Visiting thrombolites with Boardwalk

Boardwalk-children-adults-sun-lake. Photo by Rebecca; 6 years

Boardwalk is an active protagonist in our visits to the thrombolites. More than just a structure which allows human access and some measure of protection to thrombolites and their ecologies, it is also a place for nonhuman perching, preening, hunting, nesting and web anchoring. Boardwalk frames children’s views and is present in photographs they take (but rarely in their drawings). Handrails, uprights and shadows (the weathering of sun-Boardwalk-child) are regular participants in children’s photos, but children (and their parents) also peer through the boards.

Boardwalk’s design offers uninterrupted vistas only to adults and is ignored as an active part of the ecology. Looking back through our own researcher photos, the boardwalk is rarely used as a framing device or a feature to add interest to a sunset shot. In fact, we have actively cropped it from most images. However, looking at the photographs that Rebecca (6 years old) took, many include parts of Boardwalk-the visual point-of-view of the child whose views are framed by Boardwalk’s timbers.

And another thing…

The presence of Boardwalk in Rebecca’s photos has caused us to wonder whether the timbers were sourced from the nearby pine plantations that drink from the same underground water sources that feed the lake? What impact might pine plantations have on thrombolites?

And although Boardwalk enables human access to the thrombolites, what are the implications for the thrombolites of Boardwalk?

Boardwalk framing the view of a crouching adult. Boardwalk-body-thrombolite ecology

Remembering thrombolites

Do you remember when you visited the thrombolites?

What do you remember?

Can you remember what the weather was like? Was it hot or cold, windy or calm, sunny or cloudy? Was the weather comfortable for you? Was it good weather for thrombolites?

Can you remember what the thrombolites looked like? Did they remind you of something else? If you could touch a thrombolite, what might it feel like?

What sounds did you notice while you were at the thrombolites? Did the thrombolites make a noise?

Did you notice any smells? Could you tell where those smells were coming from?

What other creatures and plants can you remember seeing? Where were they?

What sounds can you remember? Can you make these sounds?

Or did you notice these signs and the creatures shown on them as you wandered along the path past the grasshoppers, the spiders and their amazing webs on your quest to find the “blue birds” (splendid fairy wrens)?

How did being at this place make you feel?

weathering thrombolites

If you look closely at the two photos above you can see a number of different ways that weathering affects the thrombolites and their ecology. The old reef eroded by time and weather to a flat pavement of eroded forms which are inundated by still salty water after prolonged rain and baked in the summer under a crust of salt and foam.

Have you visited the thrombolites? Can you remember what the weather was like? Was it hot, windy, cloudy, sunrise? Were the thrombolites covered in water? What colour was the water?

children took photos of the clouds during their visit.

Thrombolites are weathering – responding to the changing seasons and the cycles of erosion as they dry out and then rehydrate. They are also weathering increased visitor numbers and the hats, litter and footprints that come with them.

rising lake levels, after recent rain, are beginning to erase human footprints as the benthic algal mat responds

Local visitor numbers have increased about 400% since the first easing of COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to the ranger we spoke to, his hands full of discarded bottles. He was also concerned about the number of human footprints around the thrombolites. The footprints suggest people are ignoring the signs to stay on the boardwalk, perhaps in the quest for the perfect ‘selfie’. The human footprints affect the thrombolites and their weathering.

How would you design a sign to remind visitors not to walk on the living rocks?

During the COVID-19 lockdown, not all the researchers were restricted from visiting the thrombolites. It was a quiet place to walk with few human visitors, but the weather was always affective. Windblown foam and still reflections, brilliant sunsets and moonrises, changing water levels as rain fell. Some days still and quiet, others noisy with the sound of wind and slapping waves.

Boardwalk weathers too. Children notice boardwalk and include this weathering in their photos. Bee has also been affected by the strong Summer easterly winds and rests on boardwalk. The timber splits and cracks from constant exposure to sun and salt borne winds, eroding into patterns that echo the shapes of the eroding fossil thrombolite reef.

In late June after Winter storms, one of boardwalk’s planks was replaced.

Weathering bodies

Astrida Neimanis and Rachel Loewen Walker (2014) remind us that weathering is “a way of being/becoming, or a mode of affecting and differentiating that brings humans into relation with more-than-human weather. We can grasp the transcorporeality of weathering as a spatial overlap of human bodies and weathery nature” (p. 560).

The children interact bodily with boardwalk- lying, sitting, squatting, climbing, running and include their bodies in their photos. Bodies that wear hats clamped on tightly against the wind and sunblock in the strong Summer sun, sweating and itching in the heat. Arms and legs and faces that come out in goose bumps and shivering voices that complain of the cold when the breeze picks up. Bodies are affected by the weather and by weathering as fingers touch, stroke and probe the eroding boardwalk timbers, hair whipping in faces as they take photos of clouds and recognise faces in the thrombolites. Children learn and world-make with weather (Rooney 2016) through these body-weather relations.

