Recently, I had to replace our mail box. The wooden box in the shape of a house and more than 50 years old was on life support, held together with caulk and an assortment of mismatched screws. More than once I'm pretty sure I got a “look” from the letter carrier indicating that a new box was past due.
Before I tore the remains of the wood from the old box, I gingerly removed one of the roof slats to preserve it. For more than a dozen years, the lichen growing on this rotting wood had made me smile each time I collected the post.
You can see why from the photo. This red-tipped lichen goes by many names: match heads, matchsticks, Bengal matches, the devil's matches, and my favorite, gritty British soldiers.
While I certainly like the colors and shapes of the lichen, what makes me smile is its persistence over a dozen years of heat, drought, rain, snow, sleet, ice, hail, and temperatures well below freezing.
It has survived many schoolchildren careening down the sidewalk and several times when I grabbed the box and held on, clumsily trying to get the mail while negotiating a snow bank.
No matter what the circumstances, it was always there to greet me, colorful and seemingly indestructible. A survivor.
While photographing the lichen taken from the mailbox, I was reminded of words often but mistakenly cited as the motto of the US Postal Service. The familiar words are cut into the granite facade of Manhattan's James Farley Post Office, built in 1912:
Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.
(Free trivia: These words are a pretty good translation of the ancient Greek historian, Herodotus, in the 5th century B.C. describing the marvels of a Persian system for delivering important messages. Mark Twain used similar words to describe the Pony Express in 1877.)
The rotting mailbox, the lichen, and the words cut into granite came together as I framed the picture: survive, persist, prevail, endure, and while at it, give someone a reason to smile.
I am not an extraordinary person. I've had my share of trials, but who hasn't? I lost my twelve-year-old son to cancer, had cancer myself, had an accident that limited my walking ability for life. But these are not uncommon; they pale compared to the horror and tragedy that many of the Earth's inhabitants have endured and continue to endure. I am a most blessed person compared to many.
Rain, snow, heat and gloom of night do not deter the lichen. It isn't just surviving. As it survives, it also contributes beauty and marvel. It catches my eye and makes me smile. It gently reminds me not only to persist but also to bring some good to the world around me.
In his tale, “The Naval Treaty.” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle jars the reader when Sherlock Holmes, at a tense moment, plucks a flower from an arrangement and delivers a very uncharacteristic soliloquy about, of all things, religion:
"Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its colour are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers."
For me, the lichen on our old mailbox is “an embellishment of life,” beauty as well as survival. My task, I think, is to find ways to be an embellishment in the “appointed rounds” of my life, to find hope in and to bring a measure of goodness to others from the circumstances of daily life.
Thoughts? Leave a comment.
P.S. The lichen is doing quite well in it’s new spot as it continues to spread about the remains of my old mailbox.
50 years of photographs and 35 years of keeping a commonplace book.