August is almost over. And so is winter. I’ve loved the slowly lengthening days that carry the hope of spring. The newly lit hours that creep in after the solstice always seem so familiar; like a lost memory returned, promising warmth. But the nights are still chilly, and although during the day the sun is warm, the shade is bitterly cold. As I round the corner at the bottom of my street the wind suddenly cuts raw across my face. It’s an icy alpine gust. Although it’s not actually snowing here I have no trouble imagining it covering the ground somewhere to the south.
This wind is like a quirky local character; its furious whistle follows me around, and indoors it hovers at the edge of my conscience. When I wake in the mornings I lie in bed watching it play in the Lilli Pilli outside the window. And as I wash the dishes in the evenings, I see it again, this time from the kitchen window, capering in the Crow’s Ash on the footpath. But usually I just feel the freezing gale that races up the ridge of the hill our street is on.
We first moved here in late August and on the first day I opened all the windows wide. The purifying south winds swept through the house like auguring spirits. At the time I thought this was just the way of this place and nicknamed it the windy suburb. But as the months went by I realised the winds were both seasonal and directional. In spring the warm northern zephyr floats freely through the house, but in summer it transforms into a hot, dry, north-westerly that feels like it’s traveled directly from the Strzelecki Desert. I can see why 17th century navigators were inspired to draw up charts that captured the cardinal winds in the imagined stillness of a compass rose.
There’s an old saying that August is the windiest month of the year. And as if to fulfill this promise, each year the sharp southerly, bringing snow wind from the Southern Alps, arrives right on time in the early days of the month. Les Murray put it beautifully in the first stanza of his poignant poem, A New England Farm, August 1914.1
“August is the windy month, The month of mares’ tails high in heaven, August is the fiery month, The windswept doorstep of the year.”
And Aunty Fran Bodkin, a descendant of the D’harawal people of the Bidiagal clan and educator of ancient D’harawal knowledge at UWS, tells us in her perpetual calendar that August is “cold and windy: build shelters to face the rising sun; time to begin the journey to the highlands along the rivers; plenty of fish.”2 But interestingly according to Sydney’s weather bureau records the windiest month is actually November. Perhaps August is just the first of the windy months.
Despite the Antarctic sting of the wind, this eighth month of the year is one of my favourites. I love that the sun comes up now well before seven and doesn’t set until almost half past five. There have been sudden days of heat, reminiscent of summer. One day, quite early in the month, the thermometer reached a scary 26 degrees, bringing the fear that Spring was here too soon. And reminding us that climate change is upon us. But then thankfully the month lapsed back into an intense icebox cold. Perhaps these fluctuations are just the rhythms of this place; the adjustments at the edges of the seasons. The British imported the idea of four fixed seasons but the Dharawal previously recognised six seasons in the Sydney region. But even within the European tradition there was local variation. The new season started at the beginning of a month, but my father, who hailed from Southern Europe, insisted that Spring and Autumn began on the equinox.
The birds however follow no human calendar. For them August is the month where they emerge from their winter quiet with a flurry of nesting activity. Except for the Rainbow Lorikeets for whom every month is just the season of screeching. At dawn they shout from the branches of the paperbark in the back yard before flinging themselves onto the neighbour’s balcony railing. Seeds were once left out for them overnight so each morning now they scream for their breakfast.
But as the month has deepened the Currawong calls now ring out like medieval church bells; a deep, rich, melodic caroling outside the window. A much lovelier sound to wake to than the shrieking of the Lorikeets. The pesky parrots have been a little more civilised ever since the larger passerines have arrived. I remember this time last year surprising a Pied Currawong in my blueberry pot helping itself to the handful of purple berries that had sprouted. They were named bell magpies for their calls in the early days of European colonisation. They feed on small lizards, insects, caterpillars and berries. Some also take smaller birds. Perhaps the Lorikeets know this.
They are serious birds unlike the clown like Corellas that flock together at sunset, twenty or thirty of them, squawking through the skies in a swirling storm of white. Where have they been all day? Probably in some park tearing the trees to shreds. But luckily not in our local park where the Ibis rule. As I walk through each morning I’ve noticed that the Ibis are honking impatiently and pushing past each other to get at the sticks floating in the fountain. These regal water birds were revered as Gods in Ancient Egypt but are denigrated as bin chooks in Sydney. That’s because we usually see them foraging through the city’s garbage for food. But in our park they fly gracefully up into the Alexander palms and add their finds to their platform nest of sticks; an all day work in progress that ends only when they settle in for a quiet evening in the tree tops as dusk moves across the suburb.
It’s the Ibis and their nest building that remind me that August is pre-spring and come September we can begin to unfurl and prepare for the long warm months ahead.
1 A New England farm, August 1914 by Les Murray www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/poets/murray-les/a-new-england-farm-august-1914-0577012
2 Aunty Fran Bodkin dharawalstories.com/2015/09/24/perpetual-calendar/
Images [Public domain] via Wikimedia: Map of the Winds, 1650,Jan Janssonius; Brisbane City Council (Rainbow Lorikeets); Pied Currawong, Blue Mountains; Australian White Ibis by Fir0002/Flagstaffotos; and snow photo courtesy of Sharon Walker via abc.net.au.