In this social fiction piece, we are introduced to the world of biomimicry; the art of using nature to solve human problems. Follow the curious Estherlita as she observes nature—its simple complexities—and tries to make sense of the answers it holds.
The termite mound felt coarse and stout beneath Estherlita’s finger tip. But neither of those descriptions were words that she had heard before, let alone learnt. So to her, the mound was just hard and bumpy. The humongous heap of earth towered so far above her dainty frame that it almost touched the sky, or so it seemed to her eyes. There were no surrounding trees to compare its size to—just more mounds. Hundreds of them, stretched across the dry, barren landscape and arranged in a pattern that ensured their shadows didn’t shade one another. Some were nearly as big as her mound. Many were small, but a little bigger than last week. A few were old and had dried out, but were still standing. Some had succumbed to the persistent elements of the harsh desert and lay in ruins on the ground. Those ones were paler than all the other mounds; they had been severed from the beating heart of Warlpiri country. One such mound to her right, behind the roadhouse that stood 10 metres or so from her, had been dug out by a Ngintaka for its nest. She could tell from the thick but neat abrasions of the claw marks. It had fallen under its weight, hinging where the lizard had gutted it midway up its side. Closer to the road, a series of thinner mounds, maybe six or seven in a row, had been destroyed just above their bases.
Estherlita reluctantly recalled the memory of that disturbing afternoon, when the boxy-looking car with an intimidating bull bar, driven by its laughing occupants, ploughed through the line of them. She could never understand for what reason. The car was easy enough to remember. It was a patchy dark green and currently crumpled into the side of a larger mound at the end of the row, rusted and humbled. The mound barely had a speck of damage, given its strength. She would have cared to tell the driver that, if he hadn’t been in so much of a rush at the time. The mound’s resident termites must have welcomed the strange addition to their home because they hadn’t cared to move the car yet.
Looking further across the landscape, Estherlita marvelled at the glowing orange of the mounds as they caught the afternoon sun, which had begun sinking toward dusk. But the day was still hot. Hotter than yesterday, definitely, and maybe hotter than the day before too.
The sun must be happy with its work in baking our country, she thought to herself.
But the gentle breeze was cool, and her chosen mound was kind in its provision of shade. She returned her attention to it. Mingkirri was its name. That is what the elders called them—the mounds. So Mingkirri this one would be. Along Mingkirri’s surface were the smallest of holes. Thousands of them, no larger than pin pricks. She placed a finger to a cluster and squashed the earth around them. It was amusing to watch her black finger tip turn pale under the pressure. Even in the shade, her skin was contrasted so obviously against the deep orange of Mingkirri.
The ambience of her wondering was stunted as the hum of the roadhouse’s air-conditioning unit suddenly became a harsh rattle, and then it stopped making sound altogether. Mr Roddy, the hard and bumpy owner of the roadhouse—whom Estherlita and her siblings simply called ‘Mr’—came stumbling out immediately, cursing and growling and clutching a flimsy ladder under his arm. Her younger brother, Waynead, followed him out. Waynead’s clothes were as red as the earth. Estherlita knew that he had been crawling underneath the roadhouse looking for lizards or creepy-crawlies to hide around Mr Roddy’s shop. Waynead was known to place them furtively inside magazine racks or atop the number pad of the ATM. If Mr Roddy really wasn’t paying attention, Waynead could sometimes sneak a gecko or scorpion into the hot food section of the bain-marie. That was Waynead’s hobby after school, or sometimes even during school—finding ways to make Mr Roddy chase him out of the shop. But Mr Roddy never could catch him. Waynead was nimble, and Mr Roddy was the opposite and old. He had a hobble and a mat of thinning white hair which would blow over his face and shroud his vision, even when there was no wind.
Estherlita liked Mr Roddy. She thought he was a silly character, despite his gruff nature. And she knew, even though he pretended not to, that he liked them. “Cheeky shits” or “little ratbags” was usually what he called them. But the air conditioner had failed again, and he needed Waynead to hold the ladder steady as he climbed to bang on the side of the ageing unit. So today, he just called Waynead ‘boy.’ “Boy, hold that ladder steady now,” his hoarse voice said.
“You gonna bang on it again, Mr?” Waynead asked.
“No, I’m gonna fix the damn thing,” Mr Roddy assured him, as he climbed the ladder with caution. With the flat of his calloused palm, he then began his banging operation.
Estherlita returned to Mingkirri. It had many earthy towers and pinnacles that jutted from its central pillar. Mingkirri looked a bit like a princess’s castle that she had seen in the books on the shelves of her school classroom. Or maybe like the winged rocket ships that blasted off on the morning television cartoons. But Mingkirri’s wings were made of red dirt and extended in multiple directions. These wings seemed to shade most of Mingkirri’s body from the sun no matter what time of day it was. Estherlita circumnavigated this natural wonder, running her fingers along its side. The surface on the sunny side was hot, but the other sections—the areas between Mingkirri’s wings—were cool. Estherlita had investigated the peculiar world of the local termite mounds many times before. In the crumbled ones she had found tubes and tunnels of various widths that appeared to venture deep underground. It was like the mounds had chimneys within them. But none of the buildings in her community had chimneys, because everybody lit their fires outside on the cold nights and gathered around them together.
Why would the termites need chimneys when they don’t light fires, she mused.
Her attention was snapped away again by Mr Roddy’s cursing and banging, and Waynead’s giggling beneath him. Waynead wasn’t bothering with steadying the ladder anymore, not that his skinny frame could stop Mr Roddy from falling anyway.
“Hey Mr?” Estherlita called across the small yard between them.
Mr Roddy half turned his head. “What’s she want?” he barked at Waynead.
“What you want?” Waynead asked in turn.
“What ‘bout Mingkirri?”
