Ants mastered husbandry way before us — about 50 million years ago — and they still continue farming today.
I’ve been on a diet lately, which is another way of saying that I’ve cut down on sweets and dairy and anything else that might be making an excessive contribution to my calorie intake. I’ve never been the type to worry about my weight, and I’m not now; it’s just that I’d like to fit into my clothes more comfortably. Or, in one particular case, fit into them at all. So I’ve engaged my vast reserves of mental discipline in order to lay off the cheese, the chocolate, the breakfast drinks… *sigh* Instead I’ve tried to eat more fresh fruit and vegetables.
I’ve done reasonably well at this except, after a few days, I found myself wandering forlornly around the kitchen looking for a snack. The kind of snack that wasn’t sitting in the fruit bowl or the vegetable crisper. I would have a craving for something sweet and gaze longingly at my parents’ chocolate stash (the brand of which I don’t even like). I realised that the only way to solve my problem was to make myself something (so that I knew all the ingredients) naughty enough to satisfy the sweet-craving and healthy enough not to trip the guilt-wire.
I chose this recipe, for a chocolatey, peanutty, rolled oat slice.
It worked pretty well, except that the mixture only filled half of a 10′ by 6′ baking tray, and not even all the way to the top. As I’d planned to share it with my family and some friends, I made a second batch to fill the rest of the tray. I also found that when stirring the oats in the mixture becomes stodgy quite fast. I addressed this by adding a few splashes of milk to help me mix everything through. Otherwise it was pretty good… for a healthy treat.
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.
The 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.
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.
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.
October is upon us once more. A long, cold southern Australian winter is slowly subsiding into an exuberantly floral spring. Swathes of flowers and lush grasses decorate parks and gardens and verges all over the neighbourhood. It’s a beautiful walk from my house to the bus stop, but I’d enjoy it more if I could stop sneezing. I’ve been in the throws of hay-fever every morning now for weeks. Strangely enough, it seems that while my nose is sensitive to pollen, it’s not even slightly bothered by actual hay. This was a good thing, as last week I spent the best part of two days ankle deep in the stuff.
The year marches on. The Royal Show has been and gone again. This year I was assigned duty in the chick-cuddling and pig-patting pens in the biggest animal pavilion. On Monday (last week) I spent several hours scooping cheeping bundles of yellow fluff out of an incubator, handing them out to awe-struck children (and adults), and returning them safe again. Although I’m not keen on most species of bird, and decidedly apprehensive of a few of them, I’ve always been fond of chickens. The adult hens and roosters – of which they were plenty on display in the bird pavilion – are magnificent. But the infant chicks are just handfuls of delight. Pocket-sized, down-covered bodies with delicate wings and scrawny, scrabbly legs; shining black eyes with tissue-soft grey eyelids, and tiny, pale-pink beaks. They are some of the most endearing babies of the animal kingdom. To hold them and feel their body-warmth, their pattering heartbeats and small, heaving breaths is one of those privately magical experiences worth more than all the rides, food and cheap junk at the Show. Watching small children hold the chicks carefully, marvelling at the little pockets of life in their hands, was truly the icing on the cake.
Then, on Wednesday, I was with the piglets. This was a bit different as it involved less rushing around and less gentleness but probably more vigilance. The piglets – of which we had three at a time – were lively and energetic. They weren’t the slightest bit bothered by the curious and affectionate hands feeling over them, but weren’t particularly engaged with them either. They charged happily around the pen, nibbling shoelaces and occasionally attempting to escape. The squeaked and grunted constantly and pressed their damp, pink snouts into everything and everyone. I loved it. All we (there were only two of us – as opposed to the four or five in with the chicks) had to do was manage the number people in and out of the gate and prevent them from picking up the piglets (who would squeal ear-splittingly if they did). And prevent the piglets from getting out of the gate. You really wouldn’t credit how strong a three-week old pig could be until you’ve tried to redirect them from where they want to go. Aside from that it was plain sailing, and great pleasure watching the kids petting the warm and snuffly animals. There were two particularly humorous incidents, of the same kind but on separate occasions. In both instances a small boy, who had been happily cuddling the piglets, looked me in the face and asked with genuine curiosity, “Why do they smell like bacon?”
Unfortunately I have no pictorial evidence of my volunteering. Partly because I was too busy working to take photographs in the pen, and partly because, on the second day I was there, the family iPad met a sorry end. What happened was simply that the cap came off my water bottle and spilled a lot of water inside my bag. I lost a handful of photographs from the show and several dozen from a family afternoon-tea (at which my uncle also took pictures) but thankfully nothing more important. The iPad (which was not recent purchase) is probably covered by insurance.
However, the previous week’s expedition to the botanical gardens had already been uploaded to my computer. And so I can present to you the colourful expression of native Australian spring!
In an unprecedented move thousands of activists from some 200 Native American nations are assembling in an isolated region of North Dakota, a mid-western state on the US-Canada border, to protest the construction of a huge new oil pipeline through the area. The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), a $3.8 billion project, is expected to carry 570,000 barrels […]