Rooney , T. (2018). Weather worlding: learning with the elements in early
childhood. Environmental Education Research, 24(1), 1-12. doi: 10.1080/13504622.2016.1217398

Neimanis, A., & Walker, R. L. (2014). Weathering: Climate Change and the “Thick Time” of Transcorporeality. Hypatia, 29(3), 558-575. doi:doi:10.1111/hypa.12064

Thinking with Thrombolites

Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps. Thoreau, 1862 

In January 2020 we will begin a series of encounters with children, thrombolites and wetlands.

Thrombolites at Lake Clifton, June 2019

Thrombolites, sometimes known as “living rocks”, are a kind of microbialite – multispecies conglomerations made up of bacteria, algae, and an array of tiny invertebrates. They date back to the Paleoproterozoic period (2500 -1600 million years ago) (Kah, 1992) and continue to exist in a few locations in remnant wetlands south of Perth, Western Australia.

Despite surviving five previous mass extinction events, their hold on life is now very precarious due to human-caused environmental factors such as fertiliser run-off and salinity. Thrombolites found in Lake Richmond, for example, are described as being  at “extreme high risk of extinction in the immediate future.” Others at different locations are already extinct.

Microbialite fossils at Lake Walyungup

Lake Richmond thrombolites under threat from water quality, weeds, rubbish and eutrophication, November 2019

Thrombolites are very important to the Noongar people, the original inhabitants of the south-west corner of Western Australia. According to Bindjareb Noongar elder, George Walley, thrombolites are noorook (eggs) of the Waagal, the creation serpent that made the landforms and waterways.

Thrombolites at Lake Clifton, August 2019

Multispecies ethnography

As we think with thrombolites, we will draw on “multispecies ethnography” (Kirksey, 2010; Ogden et al., 2013): 

We define “multispecies ethnography” as ethnographic research and writing that is attuned to life’s emergence within a shifting assemblage of agentive beings. By “beings” we are suggesting both biophysical entities as well as the magical ways objects animate life itself. (Ogden et al. 2013, p. 6)

Thus, in approaching this multispecies ethnography, we will try to resist a child-centred ethic and instead consider the more-than-human elements —  the place, materials and multispecies others — as equal participants in the research. We know this is not easy work but we hope our “attentive responsiveness”  (van Dooren, 2019, p. 2) will take us beyond exclusively human, cultural and social framings and lead us on an “exploration of possibilities for living and dying well with others — human and not — in an increasingly uncertain world” (van Dooren, 2019, p. 2).


Kah, L. C., & Grotzinger, J. P. (1992). Early Proterozoic (1.9 Ga) Thrombolites of the Rocknest Formation, Northwest Territories, Canada. PALAIOS, 7(3), 305-315. 

Kirksey, S. E., & Helmreich, S. (2010). The emergence of multispecies ethnography. Cultural Anthropology, 25(4), 545-576. 

Ogden, L., Hall, B., & Tanita, K. (2013). Animals, plants, people, and things: A review of multispecies ethnography. Environment and Society, 4(1), 5-24. 

Thoreau, H. D. (1862). Walking. The Atlantic. Retrieved from

van Dooren, T. (2019). The wake of crows: Living and dying in shared worlds. New York: Columbia University Press.

Common Worlding and Pedagogical Documentation

In situating this multispecies ethnography within a common worlds framework (Pacini-Ketchabaw, Taylor, & Blaise, 2016; Taylor, 2013, 2017; Taylor & Giugni, 2012; Taylor & Pacini-Ketchabaw, 2019), we recognise that nature and culture, humans and nonhumans are not separate. Rather, they are infinitely interconnected in a constant state of intra action (Barad, 2007) whereby they simultaneously affect and are affected by each other.  Common worlds “are always already full of inherited messy connections [and] entangled and uneven historical and geographical relations, political tensions, ethical dilemmas and unending possibilities” (Taylor, 2013, p. 62). Thus children, nature, thrombolites, water, politics, trees, histories, are all inextricably entangled. Furthermore, common worlds relations are constantly being made and remade in an ongoing process of progressive composition (Latour, 2004).

The messy, entangled deep time ecology of the Lake Clifton thrombolites including non/human infrastructure that facilitates visitors and residents – human, insect, arachnid and avian. Looking west towards the present coastline of the Indian Ocean, behind intercoastal dunes with pockets of tuart woodlands and coastal heathlands. Rusty freshwater springs seeping through tangled rushes (waagal’s whiskers) and samphire to lake foreshore and thrombolites and the boardwalk across shallow salty water. Remnant fenceposts, cut from local timber, recall a settler past. 

