Grief, Mourning, Hope: Reflections on Dany Celermajer’s Summertime

A year after the ash settled following Australia’s Black Summer, scholars from University of Edinburgh Centre for Ethics and Critical Thought reflect on the heart-wrenching but hopeful elegy Summertime: Reflections on a Vanishing Future, by SEI Deputy Director Dany Celermajer.

After the Black Summer fires. Image by Jo-Anne McArthur, via Unsplash.

Krithika Srinivasan — Senior Lecturer in Human Geography, University of Edinburgh:

Cognitive and visceral knowing about our condition of brokenness and injury (to use Dany’s words) may come together in some of us. However, the social structures, the cultures, that are we are embedded in have a momentum of their own, a momentum that is shaped by other kinds of knowing, other narratives, that are more palatable in the here and now. I don’t think we can overcome that momentum. I don’t believe that we, humankind, have the capacity to reengineer our societies and change directions. It also seems to me that to believe that we can do this, that we can retain life as we know it, as it supports us, is yet another articulation of the exceptionalist myths that have created our current condition of brokenness.

Life as we know it is going to change, and other forms of life, such as perhaps SARS-COVID 2, will replace us and many of our earthly cohabitants. Nonetheless, this doesn’t mean that I am freed of the need and obligation to act – to act to make life more bearable for others.

Life itself is changing, but meanwhile, there are lives that are affected, that are suffering. There is more than enough for each and every one of us to do to make these existing lives less unbearable – by drastically reducing our footprints on human and nonhuman others, and by actively intervening, much like Dany is doing, to lessen the pain and injury of being in the world as it is now. We cannot change the world, but we can make a difference to individual life-worlds and death-worlds, and in doing so, ease the weight we carry for being as we are in these times.

Elizabeth Bomberg — Professor of Politics, University of Edinburgh:

Grief, mourning, hope. On one hand this book is a moving elegy for a loved one, a lost one. But not limited to one friend, group or even species. It’s an elegy for the earth and all that lives and dies upon it. Powerful as were the passages of destruction and grief, they were made all the more powerful by their juxtaposition to hope. Hope can inspire whereas despair can immobilise. Yet Celemajer’s relationship to hope is decidedly ambivalent.

Hope emerges but not explicitly. Instead a more subtle, diffuse hope appears: First, hope is embedded in the everyday rather than the dramatic- signs of hope appear when she observes the quotidian, the routines and cycles of nature, however disrupted. Hope is manifest through her stories and storytelling.

Her nature writing is rich and evocative. Each of her nature stories (lyrebirds, ducks, pigs) were infused with hope. Each time the reader is drawn in to a story of hope — but then smacked with a sting at the end (will they return? will they survive?). And then one sees — these are cautionary tales, a warning that hope can breed complacency, especially if hope is something we expect to come to us rather than create ourselves.

Hope cannot be something we wait for, it’s something we work for. This isn’t a ‘How To’ book, but it does make clear that words, stories, collaboration are a big part of that action. In Summertime her words resonate, spurring us to think, question and act.

Niamh Moore — Senior Lecturer and Chancellor’s Fellow in Sociology, University of Edinburgh:

I don’t think I am ever going to forget Katy and Jimmy, the compelling characters we are introduced to in the early pages of Summertime. This book is a powerful ecofeminist memoir of what it means to make kin when the kin are not all human, and what it means to live these relationships in what seem impossible, unimaginable, but resolutely real times. Summertime offers a practical account of what it means to live and die, and live with dying, together, during the Black Summer of 2019-2020. Dany Celermajer weaves between introducing us to her extensive multi-species kin, while also holding in view the unbearable reality of the 3 billion animals who likely died in the fires.

The book evokes anew the kinds of concerns which Terry Tempest Williams has long written about from Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, to Erosion: Essays of Undoing, and beyond. This is a story of grief and loss and hope, where hope is not a passive wishing for an impossible future, but rather, to echo Joan Haran (2010), Summertime is ‘redefining hope as praxis’. Hope appears as a more immediate, active and engaged daily practice of care, a kind of care which in the past would have produced a different future, a different now.

