Several years ago I came across an illustration by Mary Parrish depicting an organism called Prototaxites (pronounced pro-toe-tax-eye-tees). This twenty-foot-tall creature lived from approximately 420 million years ago to 350 million years ago. It literally dominated the first LANDscapes as the largest organism of its day. It shared dry land with a few rootless and leafless, simple plants with rigid, water-conducting stems. Tiny arthropods, like millipedes, speck-sized wingless insects, and mites fed and lived on these plants, as well as on lichens—the symbiotic union of fungi and algae. Various worm species also found niches within plants and in the soil.
Although Prototaxites fossils have been studied for only a century, scientists could never confidently identify them. Some thought it to be a conifer. Others concluded it was some form of lichen, fungus, or algae. In 2007, a team of scientists published a chemical analysis in Geology (published by the Geological Society of America) that indicated that Prototaxites was some form of fungus. Apparently, this fungus could achieve monster proportions because it had no fungus-eating neighbors up to the task of munching it down to size.
I decided to try to recreate a version of this bioscape for myself. I imagined a dramatic, sunset sky and a pillar of fungus coated in lichens, much like those that flourish on rocks today. Perhaps lichens could not have found enough minerals to make a living on these unusual creatures, but who knows? Life is quite good at exploiting relationships with other forms of life. In fact, as I pointed out in an article for Colorado Gardener Magazine entitled “Lichens & the Hidden Architecture of the Living World,” (http://digital.publicationprinters.com/publication/?i=39618) today’s world of large, complex organisms is really a biological montage of living creatures, most of them microscopic. Nine in ten cells in the human body, for example, are actually microbes of one variety or another.
I still enjoy contemplating this painting, which is usually a good sign that I’ve created something with some kind of emotional content. It’s good to remember that the world we live in is just a freeze frame of life in constant motion and evolution. Our planet is a 4.6 billion year work in progress.
This painting will also be displayed at the State Museum of New York, in Albany in the Focus On Nature II exhibition from April through December of 2012.