The Fourth River

Essay: “Something that Loves a Wall,” by Margot Anne Kelley

By on June 19, 2016

From The Fourth River, Issue 12


The boundary is that from which something
begins its essential unfolding. — Heidegger

Lengths of the rough, graying wood ring a small paddock that separates two lumbering, gentle horses from the rest of the world. On the rails, Kay points to at least half a dozen distinct colonies of lichen. She names them, the Latin tumbling effortlessly off her tongue—Cladonia cristatella and Cladonia pyxidata, Evernia prunastri, Usnea, Tuckermannopsis, Hypnogymnia phsyodes.

Kay writes the “biodiversity column” for the community newspaper, and has volunteered to teach me and Barbara a bit about lichen. Their proper names mean nothing to me yet, so I cling to their more common counterparts: “British soldiers” are tipped in brilliant red, “old man’s beard” dangles in a wispy, tangled mesh, “pixie cups” rise like tiny golf tees.

As I peer at the patch of Evernia, trying to come up with some trait that will help me give it a name that I can know it by, I hear Barbara telling Kay a mnemonic she learned as a child. “When Freddy Fungus met Alice Algae,” she recites, “they took a lichen to each other.”

Nodding, Kay begins to explain that lichen are not a single thing; they aren’t even a single species. They are a relationship, a combo composed of algae and fungus living together symbiotically. She says that fungi are like humans, in that neither can convert carbon directly into a form that can be used for energy. But algae can. What algae cannot do is grow roots or leaves, which makes them rather fragile, especially on land. So pairing up with fungi, which have extremely strong cell walls, protects the algae—who, in turn, feed the fungus.

I already know this about lichen, but feel rewarded for listening quietly when Kay shows us two patches of the same species—one atop a rock in the sun, the other enshrouded in shade. The shadier one glows emerald green, while the other is dull. The one protected from direct sun is still full of water from the week’s rain, and Kay explains that we are seeing through the fungus to the algae, which is so luminous because it is still making food.

It is startlingly beautiful.


The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas proposed that the definition of beauty is “a splendor that spreads unbeknown to the radiating being.”[1]


Algae and fungi have been teaming up like this for at least 400 million years, and are hugely successful. They can live in all kinds of places that others find completely inhospitable and can survive for long, long periods. Yet their genomes have not seen fit to combine, so they have not become a single entity. I can’t imagine what they are waiting for.



Fig. 45.—Forms of lichens. A, a branch with lichens growing upon it, one-half natural size. B, Usnea, natural size. ap. spore fruit. C, Sticta, one-half natural size. D, Peltigera, one-half natural size. ap. spore fruit. E, a single spore fruit, × 2. F, Cladonia, natural size. G, a piece of bark from a beech, with a crustaceous lichen (Graphis) growing upon it, × 2. ap. spore fruit. H, Soredium of a lichen, × 300.[2]


Nearly all the lichen that Kay has pointed out have been on the paddock fence or on the remnants of old stone walls that thread through the adjacent woodlands. I blame those walls for the fact that I can’t get Robert Frost’s famous poem out of my head, the one in which he describes a man and his neighbor meeting each spring to repair the stone wall that marks their property line. Over the winter, frost heaves, hunters, and other miscreants topple some of the carefully stacked rocks. And so the two men fix it, even though it isn’t really needed. “There where it is we do not need a wall:” the narrator says, for “He is all pine and I am apple orchard. / My apple trees will never get across/And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him./He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’”

The speaker imagines saying even more:

“Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?’
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.”

Later, the text before me, I find I’d remembered only half of the poem. I had completely forgotten that it’s the narrator who makes a point of calling his neighbor to meet to do the work each year, the narrator who insists that he and his inscrutable neighbor collaborate on un-downing the wall.


Love (n.), from the Old English lufu “love, affection, friendliness,” from Proto-Germanic *lubo (cf. Old High German liubi “joy,” German Liebe “love;” Old Norse, Old Frisian, Dutch lof; German Lob “praise;” Old Saxon liof, Old Frisian liaf, Dutch lief, Old High German liob, German lieb, Gothic liufs “dear, beloved”).[3]


Our old house had stone walls along one side and across the back of the lot. When I was in my late-30s, I repaired them one summer with just a shovel and a pry bar. It was decidedly heavy, sweaty work. But it was work that could be done by a not-particularly-strong woman all by herself. Granted, the part I rebuilt didn’t look as good as the stretch that hadn’t toppled, but the stones were still in place when we moved a few years later.

