If our species does not survive the ecological crisis, it will probably be due to our failure to imagine and work out new ways to live with the earth, to rework ourselves and our high energy, high-consumption, and hyper-instrumental societies adaptively.

Val Plumwood (2007)

Thinking with thrombolites

A part of the complex entangled multispecies community
of Lake Clifton, with the thrombolites in the lake just
visible through the trees. The season is Bunuru –
the time of white flowers (some of the paperbarks close
to the shore are flowering), and hot dry winds.

In formal education, extinction is often studied as a distant historical event, of dinosaurs and dodos. But human activity is making ecological endangerment and species extinction commonplace events of children’s lives and communities.

Thinking with Thrombolites brings children to a unique extinction story. As living monuments to the earliest forms of life on planet earth, the thrombolites are endangered by increased salinity and the receding shoreline that exposes them to thirst. As the rainfall in the south-west region decreases, the life of the surviving thrombolites is rendered precarious. There is no hope for the large swathe of already deadened thrombolite reef on the eastern edge.

Are thrombolites disposable in a world of extinction? To humans, thrombolites may seem to be insignificant; for some, merely a photo opportunity for Instagram as they travel south or north looking out for stunning colours and compositions that might accrue ‘likes’. But as we have seen, thrombolites are infinitely connected to their environment; an environment that extends to birds that visit from the other side of the world. This reminds us that a local extinction is a global event.

In the face of the sixth mass extinction there is an “unprecedented looking away” (Haraway, 2016, p. 35). There is denial and indifference. Our research project uses Lake Clifton as a pedagogical space to look towards loss and extinction. Our aim is to explore with children the meaning, consequences and complexity of extinction in a specific site, including why the loss of species matters and the ways humans might respond (Rose, van Dooren, & Chrulew, 2017, p. 3). We heed the provocations of extinction studies scholar Thom van Dooren’s (2014) when he asks:

“What is lost when a species, an evolutionary lineage, a way of life, passes from the world? What does this loss mean within the particular multispecies community in which it occurs: a community of humans and nonhumans, of the living and the dead? How might we think through the complex place of human life at this time: simultaneously, a/the central cause of these extinctions; an agent of conservation; and organisms, like any other, exposed to the precariousness of changing environments? Ultimately, this … is concerned with broad questions of ethics. What kinds of … relationships are possible at the edge of extinction? What does it mean to care for a disappearing species? What obligation do we have to hold open space in the world for other living beings?” (2014, pp. 4-5)

Humans who have failed to care for the nonhuman environment can no longer avoid extinction and its effects. By cultivating attentiveness to the complex and entangled worlds of the living, dying and non-living, we are enjoined to develop sensibilities involving practices of care and responsibility for earthbound others, including disappearing species. By exploring and talking we might invent new ways to think our worlds, and thereby forge new ways of living for ‘multispecies flourishing’. The following documents some of the children’s encounters with Lake Clifton and the thrombolites.

Children tuning in

An uninterrupted view of the ‘living rocks’
as the children sit and lie with them.

After the children reach the crop of thrombolites along the boardwalk at Lake Clifton, they crouch, arching their necks under the wooden handrails and over the edge. With uninterrupted views of the thrombolites, their eyes peer down curiously at the ‘living rocks’ that sit patiently in their own time, as they have done for centuries. The children attune themselves to sensing the entangled multiplicity of worlds around them.

“Why do some of them have holes on their top?” ask many of the children.

“They look like meatballs.”

“Why are their bubbles?”

“They [thrombolites] don’t like it too cold or too warm. But if it is too cold or warm they have to stay there cos they can’t move.”

“Are they mangroves over there?” asks a child.

“Not at Lake Clifton,” Steve answers.

“Are there fish in the lake?”

“How big is this lake? It doesn’t look 20 kilometres,” Will says.

Making sense of where he is, Will rattles off his impressive knowledge of the geological and biological history of planet Earth stretching back to its molten past.

“The thrombolites have been here for around 2000 years, but thrombolites have been around for over 3 billion years. That’s a long time. We don’t know how long these will live for, or if they will die soon. The water is becoming too salty,” Brad says.

Will says of the thrombolites, “I hope they don’t die until after I die. I’d bring my child here too.”

“They look dead,” observes one child.

Brad asks Will, “Why should we care about them? They’re only ‘rocks’ – not cute and cuddly animals like koalas.”

“We should care because they are so old.”

“Because they make oxygen,” says another child.

“How could we care for them?”

“We could take stuff out of the water, like the hats, thongs and rubbish.”

Another child says, “By not putting rubbish in the water, and not stepping on them. One of my friends lives near. She comes here to check on them.”

The Thrombolites (foreground) and the entangled environment of the Yalgorup wetlands including Lake Clifton.

In these times of mass extinction, times comparable to the event that killed off the dinosaurs and 75% of all life on Earth (Barnosky et al., 2011), can we afford to continue to look away? At what point do we involve children in stories of extinction? Or do we gloss over the multispecies extinctions that surround us for fear of upsetting them? How might engaging children in these local and global stories of loss change them and their world?

After the children leave the lake, the some of the parents communicate with us via email. They send us the photos they’d taken and comment about their children’s responses after the outing. Mary relayed to us that her son Jacob said he was “really glad I got to see the Thrombolites before they went extinct.” She continued, “He has been intensely interested in our “earth” resources at home. Playing with a globe that shows the layers of the earth and reading books about the earth’s beginnings.” 

Perhaps, listening to the world, learning to see differently, and cultivating curiosity about our local environment should be central to contemporary education. Can we learn to listen to thrombolites? And if we can, what will they tell us?

by Ursula Le Guin

There was a word inside a stone.
I tried to pry it clear,
mallet and chisel, pick and gad,
until the stone was dropping blood,
but still I could not hear
the word the stone had said.
I threw it down beside the road
among a thousand stones
and as I turned away it cried
the word aloud within my ear
and the marrow of my bones
heard, and replied.


Barnosky, A. D., Matzke, N., Tomiya, S., Wogan, G. O. U., Swartz, B., Quental, T. B., . . . Ferrer, E. A. (2011). Has the Earth’s sixth mass extinction already arrived? Nature, 471(7336), 51-57. doi:10.1038/nature09678

Haraway, D. (2016). Staying with the trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press.

Plumwood, V. (2007). A review of Deborah Bird Rose’s Reports from a Wild Country: Ethics for Decolonisation, Australian Humanities Review, 42. Retrieved from: http://australianhumanitiesreview.org/2007/08/01/a-review-of-deborah-bird-roses-reportsfrom-a-wild-country-ethics-for-decolonisation/

Rose, D. B., van Dooren, T., & Chrulew, M. (Eds.). (2017). Extinction studies: Stories of time, death, and generations. New York: Columbia University Press.

Tsing, A. (2015). The mushroom at the end of the world: On the possibility of life in the capitalist ruins. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

van Dooren, T. (2014). Flight ways: Life and loss at the edge of extinction. New York: Columbia University Press.