In following common world relations, we draw from the multimodal and multiperspectival strategies of “pedagogical documentation”, the systematic way of researching with children used in the educational project in the city of Reggio Emilia in Italy (Fleet, Patterson, & Robertson, 2017; Giudici, Rinaldi, & Krechevsky, 2001).

Pedagogical documentation uses an array of strategies, for example: conversation, drawing, playing, making, pretending, photographing, experimenting. Similar to the French do-it-yourself artisan, the bricoleur, these strategies allow us to use what is on hand and available at the time, enabling us to trace unfolding common world relations as they emerge.


Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. Durham: Duke University Press.
Fleet, A., Patterson, C., & Robertson, J. (Eds.). (2017). Pedagogical documentation in early years practice: Seeing through multiple perspectives. London, United Kingdom: SAGE.
Giudici, C., Rinaldi, C., & Krechevsky, M. (Eds.). (2001). Making learning visible: Children as individual and group learners. Reggio Emilia, Italy: Reggio Children.
Latour, B. (2004). Politics of nature: How to bring the sciences into democracy (C. Porter, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Pacini-Ketchabaw, V., Taylor, A., & Blaise, M. (2016). Decentring the human in multispecies ethnographies. In C. A. Taylor & C. Hughes (Eds.), Posthuman research practices in education.(pp. 149-167). London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Taylor, A. (2013). Reconfiguring the natures of childhood. London: Routledge.
Taylor, A. (2017). Beyond stewardship: Common world pedagogies for the Anthropocene. Environmental Education Research, 23(10), 1448-1461. doi:10.1080/13504622.2017.1325452
Taylor, A., & Giugni, M. (2012). Common worlds: Reconceptualising inclusion in early childhood communities. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 13(2), 108-119. doi:10.2304/ciec.2012.13.2.108
Taylor, A., & Pacini-Ketchabaw, V. (2019). The common worlds of children and animals: Relational ethics for entangled lives. London: Routledge.

Hats off to beverages and other associated litter – traces of human passing

The message about being sun smart and hydrated in the heat seems to be well heeded by visitors if the traces left behind are anything to go by. On our December 23rd walk, we were surprised by the number of hats left behind- red, pink, blue….  

The breeze was gentle, barely rippling the water and not troubling our hats at all. (The beautiful Christmas spiders of more concern to those who went bare headed but stay tuned for more on that).

However, when a stiff afternoon sea breeze comes gusting across the lake, it would send hats cartwheeling off heads to sail briefly on foam topped waves before sinking into the lake or being caught in the reeds of the lakeshore. Lost and discarded by misadventure rather than deliberately thrown away.

What do the reeds do with these captured ‘treasures’? 

One of several hats trapped by reeds and sinking into the mud of the lake.

Where do the microfibres go as this hat breaks down?

Do thrombolites contain nanoplastics?

Beverage containers are noticeably discarded waste marking the edges of the path and leaving rusted skeletons in the shallows.

What stories could these containers tell?

Where have they come from, who drank from them and how do they feel about being entangled here and becoming redundant and extinct?

Cigarette butts and eutrophication from nutrient rich runoff. Factors that also change the ecology and chances of survival for this Threatened Ecological Community.

A 1 in 5 chance of winning!!

Are they the odds offered on the thrombolites surviving?

The webbiness of entanglement

What are those black dots?

Wandering along the boardwalk towards the thrombolites.

Cloudy and warm and too early for the sea breeze. Bare headed but carrying my hat, spider silk brushing ears, sticking to hair and faces of the unwary. Fear palpable in groups of visitors – shrieks and near hysteria and agitated jerks from unwary adult and child alike.

Spiders amidst fine sticky webs marked by tufts of silk, moving higher, agitated by the disturbance to their network of webs.

Dancing constellations of jewelled spiders enticing entangled leaves to join with the feathering breeze.
We joined this female at a picnic table as she repaired her web – damaged before we arrived.

Austracantha minax, the Christmas spider is a harmless little orb weaver, still common here and they remind Annette of her childhood (the first one seen in the days before Christmas portending good luck) but is seldom seen now and certainly not in these numbers. There are some at Lake Preston (below) and at Lake Walyungup where they weave their webs between the reeds and the shrubby paperbarks.

Facultatively gregarious (social) Christmas spiders festooning reeds and paperbarks. They are sharing webs with a golden orb weaving spider and are active day and night (cathemeral) like the midges and mosquitoes rising from the drying mud.

