Find Your Fungus

After a week of interpretive training plus another two weeks of prep work and shadowing the more experienced rangers, I’m excited to lead my own programs. Though similar to the school lessons I’ve done with the education department in many ways, there are a few things about interpretation that will take a little getting used to.

First, interpretive programs don’t have a set curriculum. Kids come to us with school groups and we try to impart a particular set of knowledge to everyone in the group, no matter who leads the lesson. In contrast, I get to talk about whatever I want on an interpretive program. As long as I can tie it all together with a common theme, which brings me to the second difference.

We’re not necessarily here to teach people about the park so much as help them experience it. Obviously, it’s great if they learn a few things about the natural resources while they’re here, but it’s more important that visitors feel a connection to the park. For example:

Lichens are a mutualistic symbiosis between a mycobiont (a fungus) and a phytobiont (an algae or cyanobacteria or both). They are some of the first organisms that colonize the bare rock left behind by a retreating glacier. The fungus breaks down rock into nutrients, which it transfers to the phytobiont. In return, the phytobiont perform photosynthesis and provide the fungus with carbohydrates for energy.

Great. So what?

Lichen colonizing a rock at Exit Glacier.

Lichen colonizing a rock at Exit Glacier.
Photo: NPS / Max Odland

Now let’s say I have a theme about lessons we can learn from nature:

Lichens not only persist, but also flourish in some of the harshest, most barren places on the planet. They can only do this through an extraordinary amount of cooperation between two (or three) drastically different partners, each nurturing the other where they would likely die on their own. We all go through harsh, barren points in life. Next time you find yourself in one, try to find your fungus. (Or algae. Or cyanobacteria.).

Which one made you care more about lichens?

Honestly, my head has been spinning a bit with all the pieces of information I want to include, the interpretive techniques I’m trying to remember, and tying everything together with a theme. In spite of that, I’m really excited to try this out tomorrow and the next day.

I’ve walked the trails, chosen stopping points, and my theme is taking root like the mycobiont in a lichen. Bring it on, summer.

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