What the past tells us about our future

REGIONAL FUTURES RESIDENCY: WELLINGTON CAVES NSW

Visitors on a tour of the Cathedral Cave, facing the alter rock, June 2022
Visitors on a tour of the Cathedral Cave, facing the alter rock, June 2022

On my final Regional Futures residency weekend at Wellington Caves, I made the focus on my explorations the site itself and people who know the caves and surrounding landscape intimately. These caves provide a snapshot of our past —a jolt of reality really. The people who know this history make thought-provoking storytellers.

Giving a voice to the past

In terms of giving the Caves a voice, I was particularly keen to gather some ‘atmos’ from the Cathedral Cave with the prospect of presenting work in this space in mind. My time in the Cathedral Cave has been somewhat limited, with only four trips down there over three weekends, but I do have a much better feel for what it offers acoustically.

The main feature of the Cathedral Cave is the ‘alter rock’, a limestone and crystal stalagmite formation in the main chamber— 15 metres in high with a base circumference of 32 metres, said to be the largest stalagmite in the world. It’s a karst cave, formed when water containing carbon dioxide dissolves the limestone. When rain falls, it absorbs some carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, before taking up biogene CO2 as it seeps through the soil. 

Finds from the caves on display in the Ancient Landscapes Gallery at Wellington Caves
Finds from the caves on display in the Ancient Landscapes Gallery at Wellington Caves

The Caves have drawn international attention since their exploration in 1830s, and more than 190 years later, they’re still a site of study and exploration in a bid to answer questions about their formation what it tells us about the past, and potentially about the future. There has been much change since their formation.

Wellington Caves presents a complex multi-dimensional puzzle; there are rocks, minerals, fossils, caves and sediments. Both the water and the air behave strangely. Despite 170 years of research and speculation, many critical questions remain without satisfactory answers. – R.A.L. Osborne[i]

Giving a voice to the future

On my second residency weekend, I went into the Cathedral Cave with Professor Andy Baker, as he explained to me what he’d been doing with hydrology monitoring in the cave. He and his University of NSW lab group have been studying the site since 2010, using the cave as an observatory of groundwater recharge. The process and rate of groundwater recharge is valuable information in a landscape already seeing the impacts of a changing climate.

Caves provide a valuable window into the groundwater recharge process. By entering a cave, you a walking into the unsaturated zone, the region between the Earth’s surface and the water table. Water passing through the caves provides evidence of recharge occurring. Stalagmites in the caves provide archives of groundwater recharge in the past. – Connected Waters Initiative[ii]

As we moved further down into the cave to where you can see the water table, the air was thick and humid. Andy intended on pushing on further to retrieve data loggers another 100m below the central column of the cave, at which point I decided to return to the surface.

AudioMoth acoustic recorder in place on a rock ledge behind the alter rock, Cathedral Cave
AudioMoth acoustic recorder in place on a rock ledge behind the alter rock, Cathedral Cave

On this recent visit, I wanted to place my AudioMoth acoustic recorder in the cave overnight, eventually settling on a rock shelf behind the alter, where it would pick up the sound of drips as well as any movements that might happen in the large, main chamber over the 16-hour recording period. I certainly got the drips.

Our capacity for change

Two of my three interviewees on this residency long weekend have decades of caving experience. Soon to be retired as the Wellington Caves Engagement Officer, Ian Eddison is also the president of the the Australasian Cave and Karst Management Association Inc. (ACKMA). He’s also active in Mid-Macquarie Landcare and has an ongoing interest in environmental management of cave sites, at Wellington and other sites.

What the windows of the past tell us is that things have come and gone and it’s likely we will too at some point in time…We can adapt and we can make change, and we have the ability to do that. – Ian Eddison in an interview on 23 June 2022

Wellington Caves is a visual of evolutionary history over 400 million years. It’s one of the most significant sites for mammal fossils in the world, with the largest deposit of Pliocene-Pleistocene mammal fossils in Australia. The vertebrate fossil material contains an impressively diverse cross section of Australian fauna. The ongoing study of these fossils is providing important data regarding long-term changes in the diversity and ecology of the region. [iii]

The limestone of this landscape contains fossils from seas that covered this part of Australia hundreds of millions of years ago. The Caves enclose the fossil bones of huge marsupials that grazed here a million years ago.

Wellington Caves Reserve holds a wonderful record of massive changes to our planet and its animal life. Does this record have a message for a future dominated by humans? It does, and that is the exciting nature of research at Wellington Caves. – Michael L. Augee, PhD FRZS, Ancient Landscapes Gallery, Wellington Caves

Caves guide, Chris Robinson has been in the region for about 30 years and involved with Wellington Caves for 19 years. She’s passionate about the environment and palaeontology. Chris has concerns about the impacts we have as tourists, not just on the big things we see around us, but the little things— everything being connected.

She’s concerned that as our interest in the environment grows and more visitors flock to experience areas like the Caves, we’ll end up ‘loving’ these places to the point of destruction —citing the impact of tourism and ‘tree changers’ on the Blue Mountains.

I know we’ve had five major extinctions and I believe, from all the material that I’ve read, that we’re in the sixth extinction. We’re losing wildlife…it really is a concern. I think there are a lot of things under stress.

Is it too much to change? Are we going to get rid of our cars? Are we going to, you know, stop our gas, our fires, our…it’s a lot to ask of humans who are very comfortable in our environments now to do all the changes that are required.  – Chris Robinson in an interview on 24 June 2022

More questions yet to come

There are many big questions yet to ask and it’s not my role to provide any of the answers. As an artist, I can simply listen and ask more questions; questions that will shape the works I develop, reflecting the hopes and fears of those who generously gave their time to the development of ideas for this project; questions I hope will provoke conversations amongst those who are yet to ask these questions. We’re going to need everyone on board if we are to adapt and take on the challenges of the future.

Finally, a big thanks to the staff at Wellington Caves for making my 10-day residency so productive. They are a passionate, friendly and knowledgeable team who were a pleasure to work with. This residency was made possible by Dubbo Regional Council’s Cultural Development Team in partnership with Orana Arts. The time at the Caves gave me a base to work from and travel around the Wellington district speaking with individuals and groups who generously gave me their time, including the Booth family, Wellington Arts, Professor Andy Baker (UNSW), Simon Barton, and Craig Bennett (Mid Macquarie and Lower Macquarie Landcare). There are others who I know are keen to share their stories who I hope to return to in coming months.

OTHER POSTS IN THIS SERIES

Exploring regional collaboration

Whatever we do has impact


[i] Karst Geology of Wellington Caves: a review. R.A.L. Osborne. University of Sydney. 2001

[ii] http://www.connectedwaters.unsw.edu.au/research/projects/caves-observatories-groundwater-recharge (26/6/22)

[iii] https://australian.museum/learn/australia-over-time/fossils/sites/wellington-caves/ (26/6/22)

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