...I use nature for my book...
The Meriam lived by a seasonal calendar. There were no months of the year in days gone by. Each of the seasons and changes of the winds give signs to the Meriam of coming events. Everyone knows some of them. Every Meriam child knows that the Torres Strait pigeon will arrive from the northwest towards the end of the southeast season to eat the wongai or rich red plum on its way to the eastern side of Cape York Peninsula. From Mer to Boigu in the northwest of the Torres Strait, the Islanders share the legend: if you eat a wongai plum you will become like a bird and always fly back to the Islands.
Some people can read future events in signs from nature. The late Sam Passi OBE, a descendant of one of the priests of the Malo religious order, uses nature as his book:
'Nature always shows signs of something that will happen in a few months. Say, for instance, when there is a prolific year for the wongai it'll be for sure a prolific year for turtle egg-laying season. It's wonderful to get the knowledge straight from nature. White society goes from books and calendars. I use nature for my book and I know how to go about it in my part of the world.'
Source: 'Stars of Tagai', Nonie Sharp, Aboriginal Studies Press.
MARCH 'SOUTHWEST SEASON'
The winds are turning to the southwest. Early vegeatble foods begin to be harvested. These include bananas and manioc.
MAY - JULY 'SOUTH EAST SEASON'
The first turtle for the season may appear as early as May during the early southeast season, although the time when turtles are plentiful begins in the northeast season about October and goes through until January or February. A very important feasting ceremony marks its arrival, bringing together the whole island. Everyone must have a taste of the first turtle. In earlier times word was sent around by blowing the trumpet shell. The turtle was then taken to a sacred ceremonial ground whose site changed to the church ground after the conversion of the Meriam to Christianity.
Early southeast season is green grass time. Time to cut the grass for thatch for the round houses. The thatch lasts for about five years. Houses are rarely made of plaited coconut leaf or grass thatch today; but children today are encouraged to learn traditional skills in which senior Meriam remain proficient.
One phase of the three-yearly cycle of the rites of Malo-Bomai, the Meriam gods, has been held towards the end of the southeast season perhaps in late July or August in preparation for the maritime expeditions. The dances, like waves in the sea, are performed on sacred ceremonial ground at the village of Las on the eastern side of Mer. The warriors are now prepared for battle and gift exchange with their shell-friends across the sea who are handed down from fathers to sons. In a world of enemies and battles, cone-shell friends are even stronger than ties between people 'born of the same blood'.
SEPTEMBER 'NORTHEAST SEASON'
Northeast season, around the month of September. Time for voyaging and preparing garden land for planting. The southeast trade winds have stopped blowing, moving first to the southwest. The Meriam voyagers are waiting for the sea to settle down into its northeast phase. Then the sea becomes smooth, like a wrinkled green-blue skin. 'Like grease', the Meriam call its shiny flatness. The white caps have largely disappeared.
The final spiritual and material preparations were made for voyaging. Tomog zogo, a divinatory shrine in Komet clan territory on the northwest side of Mer, may be consulted. This sacred shrine was still held in great esteem and with 'reverent affection' by its owners more than a generation after the missionaries arrived at Mer in 1872. It was later burned and destroyed by one of the LMS pastors.
Source: A.C. Haddon, 'Head-Hunters, Black, White and Brown', 1901.
'They listen to the distant murmur of the waves breaking on the Great Barrier Reef. "Wooo." Like a drum. "This is the sea speaking to you", the Meriam say today. 'The distant murmur can tell you lots of things: "It's going to be calm weather." If it makes a louder noise it says a big wind is coming. A bad time for voyaging. Or it may say there's a good anchorage'.'
Source: George Kaddy interviewed by Nonie Sharp, Townsville, 10 September 1998.
The voyagers set out. This is a high point of the Meriam yearly round. Without the voyages they are canoe-less and friend-less. Shut into small island homelands, without that dynamic interaction with others which fuels creative change as well as reaffirming established custom.
Power songs are chanted by the departing voyagers. Certain plants are carried in the bows of the canoes to ward off hostile spirits. Women and children are not present at the departure and do not sight the fishing gear. It is not customary to say 'good luck'. The voyagers never criticise ('growl') the sea when they are on it. A respectful attitude to the sea continues today, but many of the customary preparations and practices are gone and younger people will say 'Good fishing'.
Garden produce from the July harvest is prepared. Yams, bananas, sweet potatoes, are mixed with sea turtle fat, roasted, dried, placed in bamboo tubes and sealed. Water is carried in bamboo tubes.
Star signs are appearing. The constellation the Meriam call Tagai, a man standing in a canoe, begins to rise. His left hand is the Southern Cross. First Seg (Orion) appears on the northeast horizon at sunset. Then the Pleiades starts rise, which the Meriam know as Usiam. 'Usiam time' means the weather is right for voyaging.
Northeast season is also the time for preparing plots of garden land. Each plot has an owner, a man or woman. Slashing and burning makes ready the soil for the main planting after the first rains which coincide with a sign from the star picture Tagai, whose left hand, the Southern Cross appears in the sky.
OCTOBER - NOVEMBER 'SOUTHWEST SEASON'
The wind is moving around to the southwest. Turtles are beginning to come up on the beaches to lay their eggs in October and November, although the first may be caught in southeast time as early as May. The first rains, most important in the food-growing round, are arriving. To the Meriam they say: 'Have you planted the wild yam? Have you planted the shallow-rooted yam that spreads out 'like an octopus'?'
DECEMBER - MARCH 'NORTHWEST SEASON'
The northwest season is heralded by a rainbow-like sunset which the Meriam have a name for. The opening of the season may be accompanied by an unusual stillness. It is about the month of December. Thunderstorms follow. After the heavy rains arrive the main real planting begins. Men may plant up to 30 varieties of yam. There are champion yam growers and yam growing is surrounded by secrecy, special ecological knowledge, magical practice and garden lore. A very competitive area traditionally, between men only, yams may grow as tall as a man. A champion yam grower is the height of honour among 'masters of gardening'. Its prestige rivals strongly the title of champion turtle hunter.
Fishing in the ancient stone fish traps which stretch for some four kilometres and were built by the ancestors Kos and Abob, according to Meriam oral tradition, is good. Turtles are plentiful on the beaches laying eggs during December and January. The food plants are beginning to grow.
As the wind turns around to the northwest the voyagers return home, 'the wind on their backs'. They bring gifts for their god Malo at the sacred ground at Las and perhaps a new canoe.
Keywords: calendar, canoes, gardening, housing, Mer, Meriam culture, Passi, Sam, Stars of Tagai, yams
Sharp, Nonie 1993, 'Stars of Tagai', Aboriginal Studies Press.