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Changing weather: Understanding Australia through ancient Indigenous knowledge of seasons

By Ben Deacon and Kate Doyle, ABC Regional Weather Unit, Tuesday September 12, 2017 - 15:37 EST
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Veronica Dobson at Anthwerrke, the Arrernte name for Emily Gap. - ABC licensed

"We call it arretherre. It's the bad wind. People get irritable and cranky because of the west wind."

Arrernte elder Veronica Dobson is talking about the weather from a unique point of view.

She learned about the natural world from her grandparents living on their homelands, east of Alice Springs.

"They used to tell us bedtime stories when we slept out in the open and talked about the stars. How the stars and the Milky Way told the seasons."

One story was about the bad wind, arretherre, and how it heralded the arrival of a tasty food called Aprelyerre, otherwise known as bush fairy floss.

"There's a tree covered with it down near the post office in town."

The concept of four seasons

In the centre of Alice Springs, a tall river red gum stands sandwiched between the post office car park and Woolworths. It's lunchtime and the streets are full of people.

Veronica plucked some leaves covered in shiny white fluff. It tasted sweet, like fairy floss.

"In the old days, we'd knock it off the tree and make balls and feed it to children and babies. They were the sweet foods that we were used to."

Veronica points at the Woolworths across the street. "Nowadays people prefer easier things to get from the shops. Like Woollies. But this tree was here before the shops."

Europeans brought the concept of four seasons to Australia, but long before they came Indigenous Australians followed their own calendars.

Quandamooka man Djarra Delaney, who documents indigenous weather knowledge for the Bureau of Meteorology, said he has been amazed by the diversity of views about the seasons.

"The Gariwerd people near the Gariwerd/Grampians region in Victoria identify six seasons going from Kooyang, the eel season, to the butterfly season, Ballambar.

"Whereas with the Tiwi calendar or the Maung Calendar in the Northern Territory you've got three seasons because it's in the tropics.

"So for the Maung you've got Walmatpalmat which is the wet season, Wumulukuk which is the cold season and Kinyjapurr which is the hot season.

"Each area has a real personality."

Natural process for times of the year

The Bureau of Meteorology has made these different views of the seasons , which brings together knowledge from around the country on one web site.

"Aboriginal people have handed down environmental and seasonal observations from generation to generation through language, thorough stories and through ceremony and it's a really valuable source of long term observations, spanning millennia,'' said Mr Delaney.

As an Eastern Arrernte woman, Ms Dobson doesn't divide the calendar up into a set number of seasons, rather she identifies times of year that relate to natural processes.

She identifies Uterne mpepe, or the middle of summer as the time when the wild orange flowers.

There's Alhwerrpe urle, or early winter, when the Milky Way is just starting to slope towards the east.

"It tells us winter is on the way", she said.

In late spring, she identifies the fire season of Ure.

"When I was young, people would light fires in the evening when they knew there would be a dew to help put the fire out."

In the Arrernte language, water and rain both share the same word — kwatye.

Under traditional law, Ms Dobson was born into the rain totem or rain dreaming, bringing responsibilities to care for the waterholes and springs on her country.

''Kwatye is important to our people because it's a source of life. Without water you can't survive in the desert," she said.


© ABC 2017

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