On our hike this past week we found our attention captured by a tree that had mostly been taken over by lichen. This is a fairly unusual sight in the desert, where lichen is generally confined to rocks. However, this particular tree appeared to be losing its life to the lichen infestation; large portions of its branches were completely encased in lichen and had died off. As we walked a bit further, we realized that this tree was not alone; there was quite a bit of lichen, and even moss, growing on several other trees in the area.
A dozen feet further on, we encountered this patch of ferns. Ferns are not typical desert dwellers; they require a lot more moisture than the standard desert environment provides. Yet here they were, clearly thriving on this north-facing slope of a desert hillside. They might not have caught our attention if we hadn’t already noticed that this particular area was not covered in the usual dried grasses, scrub oak, and cactus that usually grows here.
So how are these ferns surviving in the desert? We hypothesized that they had found an agreeable microclimate. In addition to being on a north-facing slope, where moisture would evaporate more slowly and winter snows linger longer, they have settled into a stony area that would be prone to channeling runoff from our infrequent rains. The ferns are also being shaded by the larger scrub oaks growing above them—although the amount of lichen on these trees would seem to indicate that relying on this shade is not a wise long-term plan!
All of this got me thinking about “water in the desert,” which is often used as a Lenten metaphor for sustenance in the midst of the Lenten journey. As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, Jesus went out into the desert wilderness to deepen and strengthen his relationship with God as he began his ministry. We are invited to follow this same pattern—figuratively, if not always literally—each Lenten season. When we go into our metaphorical deserts, we have no idea what will sustain us, or where the spiritual water is to be found. We need to pay attention to the signs around us, indicating where precious moisture is hiding. This “fern farm,” as my friend called it, was one such place on our desert journey.
Where are you finding evidence of spiritual moisture in your Lenten desert journey?