I’ve been paying attention to dusk a lot this past summer. Noting the gradual darkening of the sky from blue to pink to black; tilting an ear to the crescendo and diminuendo of birds calling to each-other as they settle in to roost. Watching as trees turn from three-dimensional, textural things to stage-prop silhouettes. I’ve been looking for sugar-gliders.
There’s a population of them in a large bushland park in suburban north-east Melbourne; there are doubtless other populations of them around town, too. They emerge from their hollows in the twilight, tiny possums with improbably long and bushy tails and flaps of skin between their forelegs and their hindlegs with which they glide from tree to tree. They move quickly through the air—gravity does most of the work, a glide being mostly a fall put on an angle—and they can be gone before you know it, landing on a tree with barely a sound, grey fur bleeding into grey bark. After dark our eyes can’t detect a lot of colour, mostly shadows.
Whole families of sugar-gliders live in a single tree-hollow, and they emerge one after the other to forage alone through the night before returning to the family home. You need a quiet night and a bit of luck to find a glider when it’s foraging so your best bet of seeing them is at dusk when they emerge. Your window of opportunity is small: ten, maybe fifteen minutes—at least if the family of six I’ve been watching all summer is representative. I’ve had nights when the gliders go clear over my head, almost within touching distance; I’ve had nights when I’ve arrived a fraction too late, and missed all the action.
So I’ve been paying attention to dusk. The timing of it, mostly: around Christmas-time 9pm was when all the drama kicked off. A month later it was half an hour earlier than that.
It’s nearly April now and I haven’t been to see the sugar-gliders in a couple of months. The thrill was largely in the chase: finding a family hollow through a process of elimination and deduction; becoming familiar with the habits of that family of six; showing them to friends. After that you start to wonder if maybe you’re intruding. They’re wild animals and you don’t want them to feel watched. So it’s been a while since I caught the bus up to that park and walked the twenty minutes to the tree by the carpark and got my torch ready (red-light, better for the eyes of animals that rely on eye-sight to survive). But I’ve still been heading out every evening: to a park much closer to home, only a few blocks from my house, to walk my dog.
We take the same route every evening, around the same time, 6:30pm when I get home from work. We see a revolving cast of dogs and their owners. We walk back under a huge sky into the sunset—not for romantic reasons, but just because that’s the direction home is. We were walking back home on one of the last days of March at about 7pm when I realised that there was something familiar about the light: it had the same quality, blue fading to pink soon to be black, cranking slowly through the colour grades, that I’d observed over so many nights standing under a tree in that bush park in the suburbs, listening and watching for gliders. I was walking back home in the dusk. 7pm was the new 9pm.
Big deal. The days get shorter. No shit, Sherlock. We’re a whole month into autumn already. But the other qualities of the evening had so much in common with those summer nights waiting for gliders: the same stillness, the same indolence, most of all the same warmth. It was 25 degrees, not exactly autumn weather. Not exactly what English poets write sonnets about, what American songwriters write lyrics about.
But it’s not exactly autumn here. And it wasn’t exactly summer before. And it certainly won’t be winter to come, nor spring after it.
I’ve been making a conscious effort, this last year or two, to watch my language when it comes to the seasons here in southern Australia. I’ve been making an effort too to stop saying I ‘discovered’ something when what I mean is that somebody showed it to me. Language shapes our thinking and our thinking shapes the world we live in—this isn’t exactly a new or a revolutionary concept. The language of seasons that people use in southern Australia, much like the nation (and notion) of Australia itself, is somebody else’s concept dumped on top of a country that it doesn’t suit, like the old jumper full of holes that I keep in the back of my cupboard and that I can’t bear to chuck out because it kept me comfy once, in another lifetime.
About a year ago I went to a talk in North Fitzroy about the Indigenous conception of seasons in Melbourne. The talk was given by a local Wurundjeri man and one of the first things he said was that he wished he was giving this talk to local Wurundjeri schoolkids instead, but the money was in telling it to a bunch of inner-city white people and he lived in a world where money mattered, just like anyone else. Depending on where you look online there are six or seven seasons traditionally recognised by the Wurundjeri people. It’s not for me to name them or describe them here—as an Anglo-Celtic man whose ancestry on this continent goes back to an Irish convict transported to Sydney in the first decade of the 19th Century, which is to say, as a man whose direct lineage is from colonisers/invaders, it’s not my place to take the words of Indigenous people and put them in my mouth without asking permission, without making first an honest effort to understand them. But as a white man in Australia of colonising heritage it’s beholden on me, too, to be aware and to acknowledge that there is deep, deep knowledge of this land which is far more useful and subtle and accurate than the lumpen words of ‘summer’ and ‘autumn’ and ‘winter’ and ‘spring’. It’s a point Hannah Donnelly makes in her 2016 piece The Unnatural Way of Things, a piece which makes me try to open my eyes afresh to where I live every time I read it:
‘[T]he deep purple carpet of fallen Jacaranda flowers is about as useful as an English botanist in Australia. I much prefer to think about the peak flowering time for the Mulga wattle and the many uses for the potent bark, sap, seeds and leaves. Be careful when using reference guides to Australian species. Sometimes those English botanists got things mixed up or were misled by us to protect our intellectual property and stories of country.’
Back to that 25 degree evening. It was 32 degrees just a few days prior, with a gusty dry north wind, the kind of weather you’d get in December or January. I was up in Brisbane a few weeks ago where a friend told me that the wet season there had failed: he took me out driving into the Lockyer Valley, searching in vain for waterbirds, but there was hardly any water to be seen, let alone the birds that live in it.
The world is warming and the seasons are changing, the weather with it. Bushfire season starts in September now. Our politicians and our corporations don’t seem too keen to do much about it other than stoke the furnace with more and more coal so we might have to adjust as best we can. And how, I find myself thinking as I shoo away the mosquitoes flying in through my open window as I write this, fully a quarter of the way into the year, are we going to do that if we’re trying to fit our land into a seasonal framework of weather and climate that was invented on the other side of the world, on a continent completely unlike this one by people who’d never set foot beneath a eucalypt? How can we understand the new world we’re entering if we don’t first understand the one we’re in now?