Orchill gatherers at the precipice of a sky island

Harvesting high quality lichens was no easy job in the 17th and 18th century, these dye species belong often to the genera of Ochrolercheria and Roccella.

There were others species from other genera used in northern and west Europe from the 14th century, but they were scares and smaller which made their collection not profitable in large scale.

A lichen is a symbiotic organism of mostly fungus and algae, there are countless species of lichens and they are found everywhere in the world where the sun shines with exception of the poles.

The best known lichens specie of the was Roccella tinctoria DC., it grows on cliffs in the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts. The colorants obtained from this lichen, Orchill,  is not light fast, so its use had been forbidden for centuries within dyer guilds, in objects such as carpets and tapestries.

Being forbidden, made this dyestuff somehow irresistible to artists, for they are found to be used in different museum objects. The reason for their use, despite their restriction, could also have been the ease in which changing the hue from red/violet to purple was done; this by only changing the acidity of the dye bath.

Scraping lichens from the rocks suspended in the precipice with nothing but rope, a scraper and a basket was indeed risky business. The Cliff of the Fallen on Santa Maria Island enjoys this name because of countless accidents that occurred to the gatherers of these desired lichens. The gathering of lichens was so intensive that it almost took the species to extinction.

Ethnolichenological studies claim that there is a long during relationship between lichens and humans, not only for dyeing but also for food, medicine, poisoning, embalming and helping to monitor air quality. Lichens are extremely sensitive to environmental stress, especially concerning atmospheric pollution, eutrophication, and climate change.

The splendid plateau of tepuis in South America is mother of thousands of lichens species. A tepui is completely isolated from the ground forest, making them ecological islands. The altitude causes them to have a different climate from the ground forest.

The top presents cool temperatures with frequent rainfall, while the bases of the mountains have a tropical, warm and humid climate. The isolation has led to the presence of endemic flora and fauna through evolution over millennia of a different world of animal and plants, cut off from the rest of the world by the imposing rock walls.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s book, The Lost World is about an expedition to this plateau in the basin where prehistoric animals still survived. However if one is looking for dinosaurs, they are probably wasting their time, because the claw of evolution is unforgiving. Plants that are trapped in this sky islands, like mount Roraima, are doomed because the hard mountain rock soil is poor in nutrients and this is why most plants here, evolved carnivorous by eating insects and small amphibians in order to absorb the minerals they need to survived. Also many lichens are present by the million in this sky island and most of them are still not even studied at present.

How hazardous would this vertical cliffs be to lichen gatherers of the 17th century? I not sure but I am up for the challenge.

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