My dad and I drive up a dirt hill, ocean to the right and muskeg to the left. Around us the tall spruce and old bull pine are heavily dressed in thick hanging moss. As we crest the hill the breeze sways the moss like waving hair. The road splits at the top, curving to the right to a narrow pull-through road that meets again with the main road. Forming between the main road and the pull-through is a bowl that dips down filled with a small forest of trees and berry bushes. “This place is the lungs-of-the-island,” my dad says. “The air is really clean up here.”
Wrangell Island is shaped like a snow goose flying to the Stikine River flats. Since the nearby Stikine River flats are a resting area for huge flocks of migrating snow geese, the description fits. The snow goose’s beak touches the Stikine river, and its wings are outstretched. Our fishcamp is located in the crook of a snow goose’s neck and the “lungs-of-the-island” are located right where the goose’s lungs would be, near Nemo Point.
My dad parks the truck and we get out. My dad walks around on the road as my dog, Oscar, and I head down the embankment into the bowl, the forested section between the pull-through and the main road. I breathe in deeply and Oscar sniffs the bushes.
I start to walk through the trees to examine the moss. What I’ve called “moss” my whole life is not actually moss but lichen. Hanging lichens grow where the air is clean. But what kind of lichen is growing in the lungs-of-the-island? Is it Old Man’s Beard Moss or what some call Angel Hair? Turns out, hanging lichens are hard to tell apart, especially from a distance. My daughter Vivian Mork Yéilk’, an ethnobiologist, says when she’s harvesting a certain type of moss or lichen she finds a sample and puts it in her pocket so she has something to compare.
It’s easy to get confused with hundreds of types of moss and lichens. In Southeast, though, you often see two common hanging lichens: Unsea longissimi, long strands of green-gray moss draping from old trees and the shorter, bunchier Alectoria sarmentosa, which is more yellow-green, and also hangs on the trees.
Many of the English names for both these hanging lichens are used interchangeably but turns out the moss I thought was Old Man’s Beard is really Angel Hair (and sometimes called Deer Moss and Witch’s Hair). I’m still learning but I think I’ve got this right. Old Man’s Beard is also called Usnea, and in Tlingit called S’éixwani, and can grow up to 20 feet long. This moss in the lungs-of-the-island is not nearly that long.
As I walk through the forest, I’m mindful of my daughter’s harvesting rules: Harvest windblown lichen from the ground or from the broken branches that’ve fallen from the tree. Only take a small amount from each spot. Carefully remove the lichen or use scissors to cut it from the branches and don’t break them. Deer browse on the lichen, especially in winter, and birds use it for building their nests. I use lichen for my art projects, but I’m going to find out how to make tea from the medicinal lichens and my daughter is going to make anti-fungal medicine.
I consider how hard my daughter works at harvesting and making medicines from lichens and plants. Colonizers discouraged this practice in many places around the world, including Tlingit Aaní and our Sámi homeland in Scandinavia, Sapmi. In Sampi, traditional practitioners, and even seeking the healing properties of plants were criminalized. Colonizers associated the natural world with a demonic or savage world. This activity I’m doing now, harvesting lichen, would be illegal, so I feel fortunate to harvest good medicine.
The lichen I pull from the branch is clumpy and has no long chain at its center. What I’m holding is Alectoria sarmentosa, Angel Hair. Both Angel Hair and Usnea (Old Man’s Beard) contain usnic acid, yet, the Angel Hair lichen is not classified as Usnea. I put some lichen in the red cedar basket I’m carrying.
As I make my way through the small forest, past the bare blueberry bushes, with the dirt road at eye-level, it’s like I’m in an undersea world. My boots sink into the muskeg and around me, lichen strands wave in my face. I consider how the ocean is growing on our trees. Interestingly, Angel Hair and Old Man’s Beard are actually a fusion between an algae and a fungus that functions as a single organism.
I find the lichen in this area on both live and dead trees. There’s a perception that these lichen kill the trees but they don’t. Lichen and elder trees are symbiotic. The hanging lichen finds a good place to grow in the arms of the elder tree and, in turn, the elder tree cleans the air. Hanging lichens are used as environmental indicators or bio-indicators because they’re extremely sensitive to Sulphur dioxide pollution. If they’re present then the air is really clean. In different parts of the world, hanging lichens are known by other names: seaweed of the mountain, spirit of the north wind, air grass, and excrement of air.
The active ingredients in these two specific hanging lichens are commonly used in commercial products and traditional medicines and as treatments for fever and pain, urinary tract infections, yeast infections, kidney and bladder infections, for coughs and sore throats, skin lesions and cuts, bug bites, athletes foot and even sunscreen, toothpaste, deodorant, used in dyes, and more.
I make my way deep into the basin and the trees get denser. There’s nothing like being knee-deep in young, fragrant, yellow cedar and hanging lichen. I stand within inches of the hanging moss and closely examine the strands. It’s definitely not the Usnea we call Old Man’s Beard Moss but Angel Hair. But, interestingly, Angel Hair lichen, despite containing similar medicinal qualities, the usnic acid, is not categorized in the Usnea family. So when we say we’re going out to harvest Usnea, we should be harvesting the longer chain Old Man’s Beard not the Angel Hair.
For now, I’m learning to tell the difference between just two types of lichen: Angel Hair and Usnea. There’re 15 species of Usnea in Alaska and 500 species of lichens and moss, so I’ve got some learning to do.
All these years, I thought there was one type of hanging lichen around here, which I called moss. If I had all the time in the world, I’d be learning all Southeast Alaska’s lichens and mosses. I think it’s a good goal, though. Before Oscar and I climb back up out of the bowl we stop in the middle of the trees. With my basketful of lichen around my neck, I inhale and breathe in the lungs-of-the-island.
• Wrangell writer and artist Vivian Faith Prescott writes “Planet Alaska: Sharing our Stories” with her daughter, Vivian Mork Yéilk’.
Using a clean two quart pot, pour one pint of boiling water over about two handfuls or two cups of Usnea lichen (Old Man’s Beard Moss). Let steep for thirty minutes. Alternative method: Add one pint of clean water to a small pot and two handfuls of Usnea lichen and simmer for thirty
minutes on very low. Traditional use is to pour ¼ cup of the “broth” into a cup and add more hot water and honey to flavor. (*If you’re pregnant or taking prescription medicines always consult your doctor before trying any traditional medicines or teas because Old Man’s Beard and Angel Hair contain usnic acid).