Wonder of time | Landscape Australia

When animal life first attempted to make a go of it on this planet more than half a billion years ago, it lurched, sputtered and died. In a favorable climate still warming from the last ice age, weird sponge-like animals emerged on the drop-off at Arkaroola Reef in what is now known as South Australia. Their time was short lived – there is no further record of these life forms following the next ice age, the Elatina glaciation that turned the planet into “Snowball Earth.” The planet we now find ourselves on had to wait another 90 million years for the Ediacaran Period, animal life’s next big roll of the dice.

The Flinders Ranges, on Adnyamathanha Yarta (Country), are the best place in the world to see this story unfold. Something about the geology of these spectacular ranges and their arid environment means fossils, from the sponge-like animals of Arkaroola Reef through to the earliest successes of animal life in the Ediacaran and Cambrian periods, are exposed and accessible. The radical origins of animal life, the origins of ourselves, can be traced and followed in a relatively small area. Your average punter can journey into the landscape on a sunny afternoon, pull up at a gravel carpark and trace the flickering of complex life into being.

At Ajax Hill, Cambrian archaeocyatha reef fossils sits adjacent to an operational zinc mine, demonstrating the many layers of the Flinders Ranges.

Image: Joe Bean

Over the past two years, we (Brave and Curious) have had the honor of collaborating on a range of projects in the Flinders Ranges through work with the National Parks and Wildlife Service South Australia, remote pastoral station owners and NASA-funded scientists. This work relates to the tentative World Heritage listing of palaeontological and geological sites across the Flinders Ranges. Our brief for these projects has been to explore how sites and the surrounding region might be preserved, experienced and understood.

Here in the ranges made by the Akurras, the two big snakes, time expands, folds and contracts – songlines, Snowball Earth, the first animal brain, andu (yellow-footed rock-wallaby) and 42-year pastoral leases. Millimetres in the geological strata represent millennia.

Local Adnyamathanha knowledge holders, pastoralists, palaeontologists, geologists, rangers and tourism providers have learned to engage with this rich palimpsest. We ask questions and try to understand how they go about it. Our practice is entirely built upon building relationships, listening to excellent yarners and learning. Through facilitating open, slow and shared design processes, we feel more equipped to work with empathy and imagination, to engage with landscapes in a more grounded, present and sensitive manner.

And so, on a sunny afternoon in September in the Anthropocene, we find ourselves on an Ediacara hillside pondering our very first ancestors – the Dickinsonia of the Ediacaran Period. Poring over an upturned fossil bed, we are shown where 550 million years ago these animals went about their afternoon, feeding on a seafloor covered in microbial mats. These internationally significant fossils are the basis of one of our key projects, located at the newly proclaimed Nilpena Ediacara National Park. The brief requires us to focus on the now, remediating and presenting the fossil beds and providing suitable access for both palaeontological research and tourism. But we catch ourselves going off course. We wonder, half a billion years ago… was it an afternoon like today? Did these early foragers freak out about ice ages? Did they realize that, like us, they were totally immersed in, and dependent on, their delicate climatic conditions?

Formed of local dry stone, the meandering path to the Ediacaran fossil beds at Nilpena blends into the landscape.

Formed of local dry stone, the meandering path to the Ediacaran fossil beds at Nilpena blends into the landscape.

Image: Greg Grabasch

An andu (yellow-footed rock-wallaby) that is part of a recovering population at Brachina Gorge, Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park.

An andu (yellow-footed rock-wallaby) that is part of a recovering population at Brachina Gorge, Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park.

Image: Joe Bean

Discussions with experts on site might begin with culverts, but it isn’t long before they drift into the wonder of time. Together we ponder how this place might bring visceral clarity to our tenuous foothold on the enormity of geological timelines. Mary Droser, a palaeontologist at the University of California, Riverside who for 20 years has led a team to this northern Flinders hillside, is able to focus our shared thoughts: “Visitors don’t need to know all the names, the dates, what climatic and geological changes happened… they just need to grasp the enormity of it and go, ‘Wow!’”

