This article revisits a piece first written by Professor Tim Entwisle for ABC Radio National’s Ockham’s Razor.1
September is considered the start of spring by most Australians, but I think we have it all wrong. In the south at least, we should be celebrating an ‘early spring’ in August and September—when the wattles are blooming en masse—and a ‘late spring’ in October and November. Yet most Australians don’t acknowledge or even notice that things are different in the great southern land.
That’s partly because we organise our lives in minutes, hours, days, and months —sowing crops, attending meetings, picking up kids from school, and so on. For most of us, seasons are for noting, celebrating, and tracking the changes in the world around us. If we get them wrong, we don’t lose our crops, our jobs, nor our children.
Indeed, no-one has responsibility for approving the seasons, and they are not anchored by Greenwich Mean or International Atomic Time. Yet they are part of our inherited culture, part of the ritual of living on Planet Earth. Our responses to seasons—like the seasons themselves—vary from place to place.
The definition of a season seems simple enough but, as I argue in my book Sprinter and Sprummer: Australia’s Changing Seasons, the term is misunderstood, misinterpreted, and misused. Why should we have four seasons? Why must they each take up three months of the year?
First Nations communities have always known that Australia’s climate is more complex than a simple four-season arrangement suggests.
Fitness for purpose
When I began my book in 2010, I wanted to make two somewhat contradictory points. First, there is a peak flowering period in most Australian gardens and bushland, and it happens before what we normally call spring. Second, plants flower all year round, not just in ‘spring’.
Then, three years ago, I moved to England, the source of many of our cultural traditions including our idea of four neat seasons, each three months long. I gained first-hand experience of ‘true seasons’ and the plants that either define them or respond to them, depending on your perspective.
I found that even in England, the four seasons don’t always match the annual cycles of nature. I therefore expanded the scope of the book to address a more fundamental question about whether seasons are ever really ‘fit for purpose’. Perhaps it’s not only Australia that needs a thorough review of its seasons.
The case for uniquely Australian seasons
Since 1788, we have laboured and partied under a set of four European seasons that make no sense in most parts of the country. We may like them for historical or cultural reasons, or because they are the same throughout the world, but they tell us nothing about our natural environment. Instead, we could reject these seasons, and adopt a system that brings Australians more in tune with their plants and animals; a system that could help us respond to climate change.
I propose that we instead have five seasons, based on the climatic and biological cycles we observe around us.
I start with the origins and theory of the traditional seasonal system—which I’ve nicknamed the Vivaldi Option—then review the different First Peoples seasonal classifications used across Australia, followed by my five-season proposal.
On the origins of seasons
Seasons have been with us since early in recorded human history. In fact, we could argue that breeding and feeding seasons occur in cycles for many animals, and that our species, Homo sapiens, has merely extended this concept a little. The key element of human seasons is our division of the solar year into segments that start at predefined times.
In ancient Mesopotamia, the year was divided into two: one half beginning with the sowing of the barley (autumn), the other with its harvesting (spring). Early Egyptians, living beside the Nile, added an extra season and brought in the concept of cold and hot seasons: ‘flood’, winter, and summer.
The Vivaldi Option of four neatly defined seasons appears to have originated in the Mediterranean region, though it may have also emerged independently in China, and in places with less well documented histories. The Sumerians and Babylonians were the first in the region to use equinoxes and solstices to define four evenly timed seasons. The four-season system was taken up by the Greeks, and then by the Romans. It spread through Europe, and eventually to colonial countries such as Australia. The seasons start regularly on the first day of a month, or sometimes the 21st or thereabouts, depending on local habits and quirks.
Others before me have suggested a new set of seasons, but we seem reluctant to change, as with the Union Jack in our flag or the monarchy. In the 1990s, environmental educator Alan Reid encouraged members of the Gould League of Victoria to record their seasonal observations as part of his ‘Timelines’ project, leading to a six-season proposal for Melbourne. Retired Sydney school teacher Rick Kemp devised an eight-season system based on the relative positions of the Earth and the Sun, but prefers to focus on transitions rather than stasis. Like me, he wants to move the first day of spring, Wattle Day, from the 1st of September back to the 1st of August.