The seemingly infinite webs strewn through the air bring to mind Donna Haraway’s (2016) use of the game of string figuring, or cats cradling, to remind us of the infinite and ever-changing connectedness of the world. Haraway’s string figures provoke us to consider how and what multispecies connections, harmonies or entanglements emerge in this place. But Haraway and these spiders and their webs, also remind us that “[n]othing is connected to everything; everything is connected to something” (Haraway, 2016, p. 31).

“The tentacular ones make attachments and detachments; they [m]ake cuts and knots; they make a difference; they weave paths and consequences but not determinisms; they are both open and knotted in some ways and not others” (Haraway, 2016, p. 31)

Along a similar line, these spidery string figurings also bring to mind theoretical physicist, Karen Barad’s notion of “entanglement”:

“To be entangled is not simply to be intertwined with another, as in the joining of separate entities, but to lack an independent, self-contained existence. Existence is not an individual affair. Individuals do not preexist their interactions; rather, individuals emerge through and as part of their entangled intra-relating.” (Barad, 2007, p. ix)

Like Haraway, Barad reminds us not that everything is connected but that everything is in relationship with something, and that these relations bring with them obligations:

“Entanglements are not a name for the interconnectedness of all being as one, but rather specific material relations of the ongoing differentiating of the world. Entanglements are relations of obligation – being bound to the other – enfolded traces of othering.”(Barad, 2010)


Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. Durham: Duke University Press.

Barad, K. (2010). Quantum entanglements and hauntological relations of inheritance: Dis/continuities, spacetime enfoldings, and justice-to-come. Derrida Today, 3(2), 240–268.

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

Endangered living rocks

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.


Our first visit to the thrombolites with children.

Thrombolites are often described as “living rocks.” They are described this way because scientists tell us they are microbial communities that photosynthesise.

On today’s visit, not everyone is convinced about the thrombolites’ liveliness:

“They don’t move, they don’t talk, they don’t have eyes … they don’t live,” someone says.

“They just look like rocks to me,” says someone else.

But others convey an implicit sense of aliveness:

“They are having a bubblebath!”

“Some are joined up- maybe it’s a mum and baby”

“Look, you can see their faces!”

“They don’t like all the people here. They can’t sleep.”

“Some of them have holes in them – maybe that is how they breathe.”

“Maybe the thrombolites put their shell over their head – like a turtle.”

What is life? What is alive?

In Euro-Western cultures, children’s animism and anthropomorphism of inorganic things like rocks is often discouraged; attributing liveliness to rocks goes against the Cartesian mind-matter dualism that separates living and non living in Euro-Western worldviews.

Thrombolites trouble notions of living and nonliving. What happens, we wonder, if we resist categorising the world into living and nonliving?

Temporality of place or the place of temporality?

How many lifetimes have these dwelt in this place? Are they still alive? Who is living there now?

“I’m not sure if they are even alive” – child, aged 6.

“They have to be in the water to be alive” – another child.

“To appreciate the agencies of nature and materiality, not only do we
need to appreciate the very differing forms of beings and processes in which they are articulated, but also the very differing velocities and rhythms they might be operating in. Places are ‘where spatial narratives meet up or form configurations, conjunctions of trajectories which have their own temporalities’ (Massey,2005: 139)” (Jones and Cloke, 2008, 87)

The land measures time differently. Sea-levels rise and fall bringing with them extinction…and…rebirth.
How many footfalls have passed this tree, carrying messages from the tree to the thrombolites? Does the tree notice? Do the passing feet ?

The failure to articulate non-human agency within its own ecological time-scales as well as in its own places has made it difficult to grasp the notion of non-human agency within extant and more anthropocentric views of agency” (Jones and Cloke, 2008, 82, original emphasis)

Processes, velocities and rhythms of currents, forces and pressure at work in the ecological time-scales of water and land.

“Water pushes fossils down and layers get on top but they need to get a bit older to push down” – child, aged 6.

Air and water are not objects that act. They are material media in which living things are immersed, and are experienced by way of their currents, forces and pressure gradients” (Ingold, 2008, 212)

A meshwork of spider webs spanning between transpiring trees amidst the material media of air-water-land. Web becomes cloud. Predator-prey-meal-waste. But how easy the web falls prey to those that blunder into it.
These young children help build a web; a temporary ephemeral work woven of string.


Ingold, T. (2008). When ANT meets SPIDER: Social theory for arthropods. In C. Knappett & L. Malafouris (eds.), Material agency: towards a non-anthropocentric approach. Springer, Boston , MA.

Jones, O., & Cloke, P. (2008). Non-human agencies: trees in place and time. In Knappett, C. & Malafouris, L. (eds). Material Agency: Towards a Non-Anthropocentric Approach (pp. 79-96). Springer, Boston, MA.

Massey, D. B. (2005). For space. Sage, London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi.