Graphic Formalism / Lichen Elegy / Shannon Mattern


In this era when everything feels frenzied and precarious and upside-down, our mental maps commonly take the form of those paranoid, labyrinthine evidence diagrams we see on crime shows and 4chan, with their cobwebbed strings tenuously connecting clues extracted from far-flung contexts. I, like many others, had been seeking something that would offer more epistemological stability and metaphysical direction than the conspiracy-laden social media feeds and Covid curves that filled our screens and consumed our attention. What’s more, my partner and I had moved out of the city at the height of the pandemic (not my choice), and I was preparing for a big career transition, so I needed to regain my geographic and professional bearings, too. In short, I needed a diagram, a lodestar, something that would help me understand my place within the maelstrom.

After a terribly dreary and lonely first winter in our new town, I began venturing out on walks that radiated outward from our apartment: each day a new direction. On the other side of the pizza parlor, up a narrow street, I found what I was looking for: a vast terrain speckled with analog ciphers. Cedar Park Cemetery had always featured prominently, as a big splotch of green, on my Google Map, but I had neither taphophilic inclination nor much prior occasion to hang with the dead.1 Yet here, amidst the second pandemic spring, I found a terrain of graphic formalism that rooted the data visualizations of our information age in stone, wood, and earth—in weathered texts, palimpsestic typefaces, enigmatic trees, and cartographic traces.

A view from the top of the hill at the Cedar Park Cemetery in Hudson, NY. Our pandemic dog, Inge, has occasioned countless cemetery walks. Photos by the author.

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The cemetery landscape itself carries clues to its evolving morphology and layered histories: pathways hidden between headstones, the crumbled and rusted remains of stone staircases and iron fences, markers half-interred or swallowed by swelling trees. Gnarled elder flora manifest the circuitous life journeys and branching family trees of Civil War veterans and whalers who lay among their roots. The rows of stones, like pages in an open-air library, serve as a living museum of graphic design history, their layouts and lettering choices reflecting the influence of contemporary newspapers and advertising.2 Award-winning essayist, poet, and environmental protection commissioner David K. Leff, recently deceased, similarly describes cemeteries as “time capsules of culture in which typography, carving, sculpture, and epitaphs illustrate an evolution in the way communities engage the chronological limits of their world. They are rich with time-binding symbols like crosses, soul effigies, Masonic squares and compasses.”3 Paleographers and design historians who study rural cemeteries have found that, before the age of widely distributed lettering samples and copybooks, gravestones often exhibited local stonemasons’ individual sensibilities and regional styles.4 I’m particularly fond of those stones that are shaped like a broadsheet, and whose dense lines of text and panoply of lettering styles (what their masons would’ve called “alphabets”) require nearly the same degree of investment one would dedicate to reading a newspaper.

A single ‘B’ from an interred headstone peeks up from the ground. Photo by the author.

Despite its seeming typographic fixity and material solidity, however, the cemetery is a place of active inscription and revision, of evolving graphic forms. One day last summer, I ran into a man from a local monuments firm who was there to add new names to existing headstones after additional family members had been laid to rest. He showed me how to affix a rubber stencil to the granite and sandblast through the cut-away letters. Yet even after his work was done, these new entries in the collective book of death—like those hand-carved by centuries of stonecutters before him – would be subject to continual revision and amendment. A variety of chemical, physical, and biological forces—pollution, concentrated moisture, freezing and thawing, lawnmowers and weed whackers, vines, moss, and so forth—would “weather” the headstones.5 Both professional masons and volunteer maintenance workers deploy a variety of tools—trowels and brushes and D/2 biological solution—to clean those surfaces, but some weathering effects simply can’t be erased.6 On the older, eastern side of the cemetery, where the headstones are made of marble (their predecessors were often sandstone and slate), the deceased’s dates of passing are already almost impossible to discern. I sometimes have to run my fingers along their timeworn letterforms, or use paper and crayon to make a rubbing, to bring the blurry names and dates into relief.

