Thursday, 12 November 2009

As Sprummer turns to Summer

As the uncertain season of sprummer (October and November) settles into good old reliable summer, you should notice the weather settling down and the heat persisting. I spoke Wednesday on ABC Radio in Adelaide, and they quite liked the idea of an extra season even though they are 'enjoying' an unseasonable early summer.

Apart from becoming a regular commentator on the weather, something that surprises me as much as anyone else, I'm collecting my thoughts (and some words) for a book on 'seasons'. The idea is to talk about when seasons started, how people define them in different parts of the world and why none of these systems work particularly well in Australia.

Building on the great work already done by others such as Beth Gott and the Indigenous Weather Knowledge group, I'd like to explore how Aboriginal communities have recognised seasons over tens of thousands of years, why we should have different seasons in different parts of the country, and then a chapter on each of the five seasons I'd like to adopt in Sydney.

Of course it will be an excuse to stand on a few other soap boxes, such as when we should celebrate Wattle Day (I prefer 1 August). The season chapters will also be a chance to talk about how our native and garden plant-worlds respond to seasonal changes.

My early research has already turned up a few surprises. I didn't know, for example, that at least parts of the United Kingdom start their spring on 1 February, which equates to 1 August in our hemisphere. This, you may recall (or read below) is when I think spring (or sprinter) should start here in Sydney!

In 'the States' and I think much of 'the continent', spring starts with the equinox around 21 March (for us, 21 September). Here in Australia and interestingly also in Russia, I gather, spring starts on 1 September/1 March. Plenty more countries to research and I'm looking forward to delving into the East. A talk-backer on Adelaide radio said China has four seasons but they are further divided up depending on where you are in the country. As it happens, I'll be in Guangzhou next week and I'll certainly be asking some questions.

And then if we turn to Aboriginal Australia there are communities with 2, 4, 5 or 6 seasons, and I'm only just scratching the surface of that knowledge.

Just for the record, here is a short essay I wrote for the summer edition of The Gardens, the quarterly magazine of The Friends of the Gardens. I've covered some of this ground in previous posts but this provides a good summary of my current thoughts and a few of the people who have influenced me, so far. And the title I'm giving my essay here is my working title for The Book!

IN DUE SEASON (from The Gardens)

You’ve just been enjoying the season of ‘presummer’ (or perhaps ‘sprummer’ or ‘cantankerous weather time’). That’s October and November, between the new, early spring (‘sprinter’ or ‘flowering spring’) of August and September. Ahead of you is the long hot summer from December to March, an autumn (of sorts, in coastal Sydney) in April and May, and nice short winter in June and July.

How does it feel? At least you are starting to think about the changes in climate and biology, not just celebrating an odd seasonal system imported from Europe. Why should there be four seasons, each three months long, and why should they be the same all around the world?

The Old World Vivaldi seasons don’t make sense across a vast continent like Australia, and they don’t make sense in Sydney or New South Wales.

Many people before me have suggested a new set of seasons. Our Indigenous communities have watched the world around them over tens of thousands of years, and come up with seasons to suite their local area. South of Sydney, the D’harawal have six seasons, linked to the availability of food (plant and animal) and even moods induced by weather changes.

There are problems of course in tailoring seasons for local regions. Daylight savings and rugby cause enough interstate debate already. Every year will be slightly different, and the seasons will drift with global warming. Could we agree on a set of seasons, even for a small region like coastal Sydney?

I’ve already mentioned the D’harwal have six. I’ve suggested five, after consultation with a few weather and environment watchers around Sydney, including ex-teacher and enthusiastic climate watcher from Baulkham Hills, Rick Kemp.

Kevin McDonald, coordinator of a program called Nature Watch, and Ken Shafer, a retired School Principal and active participant in Allan Reid’s Timelines Project in the 1990s, prefer six seasons. One iteration of this system has each season two months, and splits the wattle flowering in July/August from the peak spring flowering in September/October.

All of these options were championed a few months ago by Newcastle Herald columnist Jeff Corbett, who has rallied for some time against our passive acceptance of the British seasons.

Every August I fend off questions about whether spring has come early and whether this is a harbinger of global warming. Both may be true but the ‘flowering spring’ around coastal Sydney starts in late July and early August. Cold or warm, the wattles bloom – not all of them of course, but there is a definite flush around Sydney and in fact around much of the country in August. My colleagues in botanic gardens around the country don’t all agree with my push to refresh our seasons but most observe the August wattle blooming.

If we are too conservative to change seasons, let’s at least celebrate these shifts in climate and the natural world with festive days such as Wattle Day. To start, we could move Wattle Day back to 1 August, where it sat for a few decades between the two World Wars in the twentieth century. I know the history of Wattle Day and that it was proclaimed nationally in 1992, but why have it clinging to the start of the European spring (assuming we use 1 and not 21 September, but that’s whole other discussion). We could then have Telopea Day on October 1, Hyacinth Orchid Day December 1, Banksia Day April 1, and maybe Grevillea or Camellia Day June 1.

I think it's a discussion we need to have. Before we can detect and talk about changes in our gardens or the bush due to climate change, we should sort out our seasons or at least the recognition we give to regular climatic and biological cycles.

It would help to have good scientific data, and to build on some of the community monitoring programs of the past. PlantWatch, which I championed last year (The Gardens, autumn 2008), has morphed into ClimateWatch, a partnership with EarthWatch. If you want to take part in this community monitoring program (of animals and plants) register at or contact Ifeanna Tooth, our ClimateWatch Coordinator at the Botanic Gardens Trust.

In the meantime, we’ve started planning for a spring festival in 2010, to be held in August, in due season.

Image: this is part of the beautiful illustration of the new seasons prepared by Karen Rinkel (for the full pictures, see earlier post)

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