The winter solstice brought a grey sky and a violent storm. Then a splash of sunshine, in an instant shining a light into the darkness, to the spring that beckoned in six weeks’ time.
My primal animal instincts, and not the calendar, told me things could only get better after a particularly severe winter. They told the golden whistler, too, who for a brief moment sang his beautiful, descending melody before he fell silent again in the gloom of the fading light by late afternoon.
Immediately before and after the solstice, marking the shortest day of the year, all the signs were there that spring was just around the corner. Walking in the foothills of kunanyi/Mt Wellington I noticed the swelling flower buds of a plant which heralds the warmer, longer days of spring, golden rosemary. Silver wattles, which frame the stream at the bottom of my garden, also showed hints of yellow petals and in the garden itself, the closed heads of daffodil flowers were pushing through the wet, cold soil.
The actual date of nature’s mid-winter event, which also, of course, produces the longest night, nearly passed me by this year until a reveller in the Dark Park at the Dark Mofo festival noticed a beer in my hand and wished me a happy solstice.
She was a couple of days early but I was reminded all the same that every year I try to do an annual mid-winter bird walk on the slopes of the mountain. I also do one at the summer equinox in December when the woods, in contrast, ring to a cacophony of birdsong, and the mountain slopes are ablaze with the colour of red, yellow and white petal and light-green new leaf.
I think I prefer the winter, though, even if the number of birds which can be found are diminished by the absence of summer migrants. Of purely Tasmanian breeding species, the orange-bellied and swift parrots might be absent but the other 12 are still here.
Although the local birds might be harder to find in winter and their songs harder to detect, it makes hearing the whistler or the “cussock, cussock” of passing green rosellas so much more rewarding. It lifts the dark spirits in the darkest days of winter.
Dark Mofo honours the European tradition of celebrating the height of winter in the knowledge that we are at a turning point; the rigours of winter will soon be at an end and the enduring human spirit to be replenished in the warmth of spring, to say nothing of the supplies of food which made survival through the coldest, snowy months possible.
For the Aboriginal peoples who walked these lands before Europeans arrived winter was a time for avoiding the hostile environment of the Tasmanian high country, and gathering and sheltering in coastal areas. No doubt the song of the golden whistler informed them that the days were finally approaching when they would be able to seek the lush hunting grounds, and fruits, of the mountains still coated with snow on the shortest day.