Libby Robin: Seasoned travels



Are we already seeing climate change in action? I pondered on this question earlier in May when in Canberra the street trees carried both blossom and autumn leaves. Very strange to see – the leaves of last year and the promise of spring together on the same boughs, on the same tree.

I have had a long interest in desert Australia and its ‘aseasonal’ year. Sometimes the rain comes in winter. Sometimes in summer. Sometimes not at all. And only after rain do we get ecological activity in most of the desert. Understanding seasons in Australia was a reason for doing our book Boom and Bust: Bird Stories for a Dry Country.

In the prologue to How a Continent Created a Nation (2007), I argue for the seasonal exceptionalism of Australia. It starts with a ‘parable’, a story of the inland bird, the Banded Stilt, which defied understanding because it did not breed ‘seasonally’ as expected. I suggest that we need new ways of thinking about Australia’s place in the world:

The Banded Stilt’s world challenges all fiscal models built around yearly cycles. The global economy is annual, implicitly catering for seasonal agriculture and industry. The world’s fiscal cycles follow the ‘annual’ harvests. It is easier to make an international treaty that protects migratory birds on regular seasonal flights along international ‘flyways’ than to manage lands within a single nation for unpredictable, non-annual seasons. The Banded Stilt’s eye view casts light on some of the problems of finding a place for Australia in a global world.

But maybe this is not just an Australian problem.

It was no surprise to me to find European trees behaving badly – with both blossom and autumn leaves in Australia’s shifting seasonal conditions. This is a European tree in an Australian environment, and the mismatch is evident. Botanist Tim Entwistle has recently written a book advocating the need for Sprinter and Sprummer – seasons between seasons. Aboriginal people have had very different ways of looking at seasons for very long times, and have different calendars in different parts of the country. Seasonal differences matter even more when your life depends on finding food in this country.

Photo: Johan Gärdebo

Photo: Johan Gärdebo

But now I have been challenged again. Here I am at the campus of KTH and I am seeing the same thing – hedges and trees – European natives in Europe are covered in spring growth in the first week of December. Just near the office here is a hedge with both autumn leaves and spring shoots. The avenue of trimmed trees also has just a few leaves from autumn and new buds all over the trees. The tree outside S:t Jakobs Church near the Kungsträdgården in central Stockholm is covered in buds. Just nearby, the skating rink – now full of Christmas skaters – is surrounded by trees that have new pale or even green shoots. These trees are not responding to sliding seasons: they have skipped winter altogether and think it is April. This is unlikely to be a good evolutionary strategy. It is a waste of ecological energy if the first hard frost kills all the shoots. The question is, how many times can these trees shoot in vain? Will they die if they try too often?

Photo: Libby Robin

Photo: Libby Robin

Is this an urban heat island effect? Are we seeing the first climate changed ecosystems of Stockholm? All these questions arise in the face of a small observation.

I have been travelling between the seasons of Australia and Sweden for the past 4 years. It has been a great privilege. Watching nature closely has been one way for me to feel really ‘here’ when I come. Time zones, seasonal shifts and the exhaustion of long-haul travel all make time in Sweden ‘other-worldly’ – but perhaps now we are really seeing another world, both in Sweden and Australia.

Libby Robin