And Outback Australia is full of it! Except of course, in the wet season when it becomes mud – glorious mud. From the ubiquitous bull-dust liberally lacing dry Outback humour, to the fine dust of the ancient millennia from which we all rise and eventually return, in a constant recycling of universal matter.
One of the first things I noticed while exploring the Outback, was the intense colour of the dirt. In my ignorance I hesitated to call it soil at the time, so denuded it seemed of any nutrient value. Its colour really is bright red or vibrant orange and occasionally a darker loamy hue. Looking around, one can’t help marvelling at the diversity of life, both flora and fauna, that it supports. Despite the harsh climate, plants and other life forms can, and do, thrive here.
As we travelled across the landscape I was fascinated to see red sentinels, sometimes in their hundreds, beside the highways and stretching off into the distance. Closer inspection revealed them as termite mounds of all shapes and sizes. It turns out that the termites that often cause havoc for suburban homeowners have cousins that are an important part of the Australian soil ecology, a part of the infinite web of life.
‘Australia’s outback is characterised by minimal rainfall and nutrient deficient soils, which has led to slow nutrient cycling between plants and soils. Termites have adapted to this climate in astounding ways, particularly by their role as decomposers. Their symbiotic relationship with intestinal protozoa and bacteria allows them to digest grass, wood, and other debris. Termites are also capable of forming new soil.’ (ref).
Who would have thought it?
Was this very same soil a recycled version of the ancient Eromanga Sea that covered much of what is now arid inland Australia, some one hundred and ten million years ago? The soil and rock stratum of the rich fossil fields of this region are giving up their secrets, helping us to understand our natural history; the ‘dust’ from which we have come.
There are numerous opportunities for amateurs to join the palaeontological digs on the fossil fields of outback Queensland. I have it on my bucket list. Some of the most exciting finds have been made by station managers out mustering cattle, like the Ievers brothers at Marathon Station, a 22,662 ha cattle and sheep run between Richmond and Hughenden.
I spent hours poring over the fossil records and specimens at Kronosaurus Korner, a wonderful museum in the small town of Richmond. Minmi Paravertebra pictured below is displayed there and was found on the Marathon Station.
I struggled to even imagine a time-span of one hundred and ten million years, and was overwhelmed by my proximity to something so incredibly ancient as these fossils.
I wondered at that point about the dust that continually clogged my nasal passages, that seeped into every crook and cranny of our camper-van, that we probably ate with our porridge.
The less well preserved bones of ancient creatures, perhaps? Our ancestors even?
I doubt I will ever think about dirt or dust in quite the same way again.
Inspiration for this post originates with the phrase “‘From Ashes to ashes, dust to dust’ and comes from the funeral service in the Book of Common Prayer, and it is based on Genesis 3:19, Genesis 18:27, Job 30:19, and Ecclesiastes 3:20. Those passages say that we begin and end as dust. Where did the ashes come from? The compilers of the Book of Common Prayer were careful to produce what is called metrical text—text that when a congregation reads it, it all comes out even. So they pulled in Genesis 18:27 and Job 30:19, in which dust and ashes are both components of the human body. It’s also in Sirach 10:9 in the Apocrypha. (Sirach is also known as Ecclesiasticus.)” ref