Tracking the cycles of the natural seasons

A perpetual calendar. Photo Mary Gardner

A perpetual calendar. Photo Mary Gardner

Mary Gardner

A calendar is a traditional holiday gift. The original Latin is linked with Roman accounting systems. So is the practice of counting out months of the year. The first calendar was reformed by Caesar in 46BC and then by Pope Gregory in 1582.

Billions of people tally their lives according to this Christian calendar, one of nine in use today. But apart from these is still another practice in timing: tracking cycles of seasons. The very word ‘seasons’, from the Latin ‘to sow’, is deeply tied to understanding the nature of a place. Here in the coastal subtropics, we shrug off images of any snowy British Christmas and ponder ­replacements.

Tim Entwistle, a botanist, suggests we rethink how we link our experiences of seasons with the Christian ­calendar.

Working with Indigenous calendars and from within the central eastern coast, he proposes five seasons. Autumn, from the first of April is followed by Winter, starting with first of June. This season lasts only two months because August opens with the first wave of native plants blossoming. This is Sprinter, becoming Sprummer on the first of October. The second wave of blossoming begins. The first of December is summer, which goes to the end of March.

From Sydney, Entwistle marks summer with the blossoming of the Hyacinth Orchid (Dipodium punctatum). But Andrew Murray, a northern rivers botanist, suggests our coastal subtropic marker could be the Durobby tree (Syzgyium moorei). This rainforest tree is a type of myrtle unique to this area. It’s a lilli-pilli also called the Christmas parrot tree. Once, people saw flocks of parrots drunk on nectar from these blossoms. The tree has become rare, but maybe the spirit of local gift shopping might include seedlings for those with land enough for nurture a 40 metre tree. The brilliant pink to orange flowers grow directly from the main stem or tree trunk.

Birth of koalas

Adding to such festivities are the births of koalas (Phascolarctos cinereus). Nativities in Byron Bay are even more secret than the fabled one in Bethlehem. New mums will grow tiny infants in their pouches for the next six months. Others may have a half-grown joey on their back. They teach them local lore about managing a home range of trees in the subtropics. The daytime trees are for snoozing. Each evening, they travel to their night trees.

Koala browsing eventually makes a tree’s leaves more toxic. So over the year, they shift their feeding rounds so that half of the trees are ‘rested’ and become more palatable again the following year.

Throughout Byron, people tell of individual koalas they know because they regularly cross paths with them in their daily migrations.

Our koalas’ favourite food trees are those eucalyptus with moist leaves, fed in turn by roots reaching into a shallow water table or drainage channels. In Byron, these are wetland trees, especially from Lilli-Pilli to Tyagarah through Sunrise and West Byron. Maybe koalas dream of hundreds more trees growing up throughout the drain networks. That’s what’s happened for centuries before. They depend on the growth of such wild housing estates.

Meanwhile, in the coastal sea connected to the coastal land, dolphins are also being born. The female blue spotted stingrays are ovulating. They use the sperm they stored from their embraces with males during sprinter. Inside their wombs, they nurture their babies first with yolk and then with a unique form of milk. The pups, miniatures of their parents, are born live.

Symbols of time

As the sea water warms, the leopard sharks return to cruise Byron Bay. They can be our own symbols of Father Time. The Old English and Proto-Germanic/Norse origins of ‘time’ relates to ‘marking the tide, the feast-day, the season’. Also matching this old meaning, spinifex seed-heads tumble across sand into our coastal lagoons.

The solstice on December 21 links place with solar system. In that shortest night, look up. The ancestral people are visible in the Milky Way as the Magellan Clouds, spiral galaxies over 150,000 light years away. On some vast scale of seasons, now they spin closer than ever to us, connected by tides of hydrogen. Beyond, a dizzy 96 per cent of the universe expands with unknowable dark matter.

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