Summertime is ‘redefining hope as praxis’. Hope appears as a more immediate, active and engaged daily practice of care, a kind of care which in the past would have produced a different future, a different now.”

In difficult times, Summertime offers us companionship, and stories of how to do companionship. Between stories of Katy and Jimmy, Ivana the duck, Isaac the tree, and others, the book traces what is possible in the face of impending fires, which is to insist on the daily work of caring, as best we can, for our multispecies kin.

Elizabeth Cripps — Senior Lecturer in Political Theory at the University of Edinburgh and Associate Director of CRITIQUE: Centre for Ethics and Critical Thought:

Just occasionally, a work of art takes something we have thought about, intellectualised, debated at endless length, and hurls it back at us in painful, unavoidable reality. Summertime, for me, does just that. I read it in one sitting, absorbed as by a novel. I was moved almost to tears. Afterwards, I took its moral insights and reflected on them. Or tried to.

We draw so many lines as philosophers, armed with our thought experiments, the privilege of detachment: human versus non-human, sentient versus non-sentient, individual animals versus species or ecosystems, ‘wild’ versus domesticated, human-caused harm versus ‘natural’ harm. But the reality is not one of neat divides: it is one of decisions made under agonising pressure, of irreducible messiness.

What is flourishing?

Philosophers have lately come to appreciate what more recent cognitive science can tell us: pain and pleasure are not the ‘be all and end all’ of non-human well-being. In Summertime, this is made stark reality. We empathise, but not only with Celermajer and her partner, in their searing grief. We are made to understand what it must have been like for Katy, afraid and alone, dying a horrible death. We witness Jimmy’s trauma, his sophisticated grief. Katy and Jimmy, who are pigs, are also individuals. They have their own rich and meaningful lives to live – or to lose.

Flourishing in context

In some ways, this pushes our normative focus onto the individual. But the reader is also aware of a vast context: innumerable deaths through wildfires, uncountable millions tortured within the meat industry. Each of those animals has, presumably, the same scope for suffering as Katy, for grief as Jimmy. We reflect on that (how can we not?) and the scale of injustice is mind-blowing.

Even as we relate to individual animals, we are pushed us away from straightforward expansions of our models of justice: those which include individual sentient non-humans, but only them. Celermajer reminds us that animals flourish only within a vibrant ecological whole. She does this without over-theorising, with beautiful use of language, with real beings and real histories. I loved the phrase, ‘the generosity of trees’; I was struck by the contrast between Celermajer’s searing grief for Katy and her more measured reaction when her duck, Ivan, was killed by a predator. A loss, yes, but also a part of the ‘natural’ way of thing. Katy’s death, for the woman who loved her, was an injustice in a way that Ivan’s wasn’t.

Justice as non-interference?

One recent suggestion, in the philosophical debate, is that justice requires collective non-interference towards wild animals (‘do no harm’), but positive obligations to domesticated non-humans. Reading Summertime adds nuance to this: the experience of the two bereavements as qualitatively different; the recognition of specific duties to those animals already made dependent. But it also challenges the very distinctions on which this model relies.

For when humans cause climate change, climate change worsens fires, and fires devastate tens of thousands of miles of bush, forest and park, what exactly is ‘wild’? Is there any such thing as a natural disaster? If non-humans flourish as individuals but their claims to justice depend on the interests of the systems within which they thrive, how must we understand justice to humans? Would the process of grief itself be different, as it was for Celermajer, if Katy and Ivan had been humans? Should it be?

These are hard questions: questions we find easier to evade. But, in a world on fire, evasion is no longer an option.

Summertime by SEI Deputy Director Danielle Celermajer is available now through Penguin Australia.

A recording of this event, part of CRITIQUE’s Virtual Author Meets Critic series, can be viewed on the CRITIQUE website.