November 2015

The Nation Reviewed

A change of season

By Jenan Taylor

Following the indigenous seasonal calendar

If all goes well this spring, hundreds of glossy young eels will swim into a river mouth near Portland, Victoria, and navigate their way up old lava-flow channels into the wetlands of Gunditjmara country, where they will live for the next ten to 20 years. “But they’ll only swim into the river with the freshest water,” adds Tyson Lovett-Murray, a Gunditjmara ranger.

We’re leaning over the edge of a boardwalk at Tyrendarra, an indigenous protected area about three and a half hours south-west of Melbourne, musing about the secret lives in the pond beneath us. Eels were once central to the survival of the people who lived on the stony rises we’ll be touring. The Gunditjmara built canals to divert the water, and rock traps to hold and harvest the aquatic creatures. Today, bird calls and tadpoles and waving grasses are plentiful. I’ve studied the Gunditjmara seasonal calendar. All is as it should be at this time of the year. Isn’t it? Lovett-Murray’s brows are knitted. There are signs that the eel numbers may be down, the water levels possibly too low. He’s not sure what it means yet, but he’s loath to ignore it.

What indigenous people know about ecology and climate has long stirred the attention of researchers, but written records remain sparse. In 2002, the Bureau of Meteorology, with its online Indigenous Weather Knowledge project, was one of the first organisations to publish and promote some examples of Aboriginal seasonal calendars. In 2009, CSIRO began publishing indigenous calendars on their website and have completed seven so far. These are, however, very limited in their scope. The focus of both agencies has mostly been on the northern part of Australia, and the calendars – whether they be a wheel or a table representing the cycle of plant and animal life or the change of wind specific to a geographic area – usually emerged from other research activities. Some calendars have just two seasons, while others, like the one belonging to the Gunditjmara people, have six. Some are accompanied by detailed records of elders’ observations; others merely hint at cyclical patterns. The Bureau of Meteorology’s Northern Territory regional director, Todd Smith, says the bureau’s project strengthens relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but doesn’t contribute to its weather forecasting and warning systems capabilities.

David Jones, an urban and environmental landscape expert, believes indigenous ecological calendars are appropriate for our environment. “The European four seasons we’ve inherited simply don’t work here. The Aboriginal seasons [are] far more refined and attuned to the ecological patterns of Australia’s landscapes, and, if you use them correctly, it actually gives you better guidelines of when you should be doing planting or revegetation projects or firing of landscape, rather than simply using arbitrary dates.”

The wider public doesn’t know more about indigenous seasonal logic because the indigenous communities themselves, distrustful due to white society’s historical lack of respect for Aboriginal culture, have often withheld ready access to it.

The Gunditjmara, Jones says, are now drawing on their understanding of the seasons, as well as Western science and astute observations of political systems, to build a platform for their World Heritage aspirations.

Their native title win – over 140,000 hectares in 2007 – enabled the community to jointly manage Mount Eccles National Park with the Victorian government. It also allowed them to take back Lake Condah, a vast basin and traditional site of their aquaculture system, which had been drained for use by European settlers.

Since the ruling, the group has re-flooded Lake Condah and, through their legal, environmental and cultural interests arm, the Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation, formed strong connections with a number of government agencies, non-traditional organisations and landowners.

Lovett-Murray, 26, grew up nearby in the town of Heywood and spent much of his childhood following his mother, then a cultural heritage officer, around country. He points out where the Gunditjmara, once comprising 57 clans, lived in stone houses built with “all the doors facing north-east, so they would avoid the winds from the south-west in winter”. Only four or five clans make up his mob now, while the remnants of the dome-shaped houses, fish traps and old weirs lie open to the climate, softened in part by moss and trees. Archaeologists, palaeontologists, botanists, engineers, anthropologists and meteorologists “all come through regularly”.

No one seems to have a handle on the precise age of some of these ancient remains, but there’s growing evidence that some could be more than 6000 years old.

Recently, Gunditj Mirring commissioned a nine-volume literature review of its people’s traditional knowledge. Elder Denis Rose says his community needed it because so much of their knowledge had been lost through assimilation, separation and dispossession, or had died with elders. “We know things about the seasons, when to burn or when to eel, but we don’t pretend to be experts on it.”

Seasonal knowledge is just one piece in a much bigger picture, he tells me.

“Thirty years ago, the only little bit of land the Aboriginal communities had around here was at Lake Condah Aboriginal Cemetery. We used to spend a helluva lot of time down at that cemetery …” Rose laughs self-consciously. “It was the tiniest cemetery in Australia, for sure, but it was the only bit of land we had access to where we didn’t have to get permission off people.”

Now his community trains and employs rangers to look after their land, and gives others who don’t live nearby a chance to connect with their country.

Some of the area’s farmers are coming to see the land through indigenous eyes. Gunditj Mirring swaps knowledge with landowners and a catchment authority, in an arrangement known as ‘Yarns on Farms’. It usually starts with a cup of tea, perhaps a walk across the farmer’s paddock and a look-around. The landowners also visit Gunditj Mirring–managed properties and learn about its work. It’s not about comparing differences, Rose says, but looking at similarities. Sharing is seen as a key to living sustainably. Early on, the only way to make contact with some white families and properties in the area was to count on the bush telegraph or to cold-call them.

Lovett-Murray remembers his initial anxiety about the initiative. He had heard that in the early 1980s, when his people won the right to protect cultural sites, there had been phone calls and threats. “Some of those farms had been in people’s families for three or four generations,” he says. “I kept thinking, Why would they want to talk to us? It turned out that a lot of them had been wondering the same thing.”

The rangers have completed 29 farm visits in three years, and they get regular calls from community conservation groups who also want to be involved. “Farmers will bring stone axes and other artefacts they’ve found on their land or tell us stories they remember about our mob. It builds that respect between two groups. If these stories aren’t told, they could be lost.”

Our final stop is Budj Bim (Mount Eccles), the volcanic crater at the top of the lava-flow terrain in the national park. The air smells like mint tea and eucalyptus, and gravel crunches underfoot as we pass barbecue pavilions and a modest bungalow. Lovett-Murray says the Budj Bim Council, which administers the national park and is made up of representatives from Gunditj Mirring and state and local government departments, meets here. It is also a place of sacred totems, such as cockatoo and emu, and traditional dances. At a lookout area I peer down the bush-covered slopes and into the crater. Lake Surprise is a dozen shades of green.

Lovett-Murray suggests we get going. He has been keeping an eye on the birds settling in the trees around us, and there are some signs that he never ignores.

“Five black cockatoos mean five days of rain,” he murmurs as we head back to the car.

Jenan Taylor
Jenan Taylor is a freelance journalist based in Melbourne.

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