Orbital View: A Great Place to Feel Small

I recently wrote about my hometown, Portland, Oregon. Here’s a shot of my other home, New York City:

A photo posted by Tim Peake (@astro_timpeake) on

“These little town blues,” as astronaut Tim Peake puns in his caption, describe the smallness of the city from space as well as referencing Frank Sinatra’s classic. As Peake notes, the left side of this photo is north, and Manhattan is the island in the middle. That big green rectangle is Central Park, of course, but the city’s iconic buildings are hardly visible. At this distance, the city of 8.4 million people looks to me like nothing so much as the lichens I found growing on rocks and tree bark while hiking with my family back in the Pacific Northwest—a very different environment from the paved and polished city I now know.

And yet, for a city like New York, lichens are a fitting metaphor. They’re composite organisms, as Wikipedia explains:

A lichen … arises from algae or cyanobacteria (or both) living among filaments of a fungus in a symbiotic relationship. The combined life form has properties that are very different from the properties of its component organisms. … Lichens are abundant growing on bark, leaves, mosses, on other lichens, and hanging from branches “living on thin air” ... They grow on bare rock, walls, gravestones, roofs, exposed soil surfaces, and in the soil as part of a biological soil crust. Different kinds of lichens have adapted to survive in some of the most extreme environments on Earth. … They are relatively self-contained miniature ecosystems in and of themselves.

That’s New York to me: an ecosystem made up of overlapping life forms, something greater than the sum of its parts and its people. It’s the harshest place I’ve ever been, and also the most fertile. When I came to New York for college, like so many people before me, I was thrilled by the city’s crowds and constant activity, and also overwhelmed by them. I felt small, anonymous, insignificant, invisible. And I felt alive, swept up in the bloodstream of something greater than myself.

Maybe lichens are the consummate New Yorkers—unassuming, abundant, tenacious. Above all, they survive, and they transform themselves and each other. They are, as poet Jane Hirshfield writes in our April 2011 issue:

chemists of air,
changers of nitrogen-unusable into nitrogen-usable. …

Transformers unvalued, uncounted.
Cell by cell, word by word, making a world they could live in.

(See all Orbital Views here)