How easy would it be to follow the standard calendar – of summer, autumn, winter and spring? But looking at the unique seasonal patterns and weather cycles in Western Australia and Perth, we know that it wouldn’t quite fit!
The weather is very different here and we can sense the seasonal changes depending on the way the plants flower, the reptiles brumate and the swans moult. All of these are helpful indicators.
As the traditional custodians of the land, the Nyoongar people understood these changes well.
According to dreamtime lores, the Waugal or the “rainbow serpent” gifted the First Peoples of this land with intricate knowledge of the seasons and the many ways of managing the land and all its produce. And, this knowledge has been carefully retained and passed down the generations by the Nyoongar Elders.
The Nyoongar people have honed this wisdom for thousands of years, using it to live in harmony with the bush. Achieving ever-greater levels of balance and sustainability. Conventionally, they hunted and gathered food using the signs in nature combined with this inherited and divine knowledge to guide them to identify and procure resources. And, only obtain resources that were available in plenty.
The Nyoongar people looked at the local plants and animals in the region and used this information to divide the year into its six seasons. These are – Birak, Bunuru, Djeran, Makuru, Djilba and Kambarang, and they are explained further in this post in greater detail.
What is unique about this calendar is that the seasons can be long or short and the durations are determined by what is unravelling around us – changes in temperature, wind, rain and food availability – rather than by fixed dates on a predetermined calendar.
This six-season calendar is extremely important to the Nyoongar people, as it rightly represents what nature is doing at every stage of the year. This goes a long way in cultivating respect for the land, in building an understanding of the plant and animal reproduction/migration cycles and the preservation of the various species that inhabit the land.
We are slowly understanding how crucial it is to follow this six-season calendar in place of our standard European calendar to truly implement and carry on conservation and rehabilitation work in this part of the world. And, to safeguard our wetlands and the many ecosystems that they support.
About the Nyoongar People
There are many different ways to spell Nyoongar, for example – Noongar, Nyungar, Noongah etc. The Nyoongar language is an Australian Aboriginal language and an oral language belonging to the Nyoongar people. So, many different spellings may exist for the same word.
Throughout this article, we have used the spelling – “Nyoongar” to respectfully represent all people belonging to the Nyoongar country.
The Nyoongar country spans the southwest of Australia – from Leeman in the northwest to areas beyond Cape Arid in the southeast. The Nyoongar calendar covers this region and explains the seasonal changes we experience here.
Traditionally, the Nyoongar people were known to travel the country and move around with the seasons. This moving around was all about where the food line was. In the warmer months, they hunted and gathered plants and animals from the coast and the coastal lakes and waterways. And, during the colder months, they retreated inwards and moved towards the hills for shelter.
The Nyoongar people used resources from the bushland, the coast, the coastal plains and waterways, as well as the scarp. But bush tucker remained a delicacy, such as – yurenburt (berries), yams, quandongs and bardi (witchetty grubs). They also enjoyed yongka (kangaroo), turtles (booyi), karda (goanna), and emus (weitj). With the sea and waterways, they sought – djildjit (fish), wardan noorn (eel), abalone, cobbler, marron and gilgies. Customarily, men engaged in hunting and fishing, while women gathered bush tucker.
The Nyoongar people were able to read the signs in nature exactly and tell when it was time for harvesting or hunting something. For example, a misty summer sky forecasted a salmon run and the blossoms on the paperbark signalled the arrival of the mullet fish.
The Nyoongar groups followed sustainable practices and always took care to ensure the survival of the animal and plant species they consumed. As per the Nyoongar customs, it is important to take only what you need from nature. And, they did this by gathering foods that were abundant and in season. This way natural resources were not overconsumed and depleted, and there was always something left from which life could grow back.
Here is the Nyoongar six-season calendar:
1. Birak (December – January)
- First summer. Season of the young.
- Extreme dry and hot weather.
- Colours of this season are green, blue, orange and yellow.
- The weather is hot and dry with easterly winds during the day and sea breezes in the later afternoons. As Christmas and paperbark trees blossom, the Nyoongar people burn sections of the scrubland and practice fire-stick farming. This practice has two effects – (1) the cleared bushland helps reduce undergrowth and ensures the better germination of summer bush tucker. And, (2) the animals, such as – kangaroos, wallabies and reptiles – are forced out in the open, making it easy to hunt and spear them. Bronzewing pigeons are caught for food. Along the coastal lakes and river estuaries – mullet, bream, marron and crabs are found ready for harvesting.
2. Bunuru (February – March)
- Second summer. Season of adolescence.
- The hottest part of the year.
- Colours of this season are yellow, orange and red.
- The harsh dry conditions and hot northerly winds drive the Nyoongars to the coasts and estuaries, as the mainland suffers from a shortage of freshwater. Along the coastal estuaries and reefs – fish, mussels, crabs and abalone are found in large numbers. Salmon and herring are abundant in waterways. Marron, gilgies, kooyal and tortoises are collected from wetlands. Haemodorum spicatum (a bulb) is collected and roasted for use as a spice. And, spearfishing is practised for catching large fish.
3. Djeran (April – May)
- Season of adulthood.
- Cooler weather begins now.
- Colours of this season are red, brown and grey.
- The weather changes dramatically with cooler winds from the southwest. The relief is well-enjoyed and the intermediate season is used to build and repair mia-mias (tents) for protection. Fishing continues. Emus are hunted and emu eggs are collected. Zamia nuts and bulbs, and other seeds are collected and prepared for food. Kangaroos are hunted, and kangaroo skins are collected and prepared for winter.
4. Makuru (June – July)
- The first rains. Season of fertility.
- The coldest and wettest part of the year with frequent gales and storms.
- Colours of this season are grey and black.
- During this season the Nyoongar people move inland from the coast to the Darling Scarp or the hills to take shelter from the harsh coastal winds. Fire was very important during this time and everyone carried a smouldering branch of bull banksia held beneath the booka (kangaroo-skin cloaks) as they travelled. The flowering Sheoak trees signal that the kangaroos are ready to eat. Wild carrots and several varieties of wild potato are ready for harvesting. It is a good time to dig and eat djida or pink tuber roots. Swans moulted in June and were easy prey as they couldn’t fly.
5. Djilba (August – September)
- The first spring. The second rains. Season of conception.
- A mix of wet days, cold clear nights and pleasant, warm days.
- Colours of this season are black, blue and green.
- When the weather gets warmer, the Nyoongar groups move to the Guildford, Canning, and Kelmscott areas. Rains have replenished the water sources and the bush has been allowed to rejuvenate. Plants begin to bloom now. Eggs from waterfowl, emus, swans and ducks are ready to be collected. Tortoises, berries and roots also supplement the larger game of kangaroo, emu and ringtail possum.
6. Kambarang (October – November)
- The second spring. The wildflower season. Season of birth.
- Longer dry spells.
- Colours of this season are blue and green.
- Kambarang literally translates to “rains decreasing.” It is at the height of the wildflower season and Quandong trees and other small shrubs that bear berries are ripening, ready for harvesting later in the season. Kambarang is a season of plenty and foods such as – fruits, yams and bird-eggs are abundant. Nyoongar families move towards the coast where Kooyal (frogs), yaarkin (tortoises) and gilgie (freshwater crayfish) are caught by hand in wetlands and swamps. Snakes and goannas are also caught as sources of food during this season.