Mr Roddy ceased the banging and wiped the sweat from his brow. “What?” he demanded, amongst a series of puffs.
“What about Mingkirri? Here look,” she tried again, patting her hand instructively against the mound.
“What th’hells that?”
Estherlita thought again. “This mound here. It got no aircon.”
Mr Roddy turned to look at her, shielding his eyes from the descending sun. “Nah, it doesn’t.” He pulled a spanner from his apron and took up the banging with that instead.
The jarring sound was dreadful, so Estherlita quickly yelled over the top of it, “Well then how’s it stay cool?”
“Dunno,” Mr Roddy yelled over his shoulder, without breaking the cadence of his bangs.
“But why aren’t them termites standing with me in the shade?” she persisted.
“Dunno.” He began poking the side of the unit with a screwdriver.
“What he say?” Estherlita asked Waynead.
“Said he dunno.”
With a sigh, Estherlita walked the twenty short paces to them and reached up to pull at the hem of Mr Roddy’s coveralls.
“Ah for godsakes hun, what?” he snapped.
She pointed back toward the striking monolith. “Them termites aren’t banging on they aircon, because they got no aircon.”
Mr Roddy wiped more sweat from his brow and gave up on fixing the unit until he regained his breath. “Go on,” he said.
“Well, they got no aircon, but them termite fellas are still inside.”
Mr Roddy looked toward the formidable mound, a mound he’d walked past apathetically for 20 or so years, despite the fact that it had always towered above his store. Sometimes the grey nomads and European backpackers asked him to snap their photo in front of it. But other than those occasions, he had never so much regarded it as anything other than a shady spot for smokers.
“What do ya want to know, hun? Get it out.”
“How them stay cool?”
Estherlita’s inquiry had captured Waynead’s attention too, who stared up at Mr Roddy eagerly awaiting the answer.
After a few moments of cursory thought, Mr Roddy responded. “They just do.”
Estherlita was unsatisfied with the answer, but could not think of exactly what to ask next.
“Why don’t us?” Waynead asked in her place.
“Why don’t us what?” Mr Roddy asked back.
“We do; that’s why I’m fixing this air-conditioning unit.”
“But why this building need aircon, Mr?” Estherlita followed up on Waynead’s contribution. “Why don’t ya building just stay cool itself?”
“You know why, hun. Because of the sun. You know how hot it is here.”
Mr Roddy stepped down from the ladder and sat in the shade of Mingkirri. His clothing was drenched in sweat. “Without that damned thing, I couldn’t work here,” he said, pointing toward the silent, unsightly machine which jutted so inelegantly from the side of the brick and tin structure.
Both Waynead and Estherlita thought for a while. “So ya need a new one that don’t break!” Waynead announced, proud of himself.
Mr Roddy pursed his lips and gave an exaggerated nod. “Boy, you just pop down to the local aircon shop and get me one would ya.”
“There no aircon shop out here!” Waynead retorted, eyes wide and throwing his arms toward both ends of the horizon. Mr Roddy chuckled.
“He need a building like Mingkirri. A building that don’t need aircon,” said Estherlita.
Mr Roddy looked to the distance. A dust plume was gathering, which always signalled an approaching vehicle. As he stood, he graced Estherlita’s comment with a quick glance toward the nearest shop wall and considered her suggestion. “Hun, that ain’t possible. Maybe those termites can tolerate the heat better than us.” He began to walk toward the petrol bowser, anticipating his approaching customer’s needs.
“Tolerate?” she asked after him. But he paid her no further attention.
“Maybe he right, Es. Maybe them termite fellas don’t need to be cool,” Waynead offered.
Estherlita looked at Mingkirri, and doubted that very much. Her curls began to shift in the lifting breeze. “Nah bro, they need to be cool. They just better than us at knowing how to be cool.”
“Not me, Es!” Waynead gave her a mischievous grin and produced a wriggling gecko by its tail from his pocket. With a dash, he made for the inside of the shop as Mr Roddy fiddled with the petrol nozzle and fawned over the requests of his swanky-looking customers.
Mingkirri’s shadow stretched all the way to the store now. Estherlita followed its path back to Mingkirri’s side. She placed her hands against its hard walls and pressed her lips to its earth. It was cool to the touch. “Tell me ya secrets, fella,” she whispered against it and then turned her ear to listen.
“Excuse us, little Miss!” Estherlita spun to find an old, White couple staring at her. They wore clean clothes which covered their whole bodies and dark sunglasses. The man clutched a phone in his outstretched hand. “You know how to use this?”
Estherlita retreated a step, sheepish, and chose not to respond. The man shrugged, retracted his hand and tried to politely wave her away instead. “We’re just going to get a quick photo with this mound.”
Estherlita stood aside and watched the couple fit themselves inside the screen of a mobile phone. They smiled, the camera sounded, and then they strode hurriedly back to their car.
“It’s called Mingkirri,” she whispered after them, but the woman had already walked inside to pay whilst the man turned on the engine of the car and waited for her. The woman walked from the building, flustered and fanning herself, and then they were gone as quick as they arrived. Estherlita watched the dust follow them until the car disappeared over the horizon, toward the setting sun. The dusk breeze grew cooler and stronger. The tops of the desert grasses began to sway by the roadside and her curls danced about her jaw.
“You cheeky shit!” Estherlita heard Mr Roddy yell. Waynead tore outside in a fit of giggles. Mr Roddy hobbled after him, hurling curse words and other nonsensical expressions. Estherlita thought of the coming night and how it would be cold and appreciated that she needed to get her brother home to where it would be warm. She turned for one last look at Mingkirri and thought of the busy termites inside. She took comfort in the knowledge that they’d stay warm in the desert night. She didn’t know how but knew that one day she would find out.