Cultivating Soil Relations

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?”

“There’s white!”

“There’s green!”

“There’s pink!”

“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?

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“It’s sticky!”

“It’s a bit crunchy.”

Child-soil relations are being fostered…

We move away from the reedy lake’s edge, through the paperbarks ( Melaleuca spp) and back into the shade of the large tuarts (Eucalyptus gomphocephala). 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.

The hole is full of spidery roots and mycorrhizal fungi too. So much life in one small patch.

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).

Angela relates to lively soil

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.

a child noticing the multispecies relations of soil

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.

Rose, D. B., & van Dooren, T. (2011). Unloved others: Death of the disregarded in the time of extinctions [Introduction] Australian Humanities Review, 50, 1-4. Retrieved from

Tsing, A. (2011). Arts of inclusion, or, how to love a mushroom. Australian Humanities Review, 50, 5-21. Retrieved from

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

Hats off and foaming brews

Once again, children are very interested in the foam that is associated with the thrombolites. As on other days, a common theory is that the thrombolites are having a bubble bath, but more on that later.

What do thrombolites regard as waste? What causes the bubbles, are they waste-full?

A minor gesture (Manning 2016) comes from relating to the hats.

“In the context of research-creation, the question is how a practice is
capable of opening up the field such that minor gestures can emerge, this
despite the value placed on the more recognizable and predictable grand
gestures” (Manning 2016, 66)

Caps seem to proliferate closer to the shore and in the reeds; some staying, fading and slowly sinking into the mud, others visiting for a short time before being retrieved by passersby or Steve from PHCC.

This purple cap was a fleeting visitor dropping into see the blue cap of earlier posts before being plucked by another tourist and taken away on more adventures. Neither the cap or its new handler left much visible trace.

Crowned and brimmed hats sail off the end of the boardwalk and come to rest amongst the thrombolites.

How do thrombolites relate to our discards? Are our discarded hats wasted?

We wonder how long these hats have been here, now that we have noticed them (four altogether at last count)? They are of a similar size, colour, shape and texture to the thrombolites and pass themselves off as such without careful observation.

One of the children noticed the hats and said, “the hats are trying to look like thrombolites!” And one child drew a thromoblitehat! 


Can a hat become a thrombolite? Will the microbial mats that form them colonise the hat, petrifying the cloth to form another layer and build another structure? Have any of the other thrombolites already grown from hats? How else do the thrombolites and hats relate?

Can we make a thrombolite from a hat? Spinning a yarn about a hat becoming a thrombolite might be a more appropriate and sustainable minor gesture. A research-creation using the skills and materials we have with us and entangling them amidst new thoughts bubbling up from the experience of an event. An event arising from spending time noticing as we relate to an emerging perception of place and listen to the children.

But back, now, to the foaming brew…

Bubbles and the similarity to bubble baths; some children have wanted to swim or wade amongst the thrombolites and the water looks warm. One child thought dropping something in the water and retrieving it was a good segue; another was caught by the seat of his pants by an agile father as the child tried to emulate the swans seen through the birding scopes set up by Bill this week.

Warm water – how do the thrombolites feel about warm water? Warm enough to swim in? Warm enough for a comfortable bubble bath? Warm enough to make that morning brew? Any of these may be a possibility if the globe continues to warm.

And what about the bubbles? What causes them? Are they harmful? Are they are product of non/human waste? Do the thrombolites like bubble baths? Are bubblebaths good for thrombolites?

The bubbles may form as a result of fertiliser and nutrient runoff from surrounding human activity? Perhaps the increasing salinity of the lake as it relates to the afternoon sea breeze stirs up the froth. Is the water alkaline like washing soda – that makes bubbles when you stir it up.

Tannins released from surrounding vegetation and finding its way into the lake causes the froth, someone else suggests – Hmmm, are tannins tree waste? Or do the ducks swimming stir up the water like a milkshake and form froth icebergs?

Maybe it is the soap and shampoo residue from all the hats?

Annamaria Weldon in The Lake’s Apprentice (2014, 45) mentions the prevailing winds heaping up the foam:

It is caused by organic processes, not a sign of detergent. However, concentrations in the nutrient levels of the lakes become more apparent in bunuru, because heat triggers algal activity (which is increased by the presence of nutrients).”

We are just about to move into the Noongar season bunuru (Feb-Mar) from birak (Dec-Jan). So the lake may become a warm, foaming brew! Is this a matter for concern? Should we care? What are the facts of the matter?


Manning, E. (2016). The minor gesture. Duke University Press.

Weldon, A. (2014). The Lake’s Apprentice. UWAP.


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:

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.