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  • Writer's pictureMiriam Verbeek

Symbiosis, Skyseekers, Crystalmakers and Cryptals

Updated: Jun 12

I’ve been interested in the idea of symbiosis since that sixth class Science lesson when Sister Bonaventure, our Science teacher, took us out into the bush to look at lichens on rocks. What had seemed to me as just blotches on boulders became a fascinating insight.

Orange lichen growing on an inuksuk: Soper River, Baffin

Lichens, our teacher told us, are an example of a composite organism; lichens are an association between a fungus and an algae which work synergistically to become more than the sum of their parts – something that is distinct from either partner.The partnership

embodied in lichens enable the component organisms to survive in an astonishing range of environments! You can find lichens in almost all environments – cold, hot, wet, dry, high, low, soft, hard – expect heavily shaded areas. They provide food (and poison) for humans and animals, have medicinal properties (as many poisons do!), come in an astonishing range of colours (used over millennia as dyes for cloth) and shapes, and even have the capacity to break up rocks (in time).

In itself, learning about lichens was fascinating but what really stayed with me from that science lesson was its introduction to the concept of symbiosis and synergy. I began to see these phenomena everywhere; for example in associations between hosts and parasites; in the various strains of grass that now would not exist in the form they do without the help of humans, such as types of wheat and barley; and ditto with regard to domesticated animals and humans.

Semantics aside (some people may argue that my understanding of symbiosis is beyond its actual definition and I should be using a term such as ‘mutualism’), the idea of dependency of organisms on one-another is something that I continue to find fascinating. Particularly, I find it interesting to speculate on the consequences for the components of a ‘symbiotic’ association when something happens that causes the relationships to unravel. With lichens, since the dependency is absolute (a truly symbiotic relationship) there would be death for both parties. But what about among more loosely connected organisms?

This sort of speculation underlies the problem setting in the Si’Empra story, in which the Skyseekers try to free themselves from their association with Crystalmakers and Cryptals; they believe they can substitute what these other groups provide. What Skyseekers do not understand is how shallow their understanding of the dependent relationship. Essentially, the relationship is one that is embedded in the very earth – the very rock of the island – they inhabit.

To my mind, Si’Empra: The Storyteller and the Webcleaner echoes what is happening in our world today: we humans (like the Skyseekers) keep falling into the trap of thinking that by getting the economics right we will automatically ensure that we take care of environmental and social wellbeing.

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