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Lichen ornamenting botanical forms on granite headstones. Photo by the author.

Lichen affix themselves to most Cedar Park headstones, often burrowing into and transforming their formal, intentional inscriptions. These biotic forms serve, in some cases, as a writing medium—an organic ink outlining and ornamenting the engraved text. There is of course a long history of writing and printing with and on organic materials, including vellum, papyrus, and paper substrates; botanical dyes; and oak gall- and charcoal-based inks.7 Letterforms themselves have often taken inspiration from organic forms. Consider Ogham, the Early Medieval Irish tree alphabet; Art Nouveau typography, with its leaves and tendrils; and Anna Sing’s 2021 Aureum typeface, which takes the houseplant as its muse.8 Occlusion Grotesque is another recent experimental typeface that’s carved into the bark of a tree and is meant to stretch and warp as the tree grows; its designer, Bjørn Karmann, explains that the project “explores what it means to design with nature and on nature’s terms.”9

Karmann’s is just one of several experiments in which botanical forms serve not merely as formal typographic inspiration, but as active authorial or designerly agents. As these organisms grow and change, so do the graphic forms they shape. Computer scientist and artist Jonathan Zong is developing a project that examines microbes as mark-makers and knowledge-producers. Using letterforms as “base shapes”—like trellises or scaffolds—for microbes to grow within, he’ll examine how these organisms, “through the collective movement, structure, and organization of their bodies,” leave traces that transform their typographic substrates, perhaps even rendering them illegible. Zong regards this trace-making as “an interspecies practice of inscribing information—of embodied writing.”10 Similarly, artist Jenna Sutela has designed experimental languages and writing systems in collaboration with mosses and slime molds.11 What would it mean to design memorial lettering that’s intended to evolve with, and be in dialogue with, the various biotic forms that will eventually, inevitably, take up residence on the headstone?12

Even without human intervention the natural world leaves ubiquitous traces that resemble writing, and which we are often then prompted to “read.” These phenomena constitute what some literary theorists call “asemic writing”: writing “without content” or meaning, writing that’s about “nothing other than [its] own contours and the abstract idea of writing that [it] evoke(s).”13 Examples include the whorls on seashells, the patterns on butterfly wings, the scribbly marks that moth larvae leave on the smooth bark of Australian eucalyptus trees, or the myriad other species that make their own autographic contributions to the Book of Nature.14 Script lichen, Graphis scripta, have spore-producing structures, lirellae, that look like scribbles, too.

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Lichen, mosses, and roots affixed to headstones, often burrowing into engraved letterforms. Lichen in a variety of colors and forms. Photos by the author.

Because lichens come in myriad colors – red, orange, yellow, green, brown, grey, black, and white—and forms—crustose (crusty), foliose (leafy), squamulose (scaly), leprose (dusty), and fruticose (branched)—they have an expansive repertoire of mark-making capabilities. Their whorls, splotches, tufts, and fractal patterns resemble the ornamentation we often find framing the “historiated initial” letter in an illuminated manuscript. And because they’re composite organisms—a fungus and an algae or cyanobacteria living in symbiotic relationship (probably with some yeasts and bacteria and other microorganisms, too)—lichens can thrive on substrates and in terrains none of their partners could survive independently.15 As poet Drew Milne describes, “lichens are typographers of / oxygen sewing serifs into azures”; seemingly out of thin air, they craft intricate scripts.16 We can find lichens painting their colors and sculpting their forms on plants, rocks, sand, soil, concrete, metal, glass, and plastic, from the tropics to the poles, the rainforest to the desert. While different species have different environmental preferences—for particular climates, for substrates with particular textures and chemistry—lichens collectively use the whole material world as their medium or platform.17

In the cemetery, the structural and chemical properties of stone substrates and their fungal scribes inform how they engage in a practice of cross-species graphic design—highlighting, ornamenting, obscuring, and erasing individual entries in the Book of the Dead. Of course there’s hubris and risk in presuming that the natural world is a text, and that it has any desire or capacity to collaborate with us in our mark-making and commemorative activities. Yet lichen is a fascinatingly reluctant “medium” and chirographic collaborator because it refuses to make itself readily intelligible as a life form—an ambiguity that seems particularly poignant in a cemetery, where we contemplate both the conclusion and conservation of life—and it continually undermines the concrete substrates to which it adheres.

