Autumn is ending. I feel the seasons change each year. I watch for the signs of winter, wait for it; the gentler touch of grey daylight, the taste of frost in the morning. I feel the seasons change around me, I feel the cold come, and imagine myself becoming whole.
I caught the last flight out of Melbourne before the city’s fourth lockdown fell and watched this last autumn end while quarantining from my home in Adelaide. The Delta variant of COVID-19 seems to escalate quickly but the signs of the virus can take weeks to show, even though it may already be in your system. I spent the last weeks of the season waiting for signs of the virus but instead watching the end of autumn, an autumn that seemed warmer and drier than most.
This last autumn in South Australia was warmer and drier than the average, as they have increasingly been for most of my life. The seasons in the state have been growing warmer since the 1970s, with some modelling finding that a heating climate will result in the Australian winter vanishing by 2050. I watched the start of this year’s winter while stuck, unable to move, checking my temperature, and imagining what this means. I need the seasons to find myself, but I only have so many winters left.
I have been watching the winters come for almost three decades, since I was a boy. The Adelaide heatwaves grew worse through my childhood, as they did in most capital cities, and in adolescence I found that anxiety, even depression, would peak in the intolerable, long summers. The heat was sharp and pressing, growing a disconnection within me, between my perceptions and my body, leaving a frantic divide in their place.
I learned to watch for the respite of the cooler seasons, not by the set dates but by the subtle changes around me: the sunsets drawing nearer, the dew returning to the dawn. I felt the heat and light lift from the land each April and I began to see my relationship to the cold. I knew a restorative rhythm in the coming of winter, feeling the cold around me, move into me, and calm the frantic divide.
We live in relationship to the seasons, but project onto the environment with European constructs like autumn and winter. The Kaurna season of Parnati rightly describes the rain and dew of April, May, and June. Kudlila, the season that follows, brings the wet and wind of July, August, and September. The inaccurate European calendar is a colonising presence, as is my own presence on Aboriginal land, and reflects our disconnection from how the seasons move and affect us.
The warm and dry autumn in South Australia was followed by a winter that has been wetter than most, including the state’s coldest July day in 32 years. Events like this can enable our disconnection from the seasons, sustain the denial of a changing climate, but record-breaking hot temperatures have outnumbered new cold records by a factor of 12 to 1 since the beginning of the century. My own mental health can be moved by the heat, and this coming winterless world will affect us all.
Winter is often associated with discomfort, with bitterness and depression. While some legitimately struggle with Seasonal Affective Disorder in the middle of the year, the colder seasons can trigger other responses in the body. We sleep more in winter, often rest more. We can have more sex in the cold. The reproductive instinct is seasonal across all living things, with more children conceived in the darker, colder days of the year. The cold causes us to seek out enclosed spaces, create comfort, maintain touch. We come together in winter. It is restorative, erotic in essence, intimate in effect.
One Australian study found suicide rates to be at their lowest in winter, climbing later in the hotter months (particularly among older demographics). Heat can be a trigger for anxiety and mental illness, and summer is the season of suicide-risk in Australia, as it is also for violent crime and domestic violence. Our mental health is seasonal, but our sanity can be hot-headed, shaped by the heat rather than the cold.
There is a conversation that I find myself having, with friends, sometimes with strangers. It is a ritual, where we come in from the cold, exhale, rub our hands together. We object to the winter, to the mild temperatures outside, as if we have been affronted by the modest Australian chill. We speak as if the cold is difficult, something to endure until the spring. We speak as if the cold will always be there. I look for any recognition in the eyes of those present, look to see if anyone else knows how absurd this all is. Last year’s winter was the sixth warmest on record, with the three hottest Julys on record taking place the three years prior. Researchers have started referring to the warming winter of coming decades as ‘New Summer’. I see hands eagerly cradling the warmth from KeepCups as the ritual continues. ‘It will be warmer soon’, I say. Inside I want to scream.
I am afraid of a winterless world. I know I should be afraid of catastrophe. I know I should be afraid of unstoppable fire, water shortages, and infrastructure collapse. I know my children will see climate wars in their lifetimes, but the forecast I come back to is the heat, without reprieve, with no rest, unending. I fear the climate madness; all of us, crazy from the heat.
I find myself in the cold. If we lose winter, we could lose ourselves entirely.
Adelaide entered lockdown in mid-winter and I watched the seasons change, stuck in place again, doomscrolling as heatwaves shattered records in North America. Hundreds die from the heat in the Pacific Northwest. Wildfires break records across the US, the plume of smoke spanning the width of the continent. It is almost two years since the beginning of Australia’s Black Summer, when rainforest caught fire in spring and 18.5 million hectares burned across the country until the following Autumn.
We can’t keep projecting our status quo onto a changing environment, maintaining the disconnection as the seasons burn around us. Or perhaps we can. Just last April Scott Morrison resisted calls to action at the global climate summit as he was broadcast through a disconnected microphone, saying nothing to the world. The change is here now, and has been for most of our lives. Perhaps the climate madness has been also. Perhaps we’ve already lost our minds. We live in relationship to the seasons. We can die in them too.
I paint a picture of winter in my imagination, find the meaning of the colder seasons to keep in my memory. I imagine the darker days, the hum of cold over the land, wet and womb-like. I think about the aftertaste of fog, the rain like whispers, trees like skeletons. I picture rest by the fire, long nights, skin, warm to the touch. I construct a memory of the cold, moving around me, moving within me, calming the frantic divide I’m left with from the heating Australian summers. I imagine myself becoming whole in the cold, to remember in the days when there’s no cold left.
This picture itself is a construct, but stories of dying and rising deities were once shared to explain the waxing and waning daylight, the cycle of the seasons. We told stories about the seasons, so we knew our place within them, how we retreated and returned like the light, sowed seed and bore fruit like the land. These particular stories can have a colonising effect on Aboriginal land, and be heteronormative in application, but the cold remains a liminal point in the natural cycle, where things end and start again, a time of little deaths and new beginnings. We can’t know our place without the cold. I can’t. No-one can.
Winter is ending. I have been watching the winter come for the last three decades, I’ll be watching it go over the next three. Every cycle of the cold—the dew and rain, the wet and wind—is one less we have here. Every winter carries us closer to our last. I am counting them, one by one, until I am old and they are gone. I hang a painting of winter on the wall where I write, above the mantle of an unused fireplace.
The climate crisis is escalating quickly. It has already been at work, it just took time for the signs to show. We weren’t watching the seasons, watching for the subtle signs of change. We weren’t checking the temperature, or perhaps we were, just in our denial, projecting onto the seasons rather than knowing our place within them.
The climate crisis is like the virus, easy to deny even as it is in the air we breathe. I have been afraid we will lose ourselves in a winterless world, but the rising temperature is just a symptom of a deeper illness, our deeper disconnection. Carbon emissions are set for a record high in 2023. We were lost a long time ago.
Anthony N. Castle is an Adelaide-based author and journalist. He has written for The Guardian, The Lifted Brow, Meanjin, Eureka Street, The Advertiser, and other national publications. He tweets @AnthonyNCastle