We walk lightly on the short path that leads us to the boardwalk on the edge of Lake Clifton. The branches of Melaleuca (paperbark) trees that arch across the path shelter us from the morning sun.
We inspect the peppering of shiny black spots that float around us on our walk. These Jewel (Christmas) spiders have spun their large orbed webs across the path, netting small flying insects.
As the Melaleucas and their resident golden whistlers, blue wrens and spiders recede behind us in our approach to the boardwalk, a vast expanse of glassy water opens before us.
Spread across the landscape like an elongated blue iris gazing up to the sky, the lake glows in the light of the ancient sun. The gentle, warm breeze feels like the lake breathing in and out, in and out.
The lake is the mother which cradles the most striking feature to new visitors of Lake Clifton; the thrombolites. Standing on the wooden boardwalk, we look towards these rock-like domes that form a limestone coloured reef that stretches into the distance along the shallow eastern edge of the lake.
This alien landscape is an encounter with deep (geological) time.
While the Lake Clifton thrombolites are estimated to be 2000 years old, thrombolites have existed for over 3.5 billion years. The reef of thrombolites at Lake Clifton takes our imaginations to when they covered vast swathes of the earth’s surface.
Despite their lifeless appearance, these ‘living rocks’ are formed from the incessant activity of microbial communities. This made them pivotal to the evolution of life on earth billions of years ago because the photosynthesis of the cyanobacteria of the thrombolites filled the earth’s atmosphere with oxygen.
While having survived multiple planetary extinction events, there are only a few surviving thrombolite colonies on the planet. The thrombolites at Lake Clifton are endangered by increased salinity, decreased rainfall, decreased lake water levels, land clearing and pollutants from surrounding areas (Smith, Goater, Reichwaldt, Knott & Ghadouani, 2010).
Our walk among the thrombolites reminds us of the entanglement of life and loss with time’s passing.
Smith, M., Goater, S., Recichwaldt, E., Knott, B. & Ghadouani, A. (2010). Effects of recent increases in salinity and nutrient concentrations on the microbialite community of Lake Clifton (Western Australia): are the thrombolites at risk? Hydrobiologia, 649, 207-216.
Soil scientist Angela visited the thrombolites with us today. Her presence makes us aware of soils’ overlooked status – as we introduce Angela, one of the children says, “Let’s go to the water!”
Water holds more allure than soil and they dash off to see it. And once the children reach the water, the thrombolites’ charisma becomes apparent – they are, after all, what they have come here to see. We start to think children will not be interested in soil.
While the children rush around excitedly drawing and taking photos of water and thrombolites, Angela quietly sits down near the edge of the lake, puts a small trowelful of soil in her pan and analyses what is before her.
Eventually the children notice Angela with her unassuming soil.
Eeeeeew! Stinky! Yuck! Smells fishy!
The children recoil, eyeing the soil with suspicion.
“Look what I have found in here,” says Angela, “lots of tiny shells.”
The shells are 1-2 mm across. The soil is teeming with them. This really interests the children who come in closer and start picking out the shells, seemingly forgetting their earlier aversion.
“Can you see all the colours in this soil?”
“And can you feel this crusty bit? It’s from the top of the hole I dug,” says Angela. “It’s salt. The water in the lake must be very salty and those plants (samphire) must not mind it being so salty because you can see they are growing in it.”
The children are now touching soil … or, could it be that soil is touching children?
“It’s a bit crunchy.”
Child-soil relations are being fostered…
We move away from the reedy lake’s edge, through the paperbarks ( Melaleucaspp) and back into the shade of the large tuarts (Eucalyptusgomphocephala). Here the soil looks very different. Angela says she can tell what soil is like just by looking at the plants. She digs another small hole. The children look into it- it is full of ants. Angela spots a spider and we wonder if it was living underground like the ants.
Like the thrombolites, soils are multispecies worlds:
“[S]oil is not just a habitat or medium for plants and organisms; nor is it just decomposed material, the organic and mineral end product of organism activity. Organisms are soil. A lively soil can only exist with and through a multispecies community of biota that makes it, that contributes to its creation” (Puig de la Bellacasa, 2017, p. 189).
Thrombolites, then, are part of this multispecies soil world, as are the trees and humans. Thom van Dooren asserts “everything is connected to something, which is connected to something else” (van Dooren, 2014, p. 60, original emphasis). This is not to say that everything is connected to everything, but here, the thrombolites which sit 100 metres away from us, are connected to the soil we are now looking at with Angela.
Soil may be a disregarded multispecies community of “unloved others” (Rose & van Dooren, 2011), but neglecting or even overlooking it, places thrombolites at peril.
Today, Angela helped children to relate with this multispecies soil community by piquing the “art of noticing” (Tsing, 2011, p. 6). She cultivated child-soil relations, and as Tsing (2011) reminds us:
“In these times of extinction… even slight acquaintance can make the difference between preservation and callous disregard”(p. 6) .
Puig de la Bellacasa, M. (2017). Matters of care: Speculative ethics in more than human worlds. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
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.
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
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.”
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?
Marrow 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.