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Shedding Light on Lichens

Samuel Hammer

Lichens of North America. Irwin M. Brodo, Sylvia Duran Sharnoff and Stephen Sharnoff. xxiv + 795 pp. Yale University Press, 2001. $69.95.

My impressions of the newly released Lichens of North America are mixed. The book is foremost an exquisite collection of color photographs of lichens, a technically splendid catalogue that will not soon be matched. The photographs reflect the passionate care that Stephen Sharnoff and the late Sylvia Duran Sharnoff devoted to the project; happily, the wonder and diversity of lichens are there for the viewing on page after page.

<em>Aspicilia candida</em> . . .Click to Enlarge Image

Lichens, neglected and misunderstood despite their ubiquity, are brought out of obscurity in this volume. The photographs, unmatched in any previous work, breathe life into these unusual, stunningly beautiful symbiotic communities. The authors are to be praised for the accessible, informative visual masterpiece they have served up. The images invite the reader to appreciate, to touch, even to smell the lichens. Visually, the book is a resounding success.

Part One consists of more than 100 pages of introductory information (what lichens are and how they are built, how they reproduce and grow, and their chemistry, substrates, ecosystems, geographic distribution and human uses). Part Two lists species alphabetically and includes along with a photograph of the species a brief description of it and a map showing its distribution. The authors acknowledge that this section is taxonomically selective.

This <em>Usnea cirrosa</em> (sundew beard lichen) . . .Click to Enlarge Image

The book's succinct discussions of lichen morphology, chemistry, classification, biogeography and reproduction will whet the curiosity of beginning students but are likely to leave more advanced scholars high and dry, since much of the text consists of material that has been amply covered in recent introductory volumes. And notably, most of the recent works from which the authors have drawn provide a more complete bibliography than the work at hand. The abbreviated bibliography found at the back of the book (no references are cited in the text) offers little in the way of new literature and omits many of the contributions of the past decade or so (although more extensive bibliographies are among its listings). It is also inconsistent. For example, the chapter on the geography of North American lichens offers fewer than 10 references, although dozens more were presumably consulted. This unwarranted brevity is defended with the rationalization that the references are general. But one has to ask whether the inclusion of the master's thesis on the lichens of Fundy National Park by a former student of one of the authors (Irwin Brodo) is appropriate for a "general" bibliography. The fact that many publications consulted for the work are not listed in the bibliography leaves the reader disappointed instead of encouraged.

The book gives the impression of having been published for an amateur audience, one that may be more concerned with style than with substance. In places, it is condescending. Perhaps the authors intended to make lichens more accessible to beginners by skimming past the difficulties of botanical nomenclature, providing instead a list of "common names" for the species. In truth, very few of the introduced names were taken from common or folk sources. Instead, the authors creatively coined names for most of the lichens; these are colorful and in some cases descriptive, but they are also anthropomorphic and often overly cute. Their use suggests a level of discomfort with botanical nomenclature, or at least a reluctance to shepherd readers through its rough parts.

Unfortunately, these problems render Lichens of North America less a serious scientific contribution than a lovingly crafted collection of photos. Its too-selective bibliography and the rewarming of a number of old lichen illustrations (some of which were previously redrawn from even earlier sources) prevent it from attaining the level of scientific relevance one would have wished for. Still, for the libraries of undergraduate students and for an apparently growing audience of amateur lichenologists, the book will provide a good reference, or at least a starting point. Too large to take into the field, this handsome volume will nevertheless find a place in many lichenological venues, from classrooms to laboratories. It is sure to delight the eye of anyone who opens it. It may indeed inspire further nature study. And at just shy of $70, the book is a real bargain.

For better or for worse, and probably for the better, Lichens of North America will soon take its place as the foremost introductory text to the lichens of this continent. In spite of its shortcomings, and because of its strengths, it will also find a place on the shelves and in the laboratories of lichenologists around the world.-Samuel Hammer, College of General Studies, Boston University

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