Fran Bodkin

Fran Bodkin – D’harawal woman & collector of the Sydney Region Aboriginal stories

Aboriginal people have observed the ebb and flow of nature’s cycles for thousands of years. The blossoming of a flower, the activity of an animal and sea levels, the so called cycle indicators, mark the change of seasons and the changes in nature that follow. The flowering of a tree may coincide with the arrival of migratory animals, heralding the beginning of a new cycle and predicting further changes in the natural environment. The succession of these events in nature form an Aboriginal calendar that does not use dates as non-aboriginal people know them, but is based on a deep understanding of the delicate balance of the ecosystem.

The Garuwanga or Dreaming Cycle has four seasons, including a hot time of destruction, a cooling time of renewal and a cold time of destruction. This cycle spans between twelve to twenty thousand years and changes in the cycle are indicated by changes in the sea levels. The cycles and their indicators are woven into the stories of individual clans who collect and guard the knowledge of a particular cycle for their region, ensuring the knowledge is passed to each new generation. Something new is happening, however, that isn’t part of the normal cycles.

Some stories tell of times when coastlines were at least three days walk further than they are now and when frosts covered the ground every morning of the year. For thousands of years Aurora Australis in western October night skies used to announce the beginning of the twelve year cycle. They are no longer seen dancing in the night sky.

The twenty year cycle, the time of renewal, is signaled by the three sisters (any three planets) dancing in alignment in the night sky. They were last seen three years ago, and would have normally signaled a time of plenty of food.

It appears that the phases of the Dreaming cycle are getting shorter and changing faster. The cycle indicators are out of sync with each other, and it is believed to be the result of pollution and climate change.

The traditional owners of Kakadu National Park in northern Australia are witnessing a process that threatens the future of this world heritage area. The paperbark trees, part of this unique freshwater wetland system, are dying back. Global warming and rising sea levels are allowing salt water from the ocean to flow into the freshwater wetlands, threatening the entirety of Kakadu’s delicate community of freshwater plants and animals.

Aboriginal science is one of the oldest sciences in the world. Especially in an ancient place like Australia, where western science and knowledge of the ecosystem cover only a blink in time, the knowledge preserved in Aboriginal stories is invaluable for our understanding of the environment.

While western science has observed Australia’s plants and animals for no more than a few decades, Aboriginal stories tell of the cycles and changes of nature for thousands of years. This wealth of knowledge is vital to grow our understanding of natural cycles and the impact of our actions on the environment. "I told a group of school children the story of how the ant was made the cleaner of the land, the eel the cleaner of rivers and the shark the cleaner of oceans. Afterward I watched the children leave the room and noticed they made a great effort to make sure they didn’t stomp on one ant when they walked outside. They understood the importance of the ants to the environment”.