The Sweet, Warm Winds

The season has changed. Now is Piriyakutu — time of the warm spring winds. My Pitjantjatjara dictionary says that Piriya is “the warm consistent wind from the north and west, that comes in Spring. Good wind for hunting kangaroo.” The Pit language quotes are evocative: “In spring lots of plant foods come up”. “Some say that dog mamu (monsters) come with the spring wind.”  
Piriyitja is the adjective associated with the windy season. As in “That must be a windy season mamu (monster).”

Piriyitja wildflowers on my path to work.

Piriyitja wildflowers on my path to work.

Pathogenic dust monsters aside, this season is also the time of the honey-suckle grevillea: Kali-kali. The sweetness of Kaliny-kalinypa is heady. The grevillea flower is a stem of multiple showy bracts, golden yellow in this case, each with a minuscule pot of nectar — perfect for the tip of a bird’s, a butterfly’s or a child’s tongue. In the cool piriyitja mornings the flowers are full of honey. Even at the height of the day the flowers cover your fingertips with abundant syrup if you touch them.  They are bracingly delicious. The Anangu kids call them lolly flowers. In Kali-kali season the world feels benign. Animals are breeding, babies abound. A fat baby magpie sits beatifically on the wire fence, fearless even when I park the roaring car nearby.

My little garden is flourishing. Tall strong plants sway with small, brilliant flowers. The comfrey plants are the most impressive, their brilliant blue flowers attracting slender native bees. There are yellow and snow-coloured flowers, too and a profusion of green leaves from chartreuse bok choy to the red-green shiny leaves of the pomegranate bush and the sea green, frondy dill.

Glimpse of the garden, September 2016.

Glimpse of the garden, September 2016.

Best of all, we can eat from the garden. The pods of tender peas never make it to the table — they are far too good. Regular salads of herbs — rocket leaves, young cabbage and kale with snipped coriander, basil or dill — have energised me. Delicate chives are bountiful. The garlic is growing beautifully in its styrofoam box and will be ready to harvest in the heat at Christmas.

The little pumpkins persevere. Some bean plants have come up to have another go. The beans I planted last autumn couldn’t grow. The ground was too hard for them.

That’s one of the reasons I appreciate my comfrey and even the lanky dandelions so much. This was baked hard stony earth, littered with bits of plastic detritus and cigarette butts. The extensive roots of the comfrey and dandelion, with the clover-like nitrogen-fixing lupins, have made inroads into the soil — for water, microbes and roots. I’ve been able to eat the dandelions, too. The steamed leaves are just like silverbeet. “You must be desperate up there,” said my mother. “I don’t think even your grandmother ever ate the dandelions”.

The comfrey leaves are so plentiful now that I must make an ointment of them. Comfrey is a great remedy for sprains and bruises. There is a long tradition of eating it, too. It is mucilaginous like the marshmallow plant. But comfrey has harmful alkaloids which can cause liver damage, so I do not use it that way. Plants have evolved to defend themselves, not just for our consumption. There is a tiny dose of cyanide in every apple seed.

The garden in May, at the beginning of Winter.

The garden in May, at the beginning of Winter.

The baby animals are not all about cuteness, either. Baby snakes are fascinating, but not in your yard. The season reminds me that old Anangu occasionally enjoy the delicacy of a young kangaroo. It’s good meat, they say, for elders without many teeth. In town, too busy to hunt, the Anangu buy only the tail of the kangaroo from our single supermarket. I think it’s because the other parts of the ‘roo have important meanings in the way they are divided up. Some parts are taboo for some people. One of my Anangu friends might correct me. Anyway, the egalitarian tail is big enough to feed many. Wrapped in foil and thrown in the coals a piece of kangaroo tail makes a hearty treat, gelatinous and tender like a lamb shank.

Back in the supermarket, the kangaroo mince is left to the urban Kooris and Murris — Aboriginal people, like me, from the east. It’s good food for students — inexpensive, healthy. I think it makes you energetic — bouncy like a ‘roo. I guess the occasional adventurous Japanese or Chinese tourists might fry some up, too. I love to think of them, happy on holidays, suddenly overcome by the urge to bound along.

Along with the plants and fruits that grow wild, meat is the best and freshest food here. Northern Territory cattle wander over large areas to find their grassy feed. Their meat is healthy. The vegetables we get, however, are a bit variable in quality. Sometimes the eggplants seem to glow and I’ll grab one. Or I’ll get excited to see a bunch of yellow squash. Other times nothing looks fresh. The veges might have travelled from the southeast of the continent to topmost Darwin and then south to here — around five thousand kilometres by road. Sad herbs sell for $8 a bunch and you can pay thirteen dollars for a lettuce. Hence my excitement about the green edibles in our yard. I even eat the tender magenta and olive leaves of the beetroot. We don’t eat the root itself, incidentally. The nitrates in the soil would get too concentrated in root vegetables. That’s why the garlic is in a styrofoam box in its own specially made soil.

Last time we were away, a friend left a pile of friable camel manure in the corner of the yard without telling me, like the gift of some light-footed big friendly giant. I’m enjoying thinking about what to grow with it. Perhaps some sweet potatoes.

The local Aboriginal community, where we used to live, has fresher vegetables. Anangu have an excellent program called Mai Wiru (literally Good Food). Their vegetables come up from Adelaide, a mere fifteen hundred kilometres away. They have less variety but better quality plant food. I’m sure the refrigerated trucks bring a bigger range than the old Afghan traders could bring on their camels in pre-truck times. But I’ll bet the Afghani cameleer’s cous cous, dried apricots and spices were every bit as thrilling to the remote-dwelling people they visited as a butternut pumpkin is to me in the local shop nowadays — more handsomely presented, too.

Now that the season’s changed, I don’t have to wear my poncho out in the mornings anymore. The warmer days mean that it’s almost time to put away the luxurious garments of winter — socks, shawls and beanies; sheepskin boots. I’m not the only one who’s loved wearing these. Have you heard about the beanie festival in Alice Springs? Every winter time there is an explosion of colour and creativity in the Central Australian town. You should go.

Like a northern autumn, though, the season of the honey grevillea has an undertone of foreboding. The lean, hard time is coming. The coming summer bakes everything dry — all is grey, black, sienna and terracotta under the cloudless cobalt sky. The only protection from the heat is to get out of it, immersing yourself in the hard, precious water. In the old days, water was so rare that Anangu would bury themselves up to the neck in the red sand under a tree to cool down. There was little to eat and little energy to find it in the full glare of summer. Coming in December, that season is called Mai Wiyaringkupai. Mai is food, Wiya means no: I think the name means “Food, there isn’t any”. Perhaps Christmas dinners at the European stations and missions played a role in more than a few conversions in years past.

For now we enjoy the bounty. At night, there’s still time for a fire until a brilliant star-filled sky. By day there are wonderful foods and sensuous enjoyments: the nectar of the flowers, the tender green leaves (with oil and balsamic from far away Italy) and the sweet hint of moisture in the wind, from monsoon rain in Indonesia, three thousand kilometres away.

Thumbnail picture of Honey Grevillea by Sandid.