph:  A scute from the a box turtle carapace carries a similar design, and bark beetles have carved a deer xyloglyph on a fallen pine log.

All content copyright ©2017 by Lorena Babcock Moore.