By Kim Pullen and Chris McKay
A city-dwelling Australian in the southern parts of the country might look to the calendar to see what season they’re in. First of March? It must be autumn. But beyond perhaps packing a jumper as we walk out the door, we don’t tend to change our behaviour all that much. We’re largely disconnected from the direct effects of nature.
Plants, animals and fungi don’t take their cues from the Gregorian calendar; they change in response to shifts in temperature, moisture in its various forms and length of day, as well as inherent factors in the organism. Certain fruits will ripen, some animals will produce young, while other animals change form or disappear.
When your day-to-day economy is intimately connected with the surrounding natural environment, it pays to take note of these changes. The Gooniyandi people of the Fitzroy Valley in the tropical Kimberley region of Western Australia look to the weather and changes in the behaviour of animals and plants to know what time of year it is and the resources that are available to them. Red dragonflies, commonly known as Scarlet Percher dragonflies, or Jarloomboo to the Gooniyandi, announce the start of Moonnggoowarla—the dry season and cold weather time.
The temperature through the year doesn’t change greatly on the Fitzroy—it is nearly always warm by southern standards. What does change is the rain, with nearly all of it coming down in the short, sharp summer ‘wet season’. Water is important to a dragonfly, because for a large part of its life it lives in a stream or lake as a predatory nymph or ‘naiad’. When fully grown, this creature crawls out of the water and its skin splits to release a properly formed dragonfly, pale and shrivelled at first but soon in the air after expanding and drying its wings in the sun.
When Gooniyandi see Jarloomboo they know that the swordfish (Galwanyi) are fat. The fat of swordfish is very soothing to Gooniyandi, healing their aches and pains, and the soft meat is very good for children to eat.
Members of Muludja community in the Fitzroy Valley worked with CSIRO to produce their own calendar—the Gooniyandi Seasons Calendar—a wealth of Indigenous ecological knowledge. The development of the calendar was driven by a community desire to document seasonal-specific knowledge of the Margaret and Fitzroy Rivers in the Kimberley, including the environmental indicators that act as cues for bush tucker collection. The calendar also addresses community concern about the loss of traditional knowledge.
On the Fitzroy, the appearance of red dragonflies is a much better indicator of the march of seasons than a glance at the old wall calendar.