Mermaids are the river-dreamings of northern Europe. Here in the south-west of Australia, the winter solstice falls with the first rains. The streams and rivers begin to flow, breaking the drought and releasing the dry and dusty old year back into the sea.
The cultures of the European colonisers, still dominant in Australia, look back to the German and Celtic lands, where the sun played a major part in the ebb and flow cycles of the year. At Midwinter the sun is at its weakest and all the land is cold and dark and hungry. The solstice marks the death of the old year, epitomised in the Norse tale of Ragnarok: the world tree is shaken by the serpent coiled at its base, and all living creatures are devoured by the ravening winter wolf. But Ragnarok is not really the end of the world, just the death of the old year to make way for the blossoming of the new.
The pagan traditions of the winter solstice were incorporated into Christianity as Christmas. The festival still has some relevance in the Northern Hemisphere, but in the south we have our seasons crossed. Not only do we observe Christmas in summer, the Australian winter has a different nature altogether. For a culture to be strong it needs to be able to reinvent its’ stories, to read the stories of the land.
But what of the Indigenous culture?
The Noongar peoples have the accumulated knowledge of thousands of years observing the cycle of the seasons. People watch the stars, the plants and the animals for signs of seasonal shifts. Knowledge is shared through myth and story, the cultural vehicle for making country meaningful, and for adapting to its changes. Winter solstice falls in Makuru, the time when the first rains come. Country begins to wake up in preparation for the spring blossoming. The purple and blue flowers are the first to appear. The ravens go quiet, the raucous calling suspended whilst they pair up for nesting. In Makuru people moved inland, away from the rains and squally wildness of the coast. The winter sea was left to itself.
We can listen, respect, and learn from the stories of local custodians. But those are Noongar tales to tell. We need to find our own way of sitting in Noongar country. So what elements of the European traditions are still relevant here? What lives on in our own heritage that might complement and support the local lore, without appropriating it?
The death and rebirth of the sun still has a hold on us. As a natural cycle to release the old and stagnant ‘stuff’ we no longer need, the symbolism is irresistible. It can also be seen as a timely moment to reflect on our own diverse cultural histories. What do we really need from our own past, on a different continent, but under the same sun? Encircled by the same all-embracing sea? What cultural elements can we reuse, reinvent, and revitalize? And what should we release, along with the flow of the river?
In Makuru, the rains come and the streams begin to run. Rainbows flower in the watery, sun kissed sky. At winter solstice all the river-dreamings wake up and replenish the land. In Noongar tales the rainbow serpent, or Waugal, dwells in deep pools in the rivers. It is a generative force, but is also dangerous, to be treated with caution and respect.
In the tales of northern Europe, merpeople haunt the rivers and streams. Under numerous names, they are shapeshifting water spirits who often appear as dragons or worms; the sinuous flow of the waterways. They lure the unwary with the otherworldly beauty of their songs, and drown them in deep pools or waterfalls. Or they might be nurturing spirits who gift wishes and warnings. They might even teach the water music to those who are willing and brave enough to listen.
Rivers and streams have a music all of their own. Trickling, bubbling, roaring, gurgling. Around each little bend you might hear a different voice calling the song of the river. By the end of summer they are silent, sleeping in the dark quiet pools, awaiting the autumn rains.
In Makuru, the Margaret River begins to flow. People watch avidly for it to break through at the Rivermouth, where it surges into the sea. But the flow begins upstream, from all the myriad of small streamlets feeding in from the upper catchment. This year, I first heard it on a walk through the forest at Ten Mile Brook. A wild and happy gurgling resounded all along the river. The banks were veiled too thick with greenery to approach. But I felt the pull of the watersong, the urge to sidle in and gaze upon it.
If we listen long and patiently to the songs of the river, we can learn new stories, refreshing new energy to carry us on through the cycling of the year ahead. And by listening to the voices of country, perhaps we might learn to become better custodians, finding ourselves peacefully slipping into the dreamings of the land.
Feature image: Mermaid at Rivermouth Beach, Margaret River. Sculpture by Russell Sheridan 2013. Taken at the setting of the solstice sun, 21st June 2018.
Jinni Wilson BSc (hons) Anthropology, University of Western Australia.