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Australian Ant Art forges unique sculptures using the natural underground structures fabricated by ants.

How often do you think about what’s in the ground beneath your feet? The cavities and caverns, the small bodies that live in subdued light? In our tenth edition, our writers and artists explore the science of the underground, drawing our attention to that which is often out of sight.

Our featured artist, Jim A. Barker, brings the intricacies of anthills into the open. Jim photographed the Australian Ant Art team at work over several cold mornings in Armidale, NSW, revealing the architecture built by ants, which Jim likens to ‘silver coral’.

Other underground structures and their lives, or non-lives, abound in this issue. Johanna Bell’s poem ‘Department of the Vanishing – Six Floors Down’ recounts the labyrinthine files that record lost species, while Danielle Clode, in an extract from Koala: a Life in Trees (2022), braves tight and confined limestone tunnels to understand the world koalas inhabited when the land above was covered in forests. Liana Joy Christensen also turns to life amidst limestone structures, this time in Western Australia, in her poem about tiny, imperilled stygofauna. Kristine Rae Anderson thinks through the life cycles of parents, children, and beetles in ‘Planting', while Ronald Wilkins finds himself yoked with long-dead, anatomically ambiguous fossils. Jeanette Beebe, in ‘Subterranean-Obligate Bat’, writes about the afterlives of mines, which become important homes for bats. 

For many, the connection between home and the underground is threatened. Debra Dank, a Gudanji/Wakaja teacher and writer, describes the impact of gas extraction in Gudanji Country, a place bound with water and birth. Fracking in the Beetaloo Basin threatens precious, interconnected water sources with chemical runoff. Dank muses on the way songlines encode Gudanji scientific information – data that has been gathered over thousands of years – and the need to listen to songlines to preserve life. Fiona Walsh and her team write also about First Nations’ peoples encyclopaedic knowledge in their piece on ‘fairy circles’, or what the Western Desert Martu people call linyji. They are hard, flat ‘pavements’ inhabited by spinifex termites below the surface. The two-way learning between the team and First Nations people yielded a rich perspective on the termites and their connections with humans.

Artist Amelia Hine is interested in the varied ways people think about the ground. In an interview with our managing editor Taylor Mitchell and academic Therese Davis, Hine points out that most people’s relationship with the underground is mediated by emerging technologies, which focus their attention on the extractive value of the ground. Hine, who was our featured artist in Edition 7: Science, Humour and the Absurd, uses her art to prompt viewers to think about the complexity of soil instead, by utilising scale and the sensory, including soundscapes.

Alicia Sometimes, in ‘CERN | Listening’ seeks the sound of the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator, which lies in a tunnel near Geneva. Particles and entanglement also drive David Sheskin’s story ‘Only Time Will Tell if the Sun Will Rise Tomorrow’, with the key to the action buried in a backpack in the soil. Meanwhile, Troy Walsh, in ‘Science Fiction?’, engages with the dark matter in Australian soil, with an obligatory pun on ‘Downunder’!

Moving to the otherworldly altogether, Helen Marshall writes on the problem-solving needed to craft a piece of writing about the Juventae Chasma on Mars. In ‘The Rivets for the Trees: Crafting Resonant Settings in Hard Science Fiction’, she outlines the search for science and words to evoke a speculative, but believable, setting.

And then there is the subterranean in human lives. As Magdalena Ball writes in her note about the science inspiring the sensory in ‘Wet Gully Elegy’, the worlds below and above our feet are intertwined, just like life and death. Bethanie Humphreys’ poem ‘remains’ also meditates on long-dead bodies, bringing them into the present with her words. Julie Constable, in 'Unearthing Star Light', dwells on a piece of Chinese culture buried in the soil of the Strzelecki Ranges. In an excerpt from Kris Kneen’s The Three Burials of Lotty Kneen (2021), a memoir about excavating family history, Kneen dwells on olms—pale salamanders in the Postojna caves that swallow their own eyes. In ‘Amateur Mycology’ Emily Tsokos Purtill’s deliciously blunt narrator muses on mushrooms and his relationship with his brother, with the unexpected occasionally bursting out. 

It is a perfect metaphor for the way our subconscious ruptures our consciousness with striking thoughts and images — a process that many of the pieces in this collection replicate. We hope you enjoy delving into the depths through this issue.