If you imagine the 4.5 billion years of the earth’s history as a calendar year, then life began early, with simple single-celled organisms appearing sometime around the beginning of April. The dawn of animal life we ​​are seeing on this Yarta begins in mid-November: then come plants, dinosaurs and woolly mammoths. Homo sapiens Shows up at 11.36 pm on 31 December, and the Anthropocene is the final few seconds of the New Year’s Eve countdown, hurrying around the party, looking for someone to snog.

This is the “wow” Droser was speaking about. This “wow” decentres humans. It calls for us as designers to respond to the more-than-human fullness of a place with sensitivity and integrity. The brief across the region was to deal with fossils and geology. But the fossils aren’t in an airconditioned museum. They are in the walls of dramatic gorges, or next to operating mine sites, or in disturbed fossil beds in the process of being studied. Telling the story of the burrowing animals at Brachina Gorge is as much about the people who found them as it is about fossils.

Then again, understanding the place is just as much about the beautiful arid ecology, the salt bush, the euro, the bearded dragon, the Adnyamathanha custodians, the pastoralists, the copper miners and games of pool at the pub. And so, our interventions across the Flinders Ranges have been determinedly understated to leave room for this abundance. The landscape interventions needed to faithfully respond to feeling the dry wind, noting the middens as you pass through Deadman Creek and the silhouette of the stone woolshed and yards.

The sun sets on rippled fossil beds and bluebush on the Ediacara Hills.

The sun sets on rippled fossil beds and bluebush on the Ediacara Hills.

Image: SA Department for Environment and Water

To respond to the Flinders Ranges in an authentic way requires a reluctance to adhere to a certain period or worldview, an awareness of shifting baselines, the folds of the place. Time, in its constant disorder, is the ultimate test of fragility – of construction details, ideas, ecosystems and landscapes. We believe natural processes – and genuine engagement with them by those who came before us – are the only systems that get close to being proven to be robust by time. Responding to this belief as designers, we choose to balance and restore. We do not wish to disturb.

Materially, our responses across the region use a consistent local vernacular. Local dry stone seats and interpretive plinths erode with the hillside, while mild steel interpretation posts and cypress-pine bollards are designed and located to fade into the ranges. Using grade reversals and rock armouring where we disturb ground, we maintain the landscape’s existing water regime. Where station sheep and cattle have compacted paddock corners, gate entries and yards, we have proposed scatterings of local topsoil and collected seed to support the fresh regeneration of local blue and salt bush following the first April rains. Put simply, we have turned to stuff that has been tried and tested – it is local and it works.

We have been careful to avoid the typical national park visual language – boardwalks, barriers and big interpretation panels. This infrastructure distortions perceptions by placing the leisurely human experience at the center of the way people read a place, dulling the already unfathomable diversity of everything else going on. Instead, across the region, visitors move through the landscape as indicated by natural cues, following marsupial tracks that have been stabilized and widened using local stone and gravel to provide universal access. And the access remains truly universal – the marsupials are still using them.

Yarning on the hillside at Nilpena.

Yarning on the hillside at Nilpena.

Image: SA Department for Environment and Water

Dickinsonia fossils at Nilpena have been preserved for 550 million years;  Today, their exposure requires careful management.

Dickinsonia fossils at Nilpena have been preserved for 550 million years; Today, their exposure requires careful management.

Image: SA Department for Environment and Water

Out here, we see the role of the landscape architect as being one of exploring functional maintenance, providing access, shade, water – tiny kick-starters of shared stories across time. Our interventions endeavor not to burden with a layer of superficial design … another legacy of the Anthropocene. If anything, we hope our legacy is that we (Brave and Curious) were barely there; we did almost nothing. We wish to pay attention to the strata of time and the natural processes that traverse it, balancing landscape elements to support experiences that reveal that we (the multi-celled organisms, the humans, the Europeans) have barely been here after all. These small projects throughout the region form a network that explores the vastness of time – and in turn the dawn of animal life, the sheer luck and improbability of complex life starting up again after that first stutter, the “Wow!” They do this by simply facilitating the visitor’s arrival to these wonderful places as they are, within our own equally improbable moment.

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