Our many First Nations communities have observed the world around them over tens of thousands of years, and have two to thirteen seasons to suit their local area. I found only one example of First Australians using four seasons; six is the most common number. We could embrace one or more of these seasonal systems, but I fear this suggestion would struggle to gain widespread support across the continent.
Instead, I propose a modified Vivaldi Option for southern Australia – by which I mean south of around Brisbane.
Sprinter, Sprummer, Summer, Winter
It’s a tweaking of the current system. The familiar anchors – summer and winter – are there, but the bits in between and the duration of the seasons are adjusted for the southern Australian climate.
Sprinter (August and September) – early Australian spring and the start of my seasonal year. It’s when the bushland and our gardens burst into flower. Also, when that quintessential Australian plant, the wattle, is in peak flowering across most of Australia.
Sprummer (October and November) – the changeable season, bringing a second wave of flowering, particularly for trees.
Summer (December to March) – extending into March, when fine warm days continue in southern Australia. A subdued season for plants.
Autumn (April and May) – barely registering in Sydney, but needed further south where there can be good autumn colour on exotic trees. It’s also peak fungal fruiting time.
Winter (June and July) – a short burst of colder weather, when the plant world prepares for the sprinter ahead.
The first season, sprinter, makes the most sense. It is easy to recognise, and backed up by good observational data from nature and preserved herbarium specimens (as I explore further in my book). The other four seasons are perhaps more aspirational: concepts to test and probe a little further.
Then 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.
There are no ‘perfect’ or ‘correct’ seasons. I am happy for my system to be rigorously debated and tested, and I would be thrilled if, through further observations and monitoring of the natural world by others, I have to totally redesign it. I’m sceptical by nature, but I’ve happily included conjecture and perception alongside peer-reviewed evidence and analysis given that we have so little data on how our Australian plants and animals respond to our climate.
That said, I’m pleased to see more research on this topic over recent years, mostly driven by the need to understand the impacts of accelerated climate change. I’m also a big supporter of ClimateWatch, a citizen-science program set up by Earthwatch and other partners to help track more accurately the seasonal and other changes around us. The English biologist Thomas Huxley once said that science is nothing but trained and organised common sense. That common sense has me convinced that September 1 is not the first day of spring. Instead, September is the second half of sprinter, the characteristically early flowering season of southern Australia.
In the early 2010s, when I first wrote this piece for ABC Radio National’s Ockham’s Razor, I was convinced that most people don’t care about which seasons we use, or what we call them. No one seemed to have responsibility for seasons – other than, vicariously, the Bureau of Meteorology – and in any case, I didn’t expect Australia’s seasons would ever be changed to reflect the country in which we live. That still holds true today, but ‘most people’ doesn’t include our First Peoples.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people do care about seasons, they do have (many) names for them, and if anyone has inherent ‘responsibility’ for them it is the land’s Traditional Owners. I was very aware that seasons should vary across the country, at the very least with changes in altitude and latitude, and my system was a very rough first cut to get people thinking. I thought that, in time, we would be mature enough as a nation to seek advice from Traditional Owners, and with their approval, share and adopt the seasons used by the many nations in this country. I foresaw complications in that many of these seasonal systems would challenge western minds, such as my own, that want seasons to start on a particular date each year. But that challenge would be a good thing.
Since the publication of Sprinter and Sprummer, I’ve given hundreds of talks and interviews, with mixed but mostly positive reception. Mostly, people like the idea, particularly the early spring (sprinter). As acknowledged upfront in the book, though, there is little incentive for us to change seasons. Nothing depends upon them, and nobody oversees their nomenclature. Maybe it’s just curmudgeonly old taxonomists who worry about such things.
We are a registered charity and donations to the Royal Society of Victoria in support of our programs are tax deductible in Australia. We welcome your support! Donate
Work with Us
The Royal Society of Victoria is a Certified Social Enterprise. Our services range from scientific panel and awards program administration to venue hire, events and conference management. We welcome opportunities to work with you.
Community Science Engagement – Inspiring Victoria
Open Access Science: the Proceedings of the RSV
Tours of the RSV’s Hall
We are a small and very busy organisation. Our historic building is not open to the public, but we offer guided tours on Thursdays between 12.30 and 1.30pm (except during Public Holidays and the Christmas/New Year close), depending on prevailing conditions. Please ring ahead to confirm: 9663 5259.