Sunday, March 22, 2009

Recognising Autumn

How do we recognise a change in season? I note that North American garden bloggers count Spring as arriving at the Equinox. Autumn officially starts here on the 1st of March, and if you go by your senses, it arrived quite close to that date.

We have had some rain, in fact it is raining now. The dew is heavy on the grass, the air cool in the mornings. The sky is no longer deep blue, but electric blue, and there are interesting clouds, a change from the fair-weather cumulus or harsh clear skies of summer. Today, we have cirrus. The light is softer and shadows bluish.

The grass is cool and bends under my feet, no longer sere. The pumpkins are waxing, their vines waning, and it is the time to sow all sorts of things. We planted our sweet peas before St Patrick's Day, as is traditional here. I could be planting, but it's the wrong time to do it in the lunar calendar, so I will hold off a week. In the Blue Mountains, the peach season is definitely over and the apples are ripe (we picked up some delicious jam and a few bags of apples on a trip last weekend). My Scribbly Gum has been flowering.

How do your senses tell you that the season has turned in your locality?

I ask because I have been reading a beautiful book, D'harawal Seasons and Climatic Cycles*. The writer is Frances Bodkin, a knowledge-holder of the D'harawal people, whose traditional lands probably include Chookie's Back Yard. Originally written for children, the book intersperses Law Stories, such as "How the Parrots Got Their Colours" with information on the daily, yearly, and longer weather cycles. I have seen, heard and felt some of these cycles myself.

The D'harawal count six seasons:

Ngoonungi, Time of the Flying Fox: Spring, which is a short season in Sydney, about September-October. The waratah and many other flowers bloom and flying foxes gather. Mating season of many smaller marsupials. Shellfish form a large part of the diet. As the whales migrate down the coast with their calves, important ceremonies are held to wish them well.

Parra'dowee, Time of the Eel: Begins with the flowering of Acacia binervia and covers roughly October to December. The freshwater eels begin their journey to the ocean to mate and die. It is also mating season for egrets, turtles and lace monitors. Fish and prawns are a large part of the diet.

Burran, Time of the Kangaroo: The hot season, January-February, begins with the blooming of Acacia implexa. The staple diet is fruit, seeds and tubers. Meat and fish are forbidden, partly because such food spoils so quickly and partly because it is mating season for kangaroos and wallabies.

Marrai'gang, Time of the Quoll: Mating season for quolls, roughly March, April and May. A wetter time of year. Quolls are quiet and secretive, except during the mating season, when they call to each other. Lilly pillies, good eating, drop from the trees. Young male animals may now be eaten, and fire prevention work is undertaken. Golden orb spiders spin their beautiful strong webs.

Burrugin, Time of the Echidna: The Eucalyptus tereticornis flowers, and the weather is cold -- this season covers June and July. Shellfish is forbidden (in fact, Sydney Rock Oysters are known to be poor eating at this time of year, as it follows spawning). As the Gymea Lily flower-stem begins to redden, women sing the whales north to their calving grounds. Nesting season begins for many birds, including the magpie, which can be aggressive in protecting its nest.

Wiritjiribin, Time of the Lyrebird: The days are growing longer, but the weather is still cold, and the winds of August begin as the Acacia floribunda flowers. The lyrebird builds his dancing mound and sings his mating song. It is also mating season for antechinus, pelicans, booboook owls and willie wagtails. As this season ends, the winds end with it and the scented Acacia decurrens blooms.

The D'harawal perceive a Mudong Cycle, roughly twelve years long. It has eight phases, which are of variable lengths: hot and dry, then cooler and wetter, cold and wet, warm and wet, hot and wet, cooler and drier, cold and dry, warmer and drier. Could this be related to the El Nino-Southern Oscillation and similar effects?

There is a Moon Cycle, about twenty years long. At its start, the moon rises at its southernmost point and food is plentiful, so the great Law Gatherings are held. There is also a Fire Cycle about 60 years long, with the peak being a time of terrible bushfires. I wonder if we are passing through that peak now?

The longest known cycle is called Garuwanga (Dreaming), and has four seasons, the Time of Fire, when sea levels rise until South Head is an island; the Cooling Time of Renewal, when sea levels fall; the Time of Cold, when the seashore is three days' walk east of South Head and the ground is frosty every morning; and then the long Warming Time of Renewal when the seas rise slowly again. The entire cycle lasts about 12-20,000 years.

The knowledge-holders all believe that there is a far larger cycle that acts upon the Garuwanga Cycle, because the variations recorded in the stories (for the D'harawal remember at least four Garuwanga Seasons of Cold and four of Fire) indicate that the severity of Cold times has been decreasing, while the severity of Hot times has been increasing.

Beautifully illustrated and easy to read, everyone in the Sydney Basin should buy a copy to extend their understanding of our environment and of indigenous culture. A poster of the annual seasons is also available.

*Bodkin, F. & Robertson, L., (2008). D'harawal seasons and climatic cycles. F. Bodkin & L. Robertson, Sydney.
ISBN: 978-0-9804810-1-3


Anonymous said...

It sounds an amazing book. I will look out for it.

Anonymous said...

That book sounds fascinating, I wish I could find something similar for the Brisbane area.

Anonymous said...

An interesting book for your area. I like hearing how it's autumn for some people right now- sometimes you forget about the rest of the world when you're too involved with your own life. :) Indeed, the first day of spring has come and gone last Friday here in the northern hemisphere. It sounds a bit silly, but I can smell the seasons change. Each has it's own scent in the wind. I can even smell transitions between the four sesons, like midsummer from late summer. With all the different plants and flowers, their impact on the smells in the wind means a lot to me and my senses. But of course there are always the visual signs too in the form of critters- different birds coming back or emerging from the forests they have been hiding in, the return of skunks, racoons, and wood chucks, the change in songs of the birds that have been here all winter. All are different natural signs that a lot of people don't see unless they are paying attention. :)

Linda said...

I usually call autumn when the first Autumn Crocus comes up - but they are a bit confused this year. Also, there is suddenly a different "feel" in the air in the morning. And the ornamental grapes start to change colour.

More on



Chookie said...

WJC, it's a lovely book, and your daughter will probably enjoy it too.

Kate, keep your eye on the Indigenous Weather Network site. You could also contact your nearest Land Council to ask if they plan to participate.

Sensiblevermonter, I know what you mean about scent, but I hope that doesn't apply to the skunks too often!

Linda, I love Autumn Crocus but can't grow them here at all -- I'm jealous! Our mornings have been cool and dewy.

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