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Grief for a vanishing future
A personal story of loss in the bushfires of 2019.
A personal story of loss in the bushfires of 2019.
As I write this on a Friday afternoon it has been forty-eight hours and he has barely lifted his head. We call him, but it is only when we get right up close that he answers, and only in the softest voice – a voice very different from his usual booming baritone. I just climbed down to where he was lying and finally got him to drink a little water, but he showed no interest in food – not even watermelon, his favourite treat. I had no idea that grief could be so deep for anyone.
I have held off telling you that Jimmy is a pig because I appreciate that for many human beings knowing his species would make it impossible to read this as a story about the enormity of loss. But stay with me.
About three years ago a woman who knew my partner L and I offered refuge to a few animals emailed us to ask if we had space for two pigs who had been rescued when they were about three weeks old from the floor of a factory farm where they had been discarded as ‘wastage’. For the first six months of their lives Jimmy and Katy were so weak and terrified that it seemed doubtful that they would live. But they had huddled by each other’s sides, and in the love of their human, until they had the strength to enter the world. By the time they came to us at the age of four, they were physically huge but unusually timid. It took about two years before Katy would look at me straight on, and whenever the chickens got into their area, Jimmy – all 200-odd kilograms of him – would scurry away in fear.
On 26 December 2019 the fire that had been edging towards our place was now burning near enough to pose a real threat. When, two days later, I telephoned M, the woman who had raised Jimmy and Katy, to see if she could once again offer them sanctuary, she said she had been half-expecting my call. She would come the next day to take them home, four hours to the south of us, where they could be safe until our place was no longer under threat. The very idea of being ‘safe’, however, is one of the many casualties of the climate catastrophe. Thirty-six hours later we had not been touched, but a ferocious fire had enveloped M’s place, descending upon them from three sides, razing their home, turning the fields to ash, and killing Katy. Given the nature of the fire everyone presumed that Jimmy was also dead. But then, miraculously, just over a day later, Jimmy appeared, having somehow survived an inferno that had vapourised everything else. When I read the first text I received from M, which simply said ‘I have found Jimmy’, I assumed she had found his body. Moments later a low-quality video followed showing him at a distance next to a burned-out tree, coming closer and closer till his nose touched the phone camera. The moving image was accompanied by the sound of his snort, a little louder each frame, and M’s words, ‘I know, I know.’
With roads closed and another catastrophic fire raging through this part of the country only four days after the one that killed Katy, it took us a full week before we could get to Jimmy. A four-hour drive through fire ravaged country – vaporised forests, flattened homes, empty highways – finally took us to him.
Any fences that would have kept him from running off had been reduced to ash, but after twenty minutes of our calling his name he appeared, pink on the black. He was clearly coming toward us, but he paused about ten metres away from us, and continued as we did, walking in parallel. It was as if the desire to be close could not quite break through the world in which he had been caught. His movements were frenetic. He seemed wracked by the hypervigilance he had acquired since his every sense had been assaulted: darkness at dawn; the usual early-morning quiet engulfed in the roar of the flames; the intensity of the colour of the fire; the radiant heat that, a week later, still emanated from the ground; the taste of ash. This sensory apocalypse had come upon Jimmy out of nowhere; how could he possibly know when it would return?
After we got Jimmy home he shuffled over to his mud bath and lowered his huge, hot, shaken body into it. We were overcome with joy as we watched him rediscover the possibility of coolness. He ate watermelon and drank cold water and slept. But he slept alone, not, as he had every night of his life before the fire, next to Katy.
The next morning, he began to look for her. Everywhere. In their house, down in their woods, up under the trees where they had once taken shade from the afternoon sun. He would turn and look and stand very still – listening for her, perhaps smelling the remnants of her presence. And then he stopped. My guess is that now he was home he felt he could cease being hypervigilant. He could relax the terror that had been keeping him in movement. But with that relaxation both the reality of Katy’s death and the trauma of his experience of the fire came to the fore. He placed his body on the cool of the earth, and he has not got up. When he will get up again, and whether he will find a way back to his world, are among the uncertainties we now have to live with.
I went and sat alone, just down the slope from where Jimmy has been lying. It is way down in the bush over a gully. The light is soft; you can hear the birds and the wind moving through the trees. 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 there, but it seems that he is taking himself back to an ecology not wrought by the terror of the fires, nor fuelled by our violence on the earth. He is letting another earth heal him.
When people speak about the fires they often speak about being overwhelmed by the enormity of the devastation. We do not really have the capacity to grasp this much loss – 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. I know I don’t. But I can hold Jimmy’s enormous grieving head in my arms and be present to the gravity and finality of this loss. And, at the same time, to his broken but miraculous presence.
This is an extract from Summertime by Danielle Celermajer, published by Penguin Random House Australia on 2 February 2021, $24.99.