By Jess Morton

It’s the color of these tiny growths that grabs the eye. Makes one look closely to examine how these orange disks seem to pull their yellow frames away from the dead wood of the twig to which they cling. Clustered suns. Golden chalices. Lichens!

Lichens are everywhere here on the mesa above Punta Colonet in Baja California. They seem to occupy every rock. Patches of yellow, gray, orange, brown, red spread across stone or make cushions on the soil. Plantlike, gray green “leaves” and tangled filaments press upward from stone, earth, wood. All lichens. And in a wider variety than I have ever seen before.

But best are these sunburst lichens. Xanthoria polycarpa at a guess, or a species very much like it. I see only a few, but each is exquisite in its own way, like a fabulous ring worn on some ancient finger. Life burning brightly, even in the least of things.

From the top of the cliffs, I look down to the waves rushing onto the rocky shore 100 meters below. Then my eye sweeps southeastward across the bay to the distant, seemingly unoccupied shore and hills miles away. But I know those hills are not pristine, like this mesa, and that change is coming to the region.

A great port is planned in the bay here, 150 or so miles south of the border. Farming and grazing are increasing, despite the lack of water. But the mesa on which I stand still holds to its native ecosystem. A rich assortment of coastal scrub habitats, vernal pools and succulent assemblies. Perhaps the richest assortment of Mediterranean-type habitats left on the West Coast.

Preserving this mesa is important for the conservation of North American biodiversity. Acquisition is one part of this, and our partner organization in Baja California, Terra Peninsular, is working on this end of things. But it will also be necessary to see that development, especially if a port comes here, is done in an ecologically sound manner. Lichens are known to be extremely sensitive to air pollution. And ports until now have not proven to be clean air friendly.

For now, the lichens thrive on the mesa. Along with a wonderful array of cactus, succulents, shrubs and wildflowers. I hope that this land can be acquired, that development can be done intelligently, and that future generations can come here to search for—and find—this lovely little sunburst.