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Lichen Lover Isn't Liking What He Sees

May 02, 2004|Paul Pringle | Times Staff Writer

Kerry Knudsen's higher calling keeps him low to the ground.

He bellies up to crumbling boulders and roots among the decay of fallen trees, just to get nose-close to something on the order of mold or slime.

"Beautiful," Knudsen said.

The object of his affection: lichens. The former construction worker is a self-taught lichenologist, a specialty that makes him one of the world's rarest and least-heralded breeds of botanist, amateur or otherwise.

Knudsen's fixation is a complex, little-understood union of a fungus and an alga or bacterium, symbiotically sharing the same body. His devotion to the peculiar organisms is revealing much about the environmental health of Southern California and many regions like it.

So far, the news isn't good.

"People should be worried," said Knudsen, 53, as he climbed a steep, sandstone-ribbed trail in the Santa Monica Mountains, huffing and puffing in search of lichens hardy enough to survive near the city. "People breathe the air down there."

Most lichens are tiny and grow in patches on rock and concrete, bark and dirt, but only where the air is clean.

And though they carpet the earth in climes as harsh as the Arctic, lichens have virtually vanished from the flatlands in the Los Angeles region, and appear to be succumbing on the surrounding slopes -- largely because of smog.

"There definitely were lichens all over this area," Knudsen said, pausing on a dusty ridge, a sea breeze at his back. "They're gone now."

In their time of distress, these ancient building blocks of nature -- lichens play a role in everything from soil creation to bird nesting -- have few modern-day defenders, the folks who consider them canaries in the mine of urban air quality.

Two lichens (pronounced LIKE-ens) rate a place on the federal list of endangered species, but scientists say hundreds more might be imperiled. Left unprotected are the colorful, pencil-point blooms, along with the jumbo varieties of lichens that hang in ribbons from backcountry oaks.

Hikers can easily mistake smaller, centuries-old lichens for blotches of moss. Even conservationists overlook them.

"Have we studied them? No," said Rorie Skei, a deputy director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.

From coast to coast, all that lichens have in their corner is the handful of crusaders such as Knudsen, a husky man who wears his hair long and wild, a holdover from his counterculture youth.

His lack of formal training has not denied him the standing of a government-recognized expert, which is further confirmation of lichens' orphan status. The name itself is a slight; "lichen" derives from the Greek for "wart."

"They're not economically important," said Andrew Sanders, curator of the herbarium at UC Riverside, where Knudsen is assembling a lichen collection. "They're not crops, they're not weeds.... People kind of ignore them."

So do the check writers for research grants, Sanders added.

"Scientists go where the money is, and there's no money in lichens," Sanders said. "We're still finding species. We're still in the frontier. It's like 150 years ago for other species."

That's why Knudsen, someone willing to toil in the field for free, is prized by degree-holding lichenologists. He already has discovered several species, and hopes to compile a flora -- a descriptive guide -- of the Southern California lichens spared by tailpipes and smokestacks.

"He's at a very high professional level, doing high-caliber work," Sanders said.

Knudsen lives with his wife and their two daughters in Wildomar, located in the foothills of southwest Riverside County. He limped away from his construction career 10 years ago because of a blood-clot disorder that afflicts his legs. The boredom of early retirement, and a hobbyist's fascination with botany, led him to lichens.

"Wildomar's a lichen hot spot," he said. "One day, I walked out into my backyard and said to myself, 'There's either going to be moss or lichens here, and the first one I find I'm going to study.' I found lichens."

He told that story as he scoured the canyons of the San Jacinto Mountains, hunting for lichens 6,000 feet above the Coachella Valley. Joining him was Cecilia Reed, a National Forest Service resource specialist who is Knudsen's pupil when it comes to lichens.

"I never really got into them until I started hanging out with Kerry," Reed said, as she drove a Ford Explorer along an unpaved road, bouncing over tooth-loosening ruts.

"The Letharia we're going to see up here is about the biggest I've ever seen," Knudsen said, referring to one of the roughly 300 species of lichen thought to reside in the San Jacintos. "Letharia wouldn't do well in downtown L.A."

But there would be no Letharia sightings this afternoon. The road had become impassable, buried under a wheel-spinning blanket of spring snow.

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