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Gorpulyul billabong on Dalabon country, flooded during djewk (wet season) time. Photo David Hancock.
Gorpulyul billabong on Dalabon country, flooded during djewk (wet season) time. Photo David Hancock.

Language of the seasons

Published 25 Mar 2022 by Eliza Herbert

Rembarrnga and Dalabon Elders in central Arnhem Land are leading a community-wide effort to keep language and culture strong by documenting their seasonal calendar.

Rembarrnga Elder Annette Miller can recall her early life, when she was a child and lived in the bush with her family. They marked time by reading the landscape around them; watching the moon, the stars and how the wind would change.

“My grandfather looked at the flowers. When flowers bloomed, grass began to grow, and he knew exactly when to start hunting for animals and when to burn,’’ she says. “All that time, I was learning.’’

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures have undertaken this practice of observing time based on changes in the landscape for millennia. Different phases of plant and animal lifecycles, variations in animal behaviours, cloud formations and wind directions can all indicate the right time to harvest different plants and foods, and the right time to burn different vegetation types.

Much of this knowledge is embedded in language and passed down from generation to generation. But, when people were moved off country throughout the early 1900s, their languages and all the knowledge contained within them came under threat.

“Rembarrnga language is important to me now because I lost that language. Our language was stolen from us. Now I feel that it’s important that my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren speak my language,’’ says Annette.

Annette is a board director at Mimal Land Management, an organisation led by Rembarrnga, Dalabon and Mayili Traditional Owners, and overseeing the Mimal Rangers, to look after 1.83 million hectares in the geographic centre of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory.

Mimal Ranger Lydia Lawrence holds Milky plumb (Persoonia falcata), called  dakirritj in Rembarrnga language and bolorlo in Dalabon language. Photo Julia Salt.

The landscape is made up of berrhno and mininyburr (woodland and forests), ruwurrno and rorrobo (grassy plains), badno and ngalwad (rock country), and djula and wah (freshwater country). These are thriving landscapes, but in recent years, people have noticed threats to their health.

According to Shantelle Miller, Annette’s daughter, “We were getting very hot, hot dry weather. A lot of wildfires ravaged beautiful vegetation. We all collectively saw there was a dramatic change in the climate.’’

In 2020, Annette and Shantelle attended a conference in Darwin and saw seasonal calendars from neighbouring ranger groups.

“That’s when everybody in our community said that we needed to develop a calendar for the Rembarrnga clan group, and a calendar for the Dalabon clan group,’’ says Shantelle.

Rembarrnga and Dalabon speakers came together from across Arnhem Land to share knowledge through a series of workshops at bush camps and the Mimal ranger base.

“Australian Aboriginal calendars differ markedly from standard Western calendars,’’ says Bush Heritage ecologist Katie Degnian, who supported the process. In the southern hemisphere, Summer starts on the first of December, Autumn on the first of March and so on. Whereas our Aboriginal calendars are based on ecological time and are strongly embedded in place.’’

While people in Northern Australia often refer to two seasons – the wet and the dry – Rembarrnga people refer to seven and Dalabon people six.

“Seasonal change is identified by a complex set of ecological indicators or cues. The seasons don’t change abruptly but blend into one another and vary temporally from year-to-year,’’ says Katie.

These indicators can be “flowers, or when trees bloom,’’ according to Dalabon woman Joyce Bohme. “The Elders taught us how when a flower comes up it means it’ll be good to go and collect kangaroo because it’ll have fat,” says Joyce.

The Dalabon wet season djewk gradually becomes bangkerreng (knock’em down season) when kahbewkbewkmû (the dry, gusty southerly wind blows), Birnday kahladmûn (Speargrass dries out) and Kahmûrlûmûrlrakkan (Speargrass falls over). Around this time, an insect called Yawok (Long-horned Katydid) appears; when its abdomen is fat this indicates cheeky yams are ready to dig up.

The Rembarrnga hot season warlirr blends into ga gnolgaba when the clouds build up, bush fruits start flowering and Jarrkkah Garlang-na (Water Goanna lay eggs) – to name a few indicators. This is when Gotwonggotwong (Green Tree Frog) is herd calling to say the rains are coming.

Annette hopes the seasonal calendars will continue to educate younger generations and be used by the Mimal Rangers to support Caring for Country.

“There are changes in our community, and globally, and we are working together with the rangers. Teaching and learning is our goal; it’s to educate everyone so we can control what we’re doing nowadays.’’

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