We didn’t need our wall mended any more than Frost’s crusty neighbors did. I rebuilt it not to keep anything in or out, nor to make up an excuse to see a neighbor I might not talk to otherwise. I re-built it for the pleasure of the work, to see if I could do it. And because a well-made wall can be a beautiful thing.


When Barbara and I walk in the daisy fields beyond the meadow, the horses warily gather the distance, keep us at bay. But here, as we examine the lichen on the split rail fence, they accept our scratches behind their chin grooves. The fence makes us less threatening somehow.

The horses grow quite comfortable, start nuzzling our palms, looking for treats we hadn’t thought to bring. They are “pet horses.” I’m sure that’s not the right term. But what I mean is that they do not pull a plow, or carry a rider, or otherwise serve the woman who gives them care. They are more like friends.


Beyond their paddock is another fence. Two dogs live in the white house that goes with this meadow, and their humans have rimmed the yard with an “invisible fence” that keeps them penned. But Santo, a bearish old golden, runs its length so often he’s worn the grass flat. Though we can’t see the fence, we know exactly where it must be, his tattered trail like the photons that offer evidence of otherwise indiscernible particles.

Split rail and invisible, the two were put in place by people to keep their animals, to keep their animals safe. But boundary became a destination, the dividing line an invitation.


I like this. I want to say I’ve misunderstood fences and walls all my life, that—apparently—most of us have. I want to say they’re meant to bring near what would otherwise remain apart, that the neighbor was far wiser than he gets credit for, that Santo’s got it right.

But the soldiers lining the Korean DMZ, the checkpoints along the Israel Palestine Wall, the still fresh memories of the Berlin Wall, the predator drones now flying the length of the Mexico-US border make it all too clear why we regard walls as rending, not mending.

Still, it seems like Santo and the horses are onto something. As are the lichen. An intrepid array dapple the stone walls and paddock fence, the particolored colonies divvying up these narrow borderlines into expansive places to build a life.

And within the lichen themselves, the fungal cell walls, meant to keep all but self safely out, admit algae to the inner sanctum. These are walls that do not repulse, that offer hospitality instead. They create an unlikely home ground, a safe haven. A that from whence.


The woman who cares for the horses sees us lingering by the fence, comes out to say hello. Even before she has spoken, the horses turn, all attention, and lope in her direction. I see her pleasure in scruffing their necks and faces, think I see their pleasure in being roughly caressed by her.


Horses, like dogs, are considered “companion species.” They are companions not just because people live with and care for them, but because we evolved together in ways that go far beyond humans using them. They’ve affected our evolutionary trajectory and we theirs, so much so that none of us would be who we are now had the others not been around.


Wild horses flourished in North America for millions of years, and then, at the end of the last Ice Age, they all went extinct. Exactly why is the subject of debate, but the likely culprits were climate change and human folly. Weapon-wielding humans were newly arrived on the continent, and evidence suggests our ancestors so overhunted the horses that they killed them off.

Fortunately for horses everywhere, some early humans in Eurasia recognized the benefit of driving and riding horses rather than (well, in addition to) eating them, and began domesticating them.


As someone who does not live with a horse or a dog, I don’t spend a huge amount of time thinking about how, precisely, they helped make me what I am today. But some researchers do. And one particularly stunning hypothesis is that we humans developed the kind of love we now find central to our very being because our ancestors learned it from the canids they lived near.

Some background: Like chimps and monkeys and baboons and such, humans are primates. And in all species of primates, mothers love their children. There’s little evidence, though, that females in other primate species love their children’s fathers. Or that those fathers love their children. But by and large, we humans do—or at least we say we want to. Romantic love and paternal love may be fraught and complicated, may even be illusions, but they are part of our human way of being. Which means that somewhere between the savannah and Park Slope, something shifted, causing humans to evolve differently, love-wise, than apes and chimps.

