Books

Danielle Celermajer
Summertime

When he was finally able to return home after the catastrophic Black Summer bushfires, Jimmy visited each of the places where he and Katy used to go. His life companion had died in the fires. Barely able to eat, he lay listless on the ground, until finally coaxed back to life by author Danielle Celermajer. As some readers will already know, Jimmy is a pig. Celermajer, an ethical philosopher who fostered him and Katy after animal activists discovered them starving on a factory farm floor, published their story early last year. Celermajer possesses a vivid ability to attune herself to the emotional world of animals, and to express the aesthetic joys of nature: “a perfect pool, held on all sides by boulders”, water droplets like “jewels in the air”.

She includes animals when she writes words such as “everyone”, as in “getting everyone out”. Just as we are part of the natural world, the natural world is, for Celermajer, literally part of “us”. Referring to the ideas of the ethical philosopher and Holocaust survivor Emmanuel Lévinas that viewing the faces of others obliges us to attend to their suffering, she makes the case that animals have faces, too. She acknowledges that to anthropomorphise is problematic, but we humans have “taken all the best words” about feelings and emotion and “guarded them jealously for ourselves”. At one point, she wonders if her focus on animals does an injustice to trees and plants, whose worlds are also sensitive, intertwined, and responsive to external events.

Reading this at a time of growing global food insecurity, and when not even all Australians can afford three meals a day, I must admit I choked at her description of nursing Jimmy back to life with meals of organic rice with lentils and adzuki beans. Feeding him scraps would not feed the world either, of course. Nor do I wish to detract from the seriousness of her message, which is that we all need to take responsibility for the climate crisis. It is not a “tragedy”, she argues, any more than is genocide – “tragedy” would suggest that such things just happen, and no one can prevent them. Hope may be illusory – she interrogates her own “magical thinking” on the subject – but action is necessary. Working out ways to speak about the existential crises that link us to nature may well be “a corner piece in the puzzle of learning how to live in this world”.

Linda Jaivin

Hamish Hamilton, 208pp, $24.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 6, 2021 as "Danielle Celermajer, Summertime".

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Reviewer: Linda Jaivin