A Season For Everything

At about this time last year I wrote a long post about Hallowe’en, and its odd discordance in Australia. I made a passing reference to the fact that aboriginal peoples would have their own understanding of seasonal cycles, but didn’t investigate further. This year (or at least this semester) I’ve taken it upon myself to broaden my knowledge of aboriginal culture and history. Being born and bred in the southwestern part of Australia, I decided to focus my research on the aboriginal nation that belonged to this area: the Noongar* people.

noongar-seasonsThe first and most notable thing that I discovered about the Noongar perception of seasons is that there aren’t four of them. There are six. Why? Because climatic cycles in the south-Western part of Australia just don’t happen the way that they do in most of Europe, or in other parts of Australia for that matter. Of course I’m not just referring to the fact that our seasons are “upside-down”. We also have much more variable weather patterns, which don’t always align with the traditional (read: European) schedule. The Noongar people are well aware of this and sensibly appreciate the seasons as a cycle of six, with about two months in each, according to the Western schema**.

Birak, which I find is usually given as the first season, is a period of hot and dry weather. It corresponds roughly to December and January. However Bunuru, corresponding to February and March, is actually the hottest part of the year. Cooler weather begins in Djeran, which corresponds to April and May. Makuru is the coldest and rainiest part of the year, with strong winds and big storms, corresponding to June and July. The wet weather begins to clear up in Djilba, with clear and rainy days interspersed. This is usually in August and September. The dry weather begins again in Kambarang, the sixth season, corresponding to October and November. It’s currently one week into October and I think it’s safe to say that we’re in Kambarang. It threatened rain earlier this morning but now the sun is shining warmly and there’s only a slight breeze.

banksia-menziesii-6
The Firewood Banksia, native to southwestern Australia, which flowers in October.

That’s the other thing about the Noongar seasons: There’s no fixed date for when they change. Historically this was true of European seasons as well, especially for thoroughly agricultural societies such as the Ancient Celts. The Fire Festival marking the end of autumn – known as Samhain, or All Hallows’ Eve in the Christian calendar – occurred when the last harvests had been brought in and it was time to bring the cattle down from their summer pastures to winter near the farmstead. This usually happened at the end of October, but was variable depending on the weather that year. Similarly, the Noonger seasons are recognized by specific changes in the natural world, such as plants flowering or birds moulting.

As with agricultural societies in Europe, this knowledge was integral to the Noongar way of life. Historically the six seasons determined where Noongar people would make camp, what foodstuffs they would hunt and gather, what items they would make and what other activities, such as trading, that they would engage in. The Noongar people were in complete synchrony with their environment and this allowed them to live sustainably on the land for tens of thousands of years.

fire
A Noongar performs a traditional dance by a roaring campfire.

Having learnt about this, my next question was if the Noongar people have seasonal celebrations, to mark the end of one pattern of living and the beginning of another. The answer, so far as I can tell, is no. The Noongar people did historically have particular times when people came together and held corroborree, but I can’t find any information to suggest that this happened at the beginning or end of seasons. Likewise, I can’t find anything that says that particular rites of passage, such as coming-of-age or weddings, were traditionally conducted at a specific time of year. That said, I have no doubt that the Noongar people had and continue to have many important rituals connected to the cycle of seasons. But I haven’t found anything that would correspond to the Celtic Fire Festivals, for instances, or the Germanic midpoint celebrations such as Midsummer and Yule. If anyone, particularly anyone who is a Noongar, would like to share any knowledge on this subject, I would greatly appreciate it!

*There are many different ways of spelling the name Noongar, such as Nyungar, Nyoongar and Noongah. I have used “Noongar” because I think it is the most common variation.

**The Noongar people do not use any measure of time that corresponds to a month. They do have a sophisticated understanding of lunar cycles, which informs crucial knowledge of many animals’ reproductive patterns, as well as the best times to carry out certain activities.

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