The lichen’s form is constituted primarily of fungal filaments; under a thick outer cortex lies an algal layer, a loosely packed layer of filaments (the medulla), and rhizines or a central “holdfast” that attaches the lichen to its substrate. The fungus absorbs mineral nutrients and provides a protective micro-habitat in which the algae can live, while the algae or cyanobacteria produce nourishing sugars through photosynthesis. Together, the “mycobiont” and “photobiont” take on forms and produce chemicals that neither could generate independently—and some of which seem to exist nowhere else in nature. Lichen are more than the sum of their parts. As biologist Merlin Sheldrake writes, “Since the nineteenth century, [lichens] have provoked fierce debate about what constitutes an autonomous individual. The closer we get to lichens, the stranger they seem. To this day, lichens confuse our concept of identity and force us to question where one organism stops and another begins.”18 Poet Forrest Gander agrees that lichens are “a kind of model and metaphor for the intricacies of intimacy.”19 And lichens-on-headstones are intricately layered models and metaphors for the myriad ways that human identity and intimacy are embodied and reconciled through mourning and commemoration.

Of course we humans transform the world as we tag it with our graffiti and geoglyphs, with blazes on tree trunks to mark property lines, and with geoengineered landscapes whose logistical logics are legible from space. But lichens live within, and with, the marks they make, further eroding the distinction between individual and environment. As Sheldrake explains, lichens—like the gravesites they often adorn—are “places where an organism unravels into an ecosystem and where an ecosystem congeals into an organism.”20 They enact this ontological transformation by “min[ing] minerals from rock in a twofold process known as ‘weathering.’ First, they physically break up surfaces by the force of their growth. Second, they deploy an arsenal of powerful acids and mineral-binding compounds to dissolve and digest the rock”—a process that, on a headstone, results in the erasure of inscriptions.21 That erosion of identity markers parallels the disintegration of the body and its return to the environment. Lichen, Milne says, “eats in dark font,” it digests type, contributing to the “predation of all form.”22 They transform two-dimensional polished granite surfaces into three-dimensional geological assemblages; they make inert rock into life-sustaining soil. Sheldrake continues:

Lichens’ ability to weather makes them a geological force, yet they do more than dissolve the physical features of the world. When lichens die and decompose, they give rise to the first soils in new ecosystems. Lichens are how the inanimate mineral mass within rocks is able to cross over into the metabolic cycles of the living…. [They] are the go-betweens that inhabit the boundary dividing life and nonlife.23

I can’t imagine a more qualified, and perhaps comforting, eulogist for those mourning their loved ones at the gravesite.

Lichens thrive in metaphysical border zones. They can survive extreme, dry conditions by lying dormant for up to a decade. With a little water, they snap back to life. The oldest lichen, in Swedish Lapland, is around 9000 years old. Mycologist Anne Pringle, who spent years studying the lichen in a Massachusetts cemetery, has proposed that lichens could be immortal; even if certain parts or modules of the organism age, the entire interspecies collective that constitutes lichen might continue to grow at the edges in perpetuity.24 These existentially ambiguous organisms stand in stark contrast to the specific birth and death dates we commonly find on headstones. Still, lichens are often useful in dating the materials to which they cling: lichenometry is a method of geochronologic dating used in archaeology, paleontology, and geomorphology. As scientists Brandy Garrett Kluthe, Margaret Guiccioni, and Steven L. Stephenson explain, because “lichens grow at a near constant rate, … they are useful in dating objects that are relatively undisturbed,” like gravestones and other rocks.25 Lichens aid in our compulsion toward chronological comprehension while demonstrating the limits of thinking in terms of timelines.

