Other Ways of Living
Summertime: Reflections on a Vanishing Future
by Danielle Celermajer
Published February 2021
At its start and end, Summertime is about two pigs: Jimmy and Katy. Jimmy survived the catastrophic fires of 2019-20. Katy died, even though her human companions had moved the pigs to what they believed was safer ground. Those human companions are Summertime’s author, sociologist Danielle Celermajer, and her partner, called T in the book.
In an early moment in Summertime, Celermajer receives a message that Jimmy has been found. At first, she understands this to mean Jimmy’s body. But then she watches mobile phone footage of him ‘next to a burnt-out tree, coming closer and closer till his nose touched the phone camera … accompanied by the sound of his snort, a little louder each frame’, accompanied by comforting words by the woman taking the footage. Taken in context – Katy’s death, the devastation of the fire, Jimmy’s experiences as the fire passed through, Celermajer’s separation from Jimmy, and the reality that the hoped-for sanctuary is the place that has burned – this scene is wrenching.
Summertime’s introduction is a complex depiction of grief, loss and fear. There is Celermajer’s dismay that Katy died in awful circumstances. There is her reading of Jimmy’s trauma and his recovery. When Jimmy returns home, Celermajer observes him taking a mud bath, eating watermelon, trying to ‘find a way back to his world’, and looking for but not finding Katy. And there is also a wider, and wilder, bewilderment at the extent and destructive power of the fires. Celermajer suggests that such devastation and loss is difficult to reconcile, ‘not only to humans, but to other wild and domesticated animals, to the bush, to the ecologies of rivers and moss and the creatures who flourish there, to the possibility of regeneration’. For her, focusing on Jimmy is a way forward, a way to look plainly at reality.
Partly, the grief Celermajer describes is personal – she is devastated by the loss of Katy, regardless of circumstances, and devastated for Jimmy, But partly, the grief connects to Summertime’s prevailing theme, what Celermajer calls ‘the puzzle of learning how to live in this world’. Celermajer’s portrait of Jimmy is moving and challenging – and as I read it, I found myself a discomforted spectator to Celermajer’s pain. Even though she grants readers partial access to her inner world, even though she has chosen to write and publish these words, I felt like a voyeur.
Similarly, I wanted to resist using the pain of others – that of other humans or other animals – as a tool, an access point for someone who did not experience first-hand the threat and the reality of the fires. And yet, for many readers, there is no other way to show support or compassion, or to start to consider the need for action, but through the experiences of others. At one point, Celermajer, thinking about philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas on the function of suffering for others, says ‘I slightly recoil at the notion of suffering being useful or useless, as if it is a means, effective or ineffective, to some ends’. And yet, Celermajer concludes, Katy’s death has changed her. I found myself resisting the temptation to think about Summertime as some sort of manual on how to act, how to be, how to live during the climate crisis. My reluctance may be a response to the personal elements of Summertime – no reader becomes Celermajer by reading Celermajer – but I suspect it is also a form of readerly equivocation.
At the end of Summertime, Celermajer expresses a resistance to turning her experiences into a story – even though she harnesses the power of storytelling to considerable effect. In a response to her early concerns, she reports that Jimmy ‘has been able to find his way into life’ and that he has a new companion, Penelope. But she is wary of the possible redemptive qualities of sharing this news. Even as she acknowledges that Jimmy and Penelope ‘bring me comfort’, she connects hope to mourning. The stories and characters – humans, other animals, trees – in Summertime do not end when the book ends. Neither the effects of trauma nor the certainty of new fire seasons magically disappear.
Throughout Summertime, Celermajer observes animals and plants – especially animals – in her life and on her property acutely. Not just Katy and Jimmy, but donkeys, horses, ducks, black cockatoos: ‘Some birds just have a way of putting you in your place’. She reflects on a tree called Isaac, named after her grandfather who came to Australia with his wife and son – Celermajer’s father – as refugees. According to Celermajer, as her grandfather ‘had learned from his Jewish forebears, everything that Isaac did was oriented towards the community he felt part of… down seven generations’. Celermajer wants also to ‘live towards seven generations’. She describes visiting Isaac the tree, wondering what Isaac has seen and learnt, and reflecting more widely about the ways trees share knowledge with each other.
Celermajer’s depiction of Puzzle the donkey is a particular delight, even in the context of the approaching fire. Upon first meeting Puzzle and taking him home, Celermajer says: ‘his default relationship with the world soon became clear: worry’. While Puzzle does things ‘pessimistically’, he does, in time, ‘work out that other ways of living were possible’ – including that he does not need to resist the strange actions of humans, such as coaxing him out of heavy rain and into shelter.
Celermajer gives herself licence and space to report in detail her observations of animal behaviour – but for the reader to know to what extent she does so accurately, requires them to have a working knowledge of debates about what animals can think and feel. Often, she is an interpreter of animals. At times, she speculates about their inner worlds, the reasons why they behave the way they do. On Jimmy, she writes ‘what I sense’ – not what she knows – ‘is that the trauma of his mind and heart cannot be separated from the trauma in his body’. When she beckons, ‘switch, now, to the perspective of the ducks’, she is really asking the reader to switch to her perspective of the perspective of the ducks.
Such an approach asks much of readers. Can we accept Celermajer’s descriptions of what animals sense and know? But, then, do readers need to make this judgement – or is it enough, in a book driven by the deep thinking of a person who describes traumatic events she personally experienced, to know that the text faithfully records Celermajer’s perspectives? Laura Jean McKay’s novel The Animals in that Country is full of non-human animals communicating with humans. When I read it, and with no disrespect intended to McKay’s research methods and evidence base, I did not care to what extent the animal dialogue was ‘accurate’. Instead, I revelled in a fictional world that convinced and thrilled me on its own terms.
