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Climate clues beyond the four seasons myth



Any Australian who believes in four seasons is engaged in a form of climate denial. It's not an evidence-based belief. Spring, summer, autumn and winter are colonial constructs, not an objective truth.

Rearview shot of a male farmer tending to his crops. (Credit: pixdeluxe / Getty)I recently visited Thornbury Primary School in Melbourne's inner north, which has the largest Indigenous student population in Melbourne. There, the kids made a mural depicting the eight seasons of greater Melbourne.

Eight. Not six, as it was once thought, before a confluence of knowledges came to light. Many elders at the Wurundjeri Tribe Council now recognise the truth of this. I recognised it too, not because I'm from the Kulin nations (traditional custodians of the Port Phillip region), but because I'm from a family of farmers and horticulturists.

Those who propagate seeds and cultivars in Australia's temperate zones are aware that certain varieties only germinate in narrow temporal intervals, such as 'early spring' or 'mid-autumn'. Not merely 'spring' or 'autumn', because these taxonomies are absurdly broad.

Few Australian locations have four seasons in the northern hemisphere sense. Western Australia's Nyoongar Country has six, each representing the cycle of life. Yirrganydji traditional lands have five, and parts of Arnhem Land have three, each attuned to wetness, wind and humidity. Gariwerd Country, around Victoria's Grampians, has six seasons: right now it's Petyan, the season of tempestuous weather when the Emu constellation appears.

Each seasonal schema is specific to discrete cycles within regional landscapes and their attendant weather systems. To impose a one-size-fits-all classification onto this continent disregards millennia of First Nations knowledges.

In southern states, gardeners and farmers observe the eight seasons by cleaving the colonists' seasons into intra-seasonal segments. We determine these not according to numbers on a calendar but by observable conditions of humidity, dew-points, sunlight angles, radiant heat, wind patterns, warmth and wetness of topsoil, bandwidth of temperatures, woodiness and hormonal stages of new shoots, activities of bees, water-levels of creeks, migration of animals.


"If we want to understand our climate emergency's impacts on Australian landscapes, and the integrated ways we can respond and measure reparation, these First Nations seasonal schemas inform us in ways settler models can't."


All these patterns change dramatically in the course of weeks — they can't be neatly generalised into quarterly calendar instalments. It's by a constellation of conditions that many farmers understand that harvest-seasons, or times to plant for optimal yields, are imminent.

If we want to understand our climate emergency's impacts on Australian landscapes, and the integrated ways we can respond and measure reparation, these First Nations seasonal schemas inform us in ways settler models can't. In my locality, they advise me when to harvest and when to plant.

This is especially important for the nascent revival of sustainable and rapidly-commercialising bush foods such as the yam daisy, warrigal greens, kangaroo apple, native finger lime, wattle seed and so on. These hardy cash crops are uniquely suited to Australian soils and climate, and the best chance we have for land regeneration and locavore habits that can redress some of the impacts of climate change.

For organic and biodynamic farmers, seasonal specificities can also involve lunar cycles and micro-climactic conditions. In his 2015 book The Eight Wurundjeri Seasons in Melbourne, Dr Jim Poulter describes how Indigenous seasons and their attendant stories and practices are simpatico with (and governed by) a lunar calendar. Consulting with generations of Wurundjeri people and historical records, Poulter documents seasonal stories: time of eel spawning; time for fish traps, clan gatherings, possum cloak-making, burning time, artefact making, women's business, men's business, and bark harvest.

Indigenous seasons inform us about right practice in right country. They aren't unknowable secrets of an insider-group. Elders want all Australians to ask questions and appropriately revive them. Victoria's Treaty Advancement Commissioner, Gunditjmara woman Jill Gallagher, has said we need to learn Indigenous seasons because they're 'much more climate-appropriate than the European imports we commonly refer to'. Wurundjeri elder Uncle Bill Nicholson has said seasonal knowledge is 'carried by the few. I'm sad to say that.'

But it needn't be this way. Across Australia, many Indigenous councils, firefighting agencies and state land management bodies share this knowledge with those who ask for it. The Bureau of Meteorology offers a website mapping Indigenous seasons particular to Australian localities.

All of us, in our work and conversations, can investigate this knowledge, use and promote it. If we want to understand the impacts of climate change, regenerate our farms, or enjoy reparation with our First Nations people, reviving seasonal classifications is an obvious way to connect — not just with Indigenous wisdom, but with the truth of our climate.

Where I live, it isn't merely spring. It's moving out of the Wintoonth season of regeneration, and into the Myrnong season: time to harvest yam daisy; time when the Bogong moths migrate to higher plains, and when the white tea tree is promising to flower.



Katherine WilsonKatherine Wilson is a writer and former co-editor of Overland. She has a PhD in cultural studies.

Main imagecredit: pixdeluxe / Getty

Topic tags: Katherine Wilson, Aboriginal, climate, seasons, Melbourne



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Existing comments

This is delightful writing, Katherine. It is sensitive and touching as good writing about seasons and plantings can be. Indigenous peoples have a special connection to the land, this land and know so much about the delicate interactions of sky, earth and water.

Pam | 08 November 2019  

I agree with the sense of this article, and thank you, but I cringe at the term 'our Indigenous Australians'. It's patronising at best; it denies inclusivity, it reaffirms the 'through white eyes' view point and continues the settler 'it's ours' mentality. Hopefully, our settler mentality will become more inclusive the more we understand the wisdom of how this country works, and we will begin to see ourselves as part of this land which we have come to and joined in; it's a very immature view to see ourselves as always at the centre. It is relationship with everything and everyone that needs to be the antidote to this mind set. Hopefully by embracing this knowledge and participating in it we will begin to see the depth of how it all works, and our hearts will evolve. If European science had have embraced Goethe's ideas rather than Newton's, the world would be a much different place now.

Katinka Smit | 08 November 2019  

Katherine offers good advice, particularly for people on the land, where a keen eye on weather patterns inform reasonably accurate weather prediction in the short term. As for Indigenous communities, four seasons is insufficient to partition the year for people scheduling crop and stock management. However, for us city dwellers, the four seasons would more accurately partition our years if we used the sun more directly to divide our seasons - as is more common in continental Europe. Setting the start of summer on the summer solstice, autumn on the March equinox, winter on the winter solstice and spring on the September equinox would more closely align the nominal, with the actual, four seasons.

Ian Fraser | 08 November 2019  

Thank you to the commenters for insights! Just a note on Katinka Smit's comment: nowhere in the article is the term "our Indigenous Australians"; nor "Indigenous Australians".

Kath Wilson | 10 November 2019  

very interesting. Thank you. We should publicise this more. Joe

Joe Sicher | 10 November 2019  

Thanks for this article. I would like to know more but it seems Jim Poulter's book is out of print. Are there other resources for the Wurundjeri lands where I live?

Rodney Horsfield | 11 November 2019  

Refreshing article and in keeping with the evolving contemporary understanding of the continuing cultures and traditions that pre date European arrival. Much responsibility rests with government, educators and the broader community to ensure that the younger generation is well versed on such matters that will withstand the test of time. For those looking for a brief read then there is lots online including Seasonal Calendars For the Melbourne Area by Dr Beth Gott of Monash University.

Rob | 16 November 2019  

Where I grew up, we got those bitterly cold westerly winds every August. It wasn't a 'winter' thing - it was an August thing. But this year they came sporadically through September instead. And last year it was different too.

Melanie | 17 November 2019  

Apologies to you Katherine, I misquoted and that's one way to make a public fool of yourself. I refer instead to 'our First Nations People'.

Katinka Smit | 09 December 2019  

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