Book: Australia's Changing Seasons

The director of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne suggests a radical overhaul of how Australia views its seasons, better to take into account local conditions. Bill Condie reviews his book.

Sprinter and Sprummer: Australia’s changing seasons
By Timothy Entwhistle
CSIRO Publishing (2014)
RRP $29.99

OK, so it’s a dreadful title but this is a wonderful little book. Tim Entwisle, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne, believes that the four seasons Australia inherited with European settlement do not reflect the reality of the local climate and are not fit for purpose.

The Aborigines, he points out, recognised that the country’s climate was too complex to divide into four three-month segments. They also realised that no one pattern suited the whole vast continent.

Indigenous communities have two to seven seasons depending on where they live, and Entwisle could only find one example of Aboriginal Australians using four seasons – six is the most common number.

These measure seasons by changes in weather, animals, and plant life. In the Grampians, or Gariwerd range, in western Victoria, for example, the Jardwadjali and Djab wurrung people have six seasons.

Larneuk, the season of nesting birds, coincides with early spring, running from late July to the end of August. Petyan, the season of wild flowers, and what Entwisle calls “hard-core spring”, runs from September to mid-November; ballambar, the early-summer season of butterflies runs until late January, followed by kooyang, the season of eels. Autumn, or gwangal moronn, is the season of honey bees and the longest, from March to June; while winter, or chinnup, the season of cockatoos, only lasts until late July.

Entwisle suggests we adopt a five-season cycle: sprinter (August and September), the early spring “when the bushland and our gardens burst into flower”; sprummer (October and November) “the changeable season, bringing a second wave of flowering”; summer (December to March); autumn (April and May) – which he acknowledges barely registers in Sydney and further north – and winter, a short burst of cold weather in June and July.

So, while this is undoubtedly sensible and reflects the effects of the climate on plants and animals better than the “Vivaldi option”, what is his aim in all this? Why does it matter? He offers two reasons: first, the seasons are most important as a cultural artifact and a new template would bring “Australians more in tune with their plants and animals”.

Second, “there is climate change and the fact that the seasons are changing, whether we like it or not. Perhaps we need an evolving system of seasons. However, we should at least get it right in the first place and try to reflect, if not our specific region, then large sections of the country”.

My guess is we are too wedded to the old and familiar to change to Entwisle’s model any time soon. But his musings are interesting, charming and a great excuse for a description of the fascinating climate triggers in the life of plants.

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