Reading Summertime, by contrast, I wanted to understand more of the detail, substance, foundations of Celermajer’s observations. In part – but only in part – this is my default human exceptionalism, not easily shifted. But Summertime is a book that might benefit from a ‘for further reading’ list. Among works by others, that list might include Celermajer’s scholarship – more complex and intricate in tone and substance than Summertime – on such matters as multispecies justice, different ways of resisting human exceptionalism, human rights, forgiveness, Arendt, and ways of preventing torture and ‘grave wrongs’.
At one point, Celermajer jumps from talking about Puzzle the donkey to considering Hannah Arendt on the human condition and the cultivated person’s capacity to place themselves among the right people, things and ideas. Celermajer expresses doubt that Arendt, bound by her times, ‘would have imagined that the company of animals other than humans, or of plants, trees or ecosystems could also shape who one became’.
In turn, Celermajer’s rejection of human exceptionalism has the sharpest of edges: ‘The suspicion that there is no mathematical rule that halts species extinction just short of human is creeping up on us’. She seeks to describe the destructive power of the fires by talking about the estimated three billion animals that died, and by isolating each individual death: ‘If you spend just ten seconds on each of those animals, barely enough to register them as individual beings, the process would take about 950 years.’
All this leads to a word: omnicide: ‘The killing of all. Not just all humans, as if humans were the only beings that could be murdered. All beings.’ For Celermajer, defining omnicide is not an academic exercise. It is about helping to understand and attribute responsibility, acknowledging that guilt lies with humanity ‘just doing what it is that it does’, and trying to stop it from happening – or at least, from continuing to happen.
On one level, Celermajer’s criticisms are important reminders of matters about which no reminders should be necessary: the national conversation should move beyond various falsehoods, including that the economy cannot bear climate action, that Australia has always had fires, and that those fires should and will behave predictably. She condemns the common sport of averting the gaze: ‘it is only fantastical thinking that has you believe that silence will stop the dreaded future from coming to pass’. On another level, she criticises ‘professional ethicists’ for their attachment to ideal choices in imagined worlds or scenarios because our real-world choices are messier, more urgent and more nebulous. All this reflects on action and inaction, and of not mistaking one for the other.
Generally, I am not a fan of authors anticipating and describing the possible negative reactions of readers in a text. It runs the risk of corralling, mischaracterising or sanitising legitimate alternative perspectives. Still, I understand Celermajer’s rationale for acknowledging that readers might struggle to connect with the scale of the fires and associated loss in the context of a pig called Jimmy. Later, she is more pointed about how readers might react to her general approach:
Some people might recoil at his concern for ducks when human life was at stake, and remains so at risk for people around the world – not only from climate-related disasters, but from the perennial burdens of poverty, ill health, insecurity and now from the pandemic. From this perspective, being able to show concern for ducks is no doubt a privilege.
Summertime contains layers of privilege, beyond its focus on pigs and ducks. Celermajer has the capacity to buy and live on a patch of earth that sounds gloriously meditative (although not when a fire is approaching). She has the time, space and energy to ruminate on ecologies, to stare into the faces of animals and to make meaning from what she sees. Most Australians do not have the means to confront the climate crisis by leaving or taking respite from the realities of the urban world – some do not have the capacity to buy a property, any property. And although Celermajer adopts a measured, inquisitive, self-aware, precise tone to ruminate on the question of how to live in a changed and changing world, Summertime is in places a furious book – ‘of late my anger has been wild and violent,’ she writes – that at times directs its fury towards the complacency of others. In part, Celermajer may be anticipating the possible reaction of readers who realise they are the object of her ire.
I do not raise privilege to criticise Celermajer – the privileged critic has no business whingeing about the privileged writer who has plainly declared her privilege and worked it transparently into her discourse. She is not, in my view, trying to shut down criticism. Just as she gives readers a glimpse of her grief and exasperation, so she is willing to put her thinking into context, and to acknowledge the necessity and value of reader scrutiny and scepticism. In turn, the reader can, if they choose, take account of these layers of privilege without needing to reject Celermajer’s experiences, not least the personal pain she chooses to share in Summertime.
Celermajer expresses suspicion of the concept of hope in the context in a culture ‘that assumes that progress and improvement ought to be, and will be, both endless and guaranteed’. Summertime makes plain what we ought not need to be told: we are already living in the dreaded future, and that this dreaded future already forms part of our past. On fire and other matters, it challenges assumptions that the patterns of the past will automatically instruct us about the present.
Summertime was published in February 2021. Since then, the global pandemic has carried on – and carries on still, despite our best efforts to pretend otherwise. Parts of Australia have endured floods, mouse plagues, housing crises, expensive lettuces, the AFL men’s grand final not being held at the MCG – all the important things. Meanwhile, the next devastating fires will no doubt surprise us. Summertime stands in opposition to such complacency. Celermajer is at her most compelling when she invites readers to think about what change means for them and how they might act – ‘speaking the feared future’ – rather than when explicitly or implicitly inviting readers to commune with nature.
According to Celermajer, the idea that change is slow ‘has been one of the greatest psychic buffers’ impeding our willingness to recognise the reality of climate change – and ‘one of the greatest impediments to our believing that we could effect the transformations we will need to make if we are to have a part in consciously altering how the future will unfold’. To me, these are worrying, even terrifying, thoughts.