The evolution of the species as a whole is equally cryptic. It’s difficult to trace lichens’ emergence and development because they’re relatively uncommon in the fossil record, perhaps because they’ve tended to dominate habitats that yield fewer fossils.26 Nevertheless, scientists have unearthed clues that lichens have existed somewhere between 250 and 400 million years, and that they may have evolved independently several times.27 They’re younger than vascular plants, but they’re often the harbingers of organic life on new terrains that emerge when a volcanic island rises or a glacier retreats.

We’ll see more glaciers retreating, and more sea levels rising, in the coming decades, and lichens will signal these transformations. Lichens serve as indices, indicators, bellwethers of environmental change. They’re also commonly regarded as an indicator species for air quality in urban and industrial areas, and more recent studies have examined their utility as monitors of climate change in alpine and polar regions.28 There’s now grave concern that the rate of climate change is far outpacing the rate at which lichen can evolve to escape or thrive in those conditions. “Based on past rates of lichen evolution, it would take many Trebouxia (green alga) species hundreds of thousands of years—and a few potentially millions of years—to keep pace with the extent of climate change forecast for the next century,” Jack Tamisiea writes in Scientific American.29 Their risk portends our own.

Lichens’ existential, temporal, and ontological mysteries seem to embody those we find in cemeteries, too. David Leff, the poet and environmental protection commissioner we met earlier, writes of cemeteries as “places where the passage of years, decades, and centuries are manifest,” where we find “a collision of timescales— human, cultural, sylvan, and geologic.”30 Lichen give graphic form to this temporal fusion. I’m struck by the fact that Sheldrake refers to lichen as “places,” too; they’re organisms that are also societies and micro-environments that serve as bellwethers of, and catalysts for, larger ecological transformation. Cemetery lichens are thus places within places, or what Foucault refers to as “heterotopias” that both mirror and invert the world outside.31 The cemetery itself is itself a heterotopia, as Foucault explains—and the headstones and monuments represent an attempt to interface with, to map, this upside-down realm.

Yet lichens serve as editors and critics of this lithic cartography. When they embellish, obscure, and erase those names and dates carved into marble and granite, they’re reminding us that the lives we commemorate are so much more entangled and infinite than the label implies. Eugene and Maggie lie side-by-side in Cedar Park; the purposeful understatement of their epitaphs—he’s simply an “equestrian,” while she’s a “writer and friend”—evokes abundant biographies. Lichens have their own fraught relationship with nomenclature. Their scientific names are determined by the mycobiont, the fungal component; even if the fungus can partner with different alga and cyanobacteria and take on different forms, its official identity is always reduced to that of the dominant partner in the symbiotic assemblage. I’m sure Charlotte, remembered solely as “Wife of William,” or “Edward, Negro Servant to Henry Collins,” can relate. Milne, in “Lichen/Unlichen,” describes a “visceral tax on naming”; lichens’ morphological and ontological complexity reveals the inadequacies of scientific classification and official nomenclature and ideologically-infused webs of relation.32

We are more than our names, our individual bodies, our filament structures, our boxes of bones. Lichen are societies, ecologies, and, in Milne’s words, “concrete poems to built / brutalism”: their very material forms, their overt structures, are object lessons to us about life and living.33 Our inclination to find intention or portension in their biotic forms mirrors the drive to find purpose and pattern in the lives indexed in lithic inscriptions. On granite slabs lichen join their signatures to ours, filling letterforms with rhizines, rooting our individual lives within a larger world of adaptation and abundance, reminding us that we all are authored by nature.

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This is part of the cluster Graphic Formalism. Read the other posts here.

