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Memories to pique climate conscience



The way we decide when a season starts has always struck me as somewhat random. I know that the meteorological calendar provides the basis for ideas about what comes when and it is by virtue of that calendar's settings that northern hemisphere seasons are proposed.

Leaves in different stages on a wooden table (optop/Getty)So in England, in accordance with the meteorological calendar, the seasons are defined as spring (March, April, May), summer (June, July, August), autumn (September, October, November) and winter (December, January, February). In Australia, we copy these arrangements, having due regard for antipodean eccentricity, so that summer is in December, January, February, autumn in March, April, May, winter is June, July, August and spring September, October, November.

So, as August 31 looms, it is not only a time when, in some states at least, you should think about registering your dog; it's also the very eve of the southern spring. As 19th century Australian poet Henry Kendall saw it: 'Grey Winter hath gone like a wearisome guest,/And, behold, for repayment/September comes in with the wind of the West,/And the Spring in her raiment ... September! the maid with the swift silver feet/She glides and she graces/The valleys of coolness, the slopes of the heat,/With her blossomy traces.'

Kendall was doing his best: like his contemporary brother and sister poets, he had missed the entire Romantic Revolution, the Keatsian, Byronic, Shellyean sensations of which arrived late and slowly in the great South Land and, in any case, scarcely found much resonance in the antipodean seasons. Kendall's personification of September is a good try — but no cigar — because personification distances rather than animates the subject.

Endowing the seasons with actual names — as distinct from their quarterly meteorological positioning — introduces some colour and a poetic note. It adds no further accuracy but is attractively a part of the national rather than exclusively the scientific language of seasonal change. Italy and Spain's primavera and primaverile respectively and the American 'fall' for autumn are examples of nomenclature that has escaped from the lineaments of meteorology.

There's another problem, I think, with the neat deployment of the seasons, quarter by quarter through the 12 months of the calendar year, and that is that no one has told Nature about it. As relatively venerable Eureka Streeters will probably agree (I'm one for sure: my GP announced to me some years ago, 'You are about to become an older person'), past summers seemed longer — 'a joyous time of sun and shade, heat and breeze, turrets of massing cloud and eagerly awaited cool changes' as someone close to me recalls.

School holidays seemed endless, cicadas deafening. The water at suburban beaches flashed sunlight from emerald ripples, and Test cricket and Davis Cup descriptions purred from innumerable transistor radios. On ocean beaches the sand crunched and squeaked underfoot, cockles ('pippies' in some states) rose through the tidal edges and nudged your feet as you shimmied in water up to your ankles; blue swimmers flicked like lasers through the shallows, and stingrays drifted, rising and falling, languid, dangerous.


"It is not clear who — if anyone — will catch the conscience of our parliamentary kings and their hangers-on, or how it might best be done. Memory might be the thing."


Of course, such memories, such a recalled past, are partly explained by sheer youth: days do seem long in memory and weather benign and almost unchanging. Well, almost: I remember the canal behind our 'block' running a banker in sudden massive summer storms and surging through my father's vegetables and shrubs with such hot summer regularity that he constructed a low dam wall around the garden beds and we kids would stand on this eminence and watch the helpless and frustrated water surge past under our triumphantly anthropomorphising gaze.

But memory in general is not treacherous — a bit shaky at times certainly, afflicted with moments of vagueness, but endowed nevertheless with hard jewel like cores of certainty: there are some things you just know you are remembering truly. When Hamlet decided, 'The play's the thing/Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King', he coached his actors to reproduce the scene and method of the murder convincingly. 'Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounc'd it to you, trippingly on the tongue. [Do not] ... saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently.'

What Hamlet wants to achieve is to remind Claudius of his crime, to bring back the time and the details that the king has repressed.

There are thousands and thousands of Australians easily old enough to remember that the world in which they grew up was radically different from the one they live in now: they remember hot summers starting before Christmas and tailing off into autumn in the early weeks after their return to school; they remember the buddings and flowerings and in due course the wiltings in suburban gardens, country town main streets, parks and ovals and playgrounds. They remember the first chill in the air as they unwrapped their Easter eggs ...

It is not clear who — if anyone — will catch the conscience of our parliamentary kings and their hangers-on, or how it might best be done. Memory might be the thing — among others.



Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.

Main image credit: optop/Getty

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, climate change



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Existing comments

I wonder if, when we think back, we strain our memories. Like through a colander. A filter. Or is it that no force can erase a particular memory? I'd agree that there are some memories you know you are remembering truly. While times past may seem idyllic for some there were always challenging changes for others. Climate change: the big issue of our lives here and now.

Pam | 29 August 2019  

What a wonderful piece of writing, beautifully expressed. More please.

Suzanne Hemming | 30 August 2019  

Thank you Brian. Your piece took me back a long way: I was reminded of the language I heard in inspirational lectures at university: the mix of academic lyricism that some good lecturers used to inspire young people in the days when the hippy movement was just taking off. I'm privileged to have been given the opportunity to have been taught by such people. :)P

Paddy Byers | 30 August 2019  

Thanks Brian, Your recollections brought my childhood memories back. I went to primary boarding school on the N.S.W. Southwest Slopes from 1956 to 1960. Winter mornings were harshly frosty. I suffered chilblains on my hands. There was no heating in the uninsulated dorms and if we were lucky, the nuns would light a fire in the classroom fireplaces. We always played outside; hot or cold , unless it was raining or occasionally snowing. No shade cloths etc for us! By early December the fierce summer heat arrived, nights were uncomfortable and sleepless. We looked forward to the long Christmas school holidays , but we were almost aliens to our home town kids! February came around; too fast. Back to hot classrooms and equally hot nights, ahh, longing for the cold of Winter ( I wish!). I have kept weather records since 1965 . I can assure readers that it is getting warmer, year by year. Less frosty mornings/cold days, many more heatwaves than when I was a kid.

Gavin A. O'Brien | 30 August 2019  

This is the type of modern poetry I understand!!

john frawley | 31 August 2019  

Ah Brian you reminded me of my time at Melbourne Uni, wrestling with Shakepeare. "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, And summer's lease hath all too short a date." You dont hear the cicadas these days. And 2 winters teaching in London reminded me of how one had to deal with cold, leaving the gas fire on all night and shivering in bed. That aside, these memories do pique climate conscience and we have to ask why our politicians blithely ignore global warming and question their lack of enthusiasm to tackle climate measures. Eg build the concrete channel from the Ross, Burdekin systems to the Darling at an estimated cost of $9bn; plant 5 billion trees to bring the rain back. Implement a Federal led aquifer exploratory program to drill where its most needed to bring up the artesian waters (which are there even under the desert). Utilize the Direct fuel cell to replace coal fired power generation. Stop the Chinese in their tracks as they annex Australia's Antarctic territory ( they have no regard for treaties, environmental considerations). Our politicians are "familiar toads at the ear of Eve".

Francis Armstrong | 02 September 2019  

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