- Summertime: Reflections on a vanishing future, by Danielle Celermajer. Hamish Hamilton. $24.99.
Long ago and far away, I would climb an English Oak tree in search of a vaguely imagined road less travelled.
I occasionally met a red squirrel, who would scuttle deeper into the canopy, leaving an impression of indignation rather than fear. It never occurred to me back then that the tree, the squirrel, and a melancholic 13-year-old boy were threads in a species mosaic defining life on this lonely planet.
Many years later, reading Danielle Celermajer's exquisitely affecting meditations on ethical choices in a time of potentially catastrophic change, I remember the tree, its resident squirrel, and my clumsy assumption of ownership, with a twinge of retrospective regret.
Celermajer is a professor of sociology and social policy at the University of Sydney. Her fascinating new book takes a contemplative tilt at the horror of last summer's bushfires, patiently shoring up visceral experience across the species spectrum, like scenes from a tapestry.
Donkeys, pigs, and horses, as well as the trees and many birds and animals in the rainforest valley in which Celermajer and her partner lived through the crucible of early 2020, provide grist for the narrative mill.
The result resists classification. A poetic cadence complements the elegiac tone, as complex ideas - such as the degree to which ethical humans should accept responsibility for the harm caused to other species by climate change - are expressed with a calm and clear voice.
Celermajer is of course aware of our inclination to anthropomorphise, as we bestow human characteristics, as well as names, to animals kept for companionship rather than commerce. It is hard to resist, since our language is naturally configured to reflect human needs, values, and expectations.
However, as anyone who has cared for a well-loved domestic dog or cat would recognise, there is a connection, not necessarily of the carer's instigation, suggesting a sense of emotional involvement, and by extension, the joy and grief of shared experience.
Celermajer's story of a particular pig called Jimmy suffering post-traumatic grief became known before Summertime was published, and this extract hauntingly captures the dreamlike quality of shared consciousness:
"I went and sat alone where Jimmy has been lying. It is way down in the bush. The light is soft, the air and the earth are cool, and the smell is of leaves and the river. I cannot presume to know what he is doing when he lies here, but it seems that he is taking himself back to an ecology not wrought by the terror of the fires, not fuelled by our violence on the earth. He is letting another earth heal him."
At one level, Celermajer has written an elegant and profoundly relevant 2020 bushfire journal, which is also, in a larger, existential, sense, the story of "staving off the infinity of grief" following starkly horrific events as well as facing "the challenge of working out how to live together in ways that are both ethical and realistic".
There are likely to be many forms of life on earth that have yet to be fully understood, but I have always believed our human assumption of species superiority is self-serving and problematic. Top species ranking morally confers a responsibility of care for the environment in which all species exist, and for far too long, we have demonstrably neglected this care.
Celermajer's lucid philosophy seeks recognition of the inclusivity of all life: "We rest on the earth. We eat of the sun. We breathe of the plants. We are enlivened by the rivers and the oceans. We depend on each other. We delight in all of it."
She talks of the "generosity" of trees and advocates a closer look at the ways in which nature encourages interdependence.
And chillingly, she reminds us why we have imagined hell as fire - "... our intransigence, our stubborn resistance to recognise our fragility, our addiction to ways of living on this planet that have brought the fire and that have brought us here".
In the scheme of things, preoccupied as we are with an appalling pandemic, this ethical elegy for the black summer bushfires of a year ago might seem like an impatient tap on the shoulder from a well-meaning mentor.
But this book, in my opinion, is timely, valuable, and beautiful.
Our survival as a collective species on the only available planet in our universe is at risk. We need to think carefully about that.
And we need to consider the environment, our place within it, and all the non-human animals, and trees, plants, and other life forms, sentient or not, in a manner that might make a tangible difference.
- Ian McFarlane's collection of bushfire and climate change poems, The Crucible, is published by Ginninderra Press.