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Monday, 6 March 2017

Thinking about seasons

Well, the manuscript of Australian Backyard Earth Scientist has gone to the editor, so here's a small sample. I had a lot of fun writing this, because while it was on the slab, I played the role of "visiting scientist" at a local school, and I shared the progressively tweaked drafts with five Stage 2 (Year 3/4) classes. All of my best stuff comes when I write stuff to be read, and this is more polished than most.

I declare myself fairly happy with it, but till to come are the improvements the editor will make. Jo Karmel is my favourite and she knows my foibles, and this is nearly there. In essence, this little essay seeks to get kids thinking differently.

So this is an unpolished taster for people to savour. For more, you'll have to wait a while.

The PBI at the end is a 'Partly Baked Idea', an open-ended question for readers to play with. The book has lots of those.

In the northern hemisphere, away from the tropics, they have four seasons: spring, summer, autumn and winter, but is that number right for Australia? Much of Australia doesn’t have a real winter, leaving just three seasons, but there might be five or six seasons in other places.

The First Fleeters called Australia “a land of contrarieties”. The swans were black, not white; trees kept their leaves but dropped their bark; it was warm on the hills and cool in the valleys; the eagles were white; the bees had no sting — and the seasons were the wrong way around!

Telopea speciosissima or waratah,
a spring marker for Sydney.
Legend says the NSW Corps soldiers changed between winter and summer uniforms, using seasons based on the first days of March, June, September and December.

Those arbitrary dates worked, sort of. The invaders might have been better off with the natural calendar of the Dharawal people of Sydney. You can find the details on the internet, if you search on <Dharawal seasons>.

This chapter was written during Ngoonungi, which is cool, getting warmer, when the Miwa Gawaian (waratah) flowers.

 Ngoonungi is also the time of the gathering of the flying foxes. In my part of Sydney, just north of Dharawal lands, as dusk gathers each night, I see these fruit bats fluttering east along the valley below me, sometimes near my window, rushing to gorge on figs nearby.
Flying foxes over Manly Vale, as seen from Fairlight.
Seeing them, I know the time has come to work barefoot by day. It is my season of happy toes, lasting eight delicious months.

Far to my north, in Yolngu country, the stringybark is in flower then, as Rarranhdharr comes to an end. In the Anangu Pitjantjatjara country, which we call the north of South Australia, it is the end of Piriyakutu/Piriya-Piriya, when the hibernating reptiles come out. In Western Australia, the Noongar people call this time Kambarang, when the rain gets less, and the quandong is in fruit.

I notice the first blowfly, cicada or koel; the first magpie attack; the first funnelweb in the swimming pool or the first Christmas beetle. My children knew it was proper summer when the first Bogong moth started banging around on the ceiling at night.

Angophora costata, or Sydney Smooth-barked Apple,
shedding its bark, November, Forty Baskets area.
My high summer starts when the trunks of the Sydney smooth-barked apple, Angophora costata, turn orange-brown in mid-November. We take friends on mystery walks through a grove of these trees, just to watch their delight.

Sydney’s very first jacaranda comes out each year at Circular Quay, and I saw it the day I wrote this. The day I saw the first orange tinges on the Angophoras, I noticed that the Quay jacarandas were in decline. I also notice the first evening storms with warm rain that people want to run around in, and the first big electrical storm that people should not run around in.

But what do city folk use as season markers? I asked my friends, and we found these: the first time your breath comes out of your mouth like smoke, as the water vapour in your breath condenses in the cold; the time when parents stop nagging their children to wear a hat and have to start nagging them to wear a jumper, or when you wake up in spring and hate the thought of porridge, so you switch to muesli — and when you go back again, in autumn.

I really loved this thought from Anil Tortop, a Turkish-born illustrator in Brisbane: “The time I use/stop using the hair dryer. Or when ants start to invade the kitchen. Or when geckos start singing all together.”

A PBI: remember, all the PBIs are your play spaces!
What seasons would you like to use? There are no rules about numbers, but most Indigenous calendars seem to have six seasons.

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