Ronald Immerman and Wade Mackey, two social scientists, have an idea what it might have been: they propose that our female ancestors saw in canids a good model for choosing a partner. Humans have been living companionably with canids—the biological family that dogs and wolves and fox and such belong to—for tens of thousands of years. Therefore our ancestors would have had ample chance to see that adult male canids (unlike most adult male primates) are very good about sharing food with their mates and offspring, and at playing with their children. Immerman and Mackey suggest that “female choice of mating partner shifted in the direction of a canid analogue in which men’s motivations to share resources with the female and to exhibit paternalistic behaviors were positively selected.”[4]

Translation: lady proto-dogs picked mates who brought them great dinners and got on well with kids. Our human ancestors, recognizing a good thing when they saw it, copied them. And out of those modest beginnings grew “true love.”


Or, as Donna Haraway so eloquently said: “All that is, is the fruit of becoming with.”[5]

How easy it would be to slip quickly past that with. But I want to linger. For it seems to hold a clue to the complicated nature of walls. This with is Santo’s, is the horse’s, is the lichen’s, is Frost’s speaker’s. It is the acknowledgement that to be is to be with, the recognition of on-going, absolutely integral adjacency.

I know this with has something to do with love, whatever its origin might have been. Know too that that something is fugitive, slippery.


I have, from time to time, declared my love for lichen. But that is a lie. I don’t love lichen; I love the idea of lichen. I love that they have made it work, have solved problems we humans struggle to work out via love or legislation without benefit of either, have figured out how to live practically anywhere, to survive terrible conditions, to endure until they can thrive. I admire lichen, quite possibly envy them. But strictly speaking, I don’t love them.

At least I am pretty sure I don’t. But like its ancient origins, contemporary love has become an object of scientific scrutiny. So I suppose it would be possible to find out for sure. Helen Fisher, Bianca Acevedo, and others in the emerging field of affective neuroscience want to know what, precisely, happens in a love-soaked brain. And they’ve found some answers. Love happens in lots of parts of the brain (and body), but one of the observations that particularly intrigued them was that romantic, passionate love “recruit[s]” the “mesolimbic dopamine system, which mediates reward and motivation.”[6]

No wonder passionate, romantic love feels like a drug; it is one—all consuming, wildly addictive, wonderful when it isn’t terrible.


Looking at it, you’d be hard pressed to guess all the trouble and joy dopamine can get us into :


But it turns out that its capacity for molecular strong bonds is part of what ensures our capacity for emotional ones.


Of course, dopamine isn’t the only drug involved. Romantic love also hijacks the chemistry of motherhood. Not to take all the lusty fun out of it, but researchers pretty much agree that the big reason passionate romantic love involves such an intense “‘desire for union with another’”[7] is because it has borrowed the chemistry set the brain uses to consolidate the bond between mother and child—primarily oxytocin. Oxytocin is incredibly potent; it fuels “a fusion in which the self feels so permeable it doesn’t matter whose body is whose.”[8] Under its influence, we are awash with the sense of being neither two nor one, but something else again. And we dig it. A lot.


But we cannot remain in the in-between. Mothers must let their children grow and go. Lovers must wriggle back into their own skins.

And right there, in the necessary schism, Levinas locates love: “the very value of love is the impossibility of reducing the other to myself, of coinciding into sameness. From an ethical perspective, two have a better time than one!”[9]


Which, come to think of it, is precisely what lichen managed to figure out 400 million years ago.



[1] Levinas, Emmanuel. Totality and Infinity (English trans), p. 200

[2] The Project Gutenberg EBook of Elements of Structural and Systematic Botany, by Douglas Houghton Campbell, p. 75


[4] Immerman, Ronald, and Wade Mackey, “Perspectives on long-term attachment (pair bonding): Eve’s unique legacy of a canine analogue.” Evolutionary Psychology, 2003.1: 138-154.

[5] Donna Haraway, When Species Meet.

[6] BP Aceveda, et al., “Neural correlates of long-term intense romantic love”

[7] BP Acevedo, et al., “Neural correlates of long-term intense romantic love”

[8]Diane Ackerman, “The Brain on Love,” New York Times, March 24, 2012.

[9] Levinas, Face to Face (English trans), p. 22



Margot Anne Kelley’s is a writer and photographer whose projects focus on the connections between people and places. Her books include Local Treasures: Geocaching across America, A Field Guide to Other People’s Trees, and The Meadow (a collaboration with photographer Barbara Bosworth, in which this essay appears). She is currently working on a book about back-to-the-landers, homesteaders, and contemporary farmers in Maine.