Beyond the Gregorian Calendar: Nature’s Ties with Time

A look into the Indigenous seasons of the Walmajarri and Gooniyandi in the northern coastlines of Australia.

The average Australian generally refers to their calendar to determine what season they’re in. We know to bring out our coats on first of June for winter and to fold away those extra layers on the first of December knowing summertime has begun.

Those of us living in modern urban environments rarely consider the changing seasons around us in our busy day-to-day lives. For the most part, we’re disconnected from the intrinsic effects of nature and its ties to the seasonal calendar.

Contrastingly, plants, animals and fungi don’t take their cues from the Gregorian calendar. They grow and change in relation to shifts in temperature, moisture levels and the length of day, in addition to innate factors within their organisms. Certain fruits will ripen, some animals will produce young, some grow a winter coat, others migrate or even disappear.

Combining these factors and more, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge of the environment draws from meteorological, hydrological, biological, and spiritual observations. This creates a knowledge system that is unique and complementary to the western, scientific understanding of the world around us.

Lizard - C53 Vansittart Bay - Sept 28

Indigenous people have historically looked to the plants, water, winds, animals and stars and how they interact to determine the seasons. Through this approach, significant shifts in weather conditions are ascertained by watching the behaviour of the wildlife.

A feature that underpins this Indigenous understanding of the land is viewing animal, plants and all other components of nature holistically. For example, in Fitzroy Valley, Western Australia, the native Walmajarri people note the beginning of parranga (hot weather time or summer) when the partiri (flowers) are in bloom. They also know it is a good time to collect kakaru (freshwater mussel) when the kurrumpa (paperbark tree) is in flower and as a result, the droppings of the papaku (flying fox) that feed on the nectar fall into the water, feeding the kakaru. During this time, the nyanypu (sand frogs) are known to hibernate in the sandbanks along the river and will be seen on the surface when the first rains of the wet season fall.

Yitilal represents raining time (wet season) when two fig trees flourish along the banks of creeks and rivers: jurlupi (ficus coronulata) and jamaraj (ficus racemosa). The heavy rain washes the figs into the water, feeding the fish. Grasshoppers are plentiful during this time and are used as bait for catching fish such as kurlumajarti (catfish) and marrpawurl (archer fish). During warrampa (floodwater time) the larger of the kuwarniya (freshwater crocodiles) can be spotted drifting towards the surface of the water while the smaller kuwarniya hide out of sight.

As time passes, yitilal ends and makurra (cold season or winter) begins. Young karnanganyja (emu), pinkirrjarti (turkey) and kurrartu (brolga) are now hatching, with mating season having ended with yitilal. During this time, lakarnti (witcheti grub) are plentiful. These can be retrieved from the trunk of white gums along the river and are either consumed raw or cooked on hot coals as a protein rich food.

Within the Gooniyandi seasonal calendar, the first rainstorm of the wet season is called barndiwiri. These rains cause the girndi (black plum) flowers to fall to the ground and the seasonal fruits to grow. The locals say that the light given off by the fireflies cooks this fruit to ripeness. During this time while the water is still flowing, the wilarrabi and diwiwi (turtles) lay their eggs along the mud that fringes the riverbanks.

As the rains of the wet season cease falling, the direction of the wind changes and gusts of the garrawoorda wind are felt from the south. At this time the water level is high, indicating ideal time for sawfish fishing.

Crocodile at Porosus Creek

The name given to the rains that occur after monsoon season is gooloowa, these fall as ngamari (the female cold season) begins. This is when the moonggoowarla wind blows from the east, cooling down the average daily temperature. It is said that fish close their mouths when the moonggoowarla wind is blowing and is also known as a challenging time for fishing. During the next weather transition into girlinggoowa (mild cold weather time), the native wallabies and kangaroos moult as the hot weather approaches.

These methods of determining time are detailed, linked and location specific. As this approach to determining seasons is heavily based on weather and nature patterns, Indigenous groups in different areas in the country have unique systems to match their differing conditions year-round.

For example, located in the south-west of Western Australia, the Ngadju community have developed a seasonal calendar specific to the natural movements and occurrences in their region. The year is broken into two main seasons, ngarnngi (hot time) and kaluru (cold time). The white flowers produced by the jutumul (goldfields daisy) represent the readiness of the ngawu (egging season) foods and the shift from karrlkunja (mating season) into ngawu. A boomerang shaped (crescent) moon indicates a good time to hunt as kangaroos and other animals move about more freely in the night time due to less moonlight.

The knowledge and systems of the Indigenous seasonal calendars have been proven effective in scientific and ecological application. For example, the seasonal knowledge of the Indigenous communities of Australia have informed and benefitted in adaptive savanna burning in Northern Australia in order to manage fires in the area.

Additionally, studies have shown that constellation appearance can be linked to important wildlife behaviours including whale migration movement along the east coast. These collaboration opportunities and scientifically proven links are being realised by the western world, catching up on the knowledge Indigenous communities have accumulated over many years of living on the land.

The unique aspect of this method of monitoring nature to determine the seasons is that it draws on life cycles of animals and plants that Western science does not, developing a level of nature management that has been flagged as beneficial to consider in future conservation, climate change monitoring and environmental management efforts.

Coral Expeditions are the pioneers of Australian expedition cruising and experts of the northern Australia region. Having developed a deep knowledge of the land and its flora and fauna over the years, we delight in sharing our passion for the people, nature and culture of these lands and its many shifts in seasons. Learn more about our voyages here.

Further reading:

Walmajarri seasons calendar

Gooniyandi seasons calendar

Ngadju seasons calendar

PDF of Australian Aboriginal ethnometeorology and seasonal calendars in History & Anthropology by P.A Clarke.