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  1. Taphophilia refers to interest in funerals, cemeteries, and the rituals of death. See, e.g., Allison Meier’s cemetery tours:
  2. Alan Barbram, Tombstone Lettering in the British Isles (Lund Humphries, 1978); James Blachowicz, From Slate to Marble: Gravestone Carving Traditions in Eastern Massachusetts, 1770-1870 (Graver Press, 2006); Harriette Merrifield Forbes, Gravestones of Early New England, and the Men Who Made Them (Pyne Press, 1973); “Gravestone Symbols and Carvings – Meaning and Inspiration,” Stoneletters (January 6, 2015):; “A History of Monumental Lettering and Design,” Monument Lettering Center (n.d.):; Robin Lacy, “Lettering, “Space & the Grave (2017-21):; Allan I. Ludwig, Graven Images: New England Stonecarving and its Symbols, 1650-1815 (Wesleyan University Press, 1966).
  3. David K. Leff, “Time Made Visible,” David K. Leff (December 31, 2021):
  4. Lynne Baggett, Ligatures to Lichen:; Leah Wood Jewett, “Ligatures to Lichen: Gravestone Letterforms,” LSU Libraries (October 10, 2017):; George Thomson, “Research in Inscriptional Paelaeography (RIP). Tombstone Lettering in Dumbfries and Galloway,” Proceedings Social Antiquity Scot 135 (2005): 423-42.
  5. See “Gravestone Lettering,” UCL Earth Sciences:; Alan Nash, “’That This Too, Too Solid Flesh Would Melt…’: Necrogeography, Gravestones, Cemeteries, and Deathscapes,” Progress in Physical Geography 42:5 (2018): 548-65; MJ Thornbush, “ Introduction to the Special Issue on Necrogeography and Physical Geography,” Progress in Physical Geography: Erath and Environment 42:5 (2018): 541-7.
  6. Gravestone cleaning is popular on Instagram and TikTok. Thanks to @typographica for reminding me of this.
  7. See also Marcus Fairs, “Symbiosis with Jelte van Abbema,” Dezeen (October 27, 2009):; Zach Sokol, “Landscape Photos ‘Grown’ on Light-Sensitive Algae,” Vice (February 11, 2014): Thanks to @litherland and @emlne for the references.
  8. Katie Holten, “Deciphering Words in the Woods: A New Irish Tree Alphabet,” Emergence (November 20, 2020):; Emily Gosling, “Aureum Marries Victorian Ornamentation with the Organic Tendrils of Houseplants,” AIGA Eye on Design (June 28, 2022): See also Anna Atkins’s British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843), a book a photographic prints of seaweed, which, as media theorist Melody Jue describes, blends hand-written and biotic forms; “the seaweed itself appears as writing, as if Nature itself were authoring the cyanotype book through its own pencil” (“The Media of Seaweeds: Between Kelp Forest and Archive” in Saturation: An Elemental Politics, eds. Melody Jue and Rafico Ruiz (Duke University Press, 2021): 196). Carol Armstrong concurs that the “writing and the photographed specimen are of the same order of the trace. Each confers on the other something of its own properties: writing assigns the character of language and the ability to name the specimen itself, and the specimen shares its derivation in Nature with the written word” (Scenes in a Library: Reading the Photograph in the Book (MIT Press, 1998): 268).
  9. Bjørn Karmann, Occlusion Grotesque: Thank you to @mikebrondbjerg and @heatonmoorpark for the reference.
  10. Jonathan Zong, untitled proposal (2022).
  11. “Nam-Gut by Jenna Sutela,” Banner Repeater (2017):; Jenna Sutela, Sporulating Paragraph, Momentum 9 (2017): See also the Slime Mould Collective: to Allison Meier for the reference); Adam Adamantzky, Slime Mould in Arts and Architecture (River Publishers, 2019) (thanks to @Jillhubley for the reference); and the fungal script lining the tower walls in Jeff VanderMeer’s novel Annihilation (thanks to Becky Clark for the reference).
  12. Consider also the mushroom burial suit, which helps to decompose the body of the deceased while also cleaning away toxins.
  13. Peter Schwenger, Asemic: The Art of Writing (University of Minnesota Press, 2019): 7.
  14. Thank you to @malafoostress for directing me to the scribbly gum moth. See also Roger Caillois, “The Ultiiate Bibliophilia,” quoted in Denis Hollier, “Premises, Premises: Sketches in Remembrance of a Recent Graphic Turn in French Thought,” in Premises: Invested Spaces in Visual Arts, Architecture, & Design From France: 1958-1998 (Guggenheim Museum, 1998): 53.
  15. Toby Spribille et al., “Basidiomycete Yeasts in the Cortex of Ascomycete Macrolichens,” Science (July 21, 2016):
  16. Quoted in Stephen Collis, “Drew Milne’s Marxist Lichens,” Jacket 2 (August 21, 2017): Thank you to Susan Schultz for directing me to Milne and poet Forrest Gander.
  17. Tess E. Brewer and Noah Fierer, “Tales From the Tomb: The Microbial Ecology of Exposed Rock Surfaces,” Environmental Microbiology 20:3 (2018): 958-70; Elizabeth A. Leger and Matthew L. Forister, “Colonization, Abundance and Geographic Range Size of Gravestone Lichens,” Basic and Applied Ecology 10:3 (May 2009): 279-87: and David J. Hill, “The Succession of Lichens on Gravestones: A Preliminary Investigation,” Crtypo Botany 4 (1994): 179-86.
  18. Merlin Sheldrake, Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures (Random House 2020): 71.
  19. Forrest Gander, “Lichen as Model and Metaphor,” Scientific American (April 1, 2020):
  20. Sheldrake: 88.
  21. Sheldrake: 75.
  22. Drew Milne, “Crypsis Papers” Leafe Press:
  23. Sheldrake: 75.
  24. Anne Pringle, “Establishing New Worlds: The Lichens of Petersham” in Anna Tsing, Heather Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt, eds., Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet (University of Minnesota Press, 2017): 157-67.
  25. Brandy Garrett Kluthe, Margaret Guiccioni and Steven L. Stephenson, “Using Lichonometry, Dendrochronology, and Historical Data to Establish the Relative Age of an Abandoned Cemetery in Northern Arkansas,” Ethnobiology Letters 9:2 (2018): 253. See also Gregg Müller, “Gregg Müller on Lichenometry and Environmental History,” Environmental History 11:3 (July 2006): 604-9.
  26. T.N. Taylor and M. Krings, “Fungi and Lichens,” in Richard C. Selley, L. Robin M. Cocks, Ian R. Plimer, eds., Encyclopedia of Geology (Elsevier, 2005): 436-43; Sarah Wilson and April Windle, “Lichen,” Roots and All 153, podcast (April 4, 2022):
  27. Sheldrake: 85-6; Field Museum, “Lichens Are Way Younger than Scientists Thought,” Science Daily (November 15, 2019):
  28. Leopoldo G. Sancho, Ana Pintado, and T.G. Allan Green, “Antarctic Studies Show Lichens to be Excellent Biomonitors of Climate Change,” Diversity 11 (2019).
  29. Jack Tamisiea, “Lichens Could Need More Than a Million Years to Adapt to Climate Change,” Scientific American (February 15, 2022):
  30. David K. Leff, “Time Made Visible,” David K. Leff (December 31, 2021):
  31. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (Vintage Books, 1994).
  32. Drew Milne, “Lichen / Unlichen,” from Lichen for Marxists, Cambridge Literary Review (Summer 2017): 84.
  33. Drew Milne, “Lichen / Unlichen,” from Lichen for Marxists, Cambridge Literary Review (Summer 2017): 89. The final sentence in the essay reminds me of Ken Liu’s “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species,” Lightspeed 27 (August 2012), where he imagines a diminutive species known as the Caru’ee, who aquire old, outmoded books from other socieites, and use these books, “now devoid of meaning, as a blank space upon which to construct their sophisticated baroque cities.” Although in the cemetery, these stone books are not devoid of meaning – even if their subject matter is obsolete – and the “baroque cities” our Caru’ee / lichen build on the books’ pages are a form of concrete poetry that has the potential to carry meaning for their human readers. Thanks to Jonathan Zong for the reference.