Opinion

When Fire Burnt (Some Of) the Boundaries

Sydney Environment Institute researcher Danielle Celermajer returns with an update on Jimmy, her loyal rescue pig, whose tale of miraculous survival from the catastrophic fires has fostered a community fan base invested in his recovery. In this edition, Danielle looks to Jimmy for advice on how best to comprehend the devastation and grief experienced over the past few months.

Image by Daniel Sturgess, via Unsplash

It’s been some weeks since I wrote about Jimmy – or at least since I wrote for a larger public of readers. Most days, I write about him to one of the people who has become part of his circle of care – and also mine, because caring for him is also caring for me. This type of care, I have discovered, is organised around neither species boundaries, nor the idea of the individual. The fire’s path knew no boundaries, and although we humans certainly provided far more protection for ourselves against its ravages than we did for other earth beings, perhaps in the end, our experience of the fire also burned through some of the boundaries that we perennially place around ourselves.

Jimmy, resting in the cool, 3 February

I did not write for some time because it was not clear whether Jimmy was going to make it. Well after the fire had passed, the radiant heat, the dehydration, the loss of Katy now becoming permanent, forms of violence and terror I cannot possibly know – sunk into his body. At the lowest point, he neither ate nor drank. He vomited green bile. His eyes seemed empty and grey. Jimmy turned away from us.

The array of treatments sent from afar (reiki, flower essences, herbs), antibiotics, probiotics…all paled against whatever toxins had settled in his body. At the peak of summer’s searing days, we thought we would lose him. We had no choice but to put our faith in Jimmy’s capacity to take himself to the coolest part of his world, to rest his being, and – if we were lucky – to allow the wet towels we placed over his back to stay put.

 

And then he turned. First, he went into the field and ate green grass. I was so excited that l stuck my arms deep into his pond, covering him with cool mud. His appetite soon returned, bowls of organic rice with lentils or adzuki beans were devoured along with bananas – his favourite. Jimmy was back.

But he was a different pig. Or perhaps, to return to the idea of boundaries, we were a different human-pig hybrid. At his meals we hung close, infused with ridiculous joy at the sight (and sound) of him eating. When he was done, I rubbed his belly and he would lie down beside us. Whatever fear we had held in the face of a being who occurred to us as huge and ‘foreign’ evaporated. Whatever hesitation he held in the face of beings who occurred to him as perhaps unpredictable and sometimes anxious vanished. In place of the hesitations that had always lurked around us, emerged new intimacies.

Jimmy, enjoying his noodles, 13 February

Now all of this raises some thorny questions about relationships between humans and other animals, especially around ‘the politics of care’. If a human friend was sick, you’d think nothing of making sure that every meal was prepared with the healthiest ingredients. If a human friend was vulnerable, checking in on them would be a must. If it was cold and raining, you’d ensure they had shelter to protect them. If you didn’t do these things, you’d be less of a friend. But when that friend is not a human, we tend to think of those acts as anthropomorphizing, or perhaps even taking away something ‘natural’ from the other – some notions of resilience or relationship with their environment that is essential to their ‘nature’.

Why though, I began to wonder, do we consider it ‘natural’ for humans to build ourselves shelter and improve our diet, and ethical to afford those protections and resources to other humans who might lack them, but when it comes to beings other than humans, these same acts become ‘unnatural’? I’m not talking about knitting pink sweaters for piglets here, but acts that respond to what truly allows them to live well – feeding them whole grains instead of commercial ‘feed’, considering a range of health treatments instead of pills you buy at the pet store?

An obvious objection is that such acts can make them dependent on us, undermine their agency and create subtle forms of domination. But when we are talking about domesticated animals, that argument really doesn’t have many legs to stand on.

“We’ve already removed their independence, not only by confining them, but by deforming their bodies through centuries of interventions.”

I’m not talking about erasing all differences, but about a new possibility of equality that takes seriously the circumstances of our shared lives. Now of course, to be consistent to the principle of equality would also mean us humans taking seriously some of the affordances they have to make life better. Think me crazy but Jimmy’s method of covering his pink skin in mud to protect him from the sun would do the job just fine for me, and without poisoning the river with sunscreen. And I’m surely not the only one who would benefit from quietly lying under the trees instead of locking myself in an office and writing about their capacity to lower temperatures.

 

I’m not sure what a hybrid human-animal community based on genuine respect for each other’s ways of being and knowing would end up looking like. But it might not be a bad idea for those of us also dealing with ecological grief and the trauma of the recent devastation to visit the cool of the places Jimmy built himself to heal. I’ll have to check with Jim though.

 


Danielle Celermajer is a Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney. Her research stands at the interface of theories exploring the multi-dimensional nature of injustice and the practice of human rights. She recently completed a European Union funded multi-country project on the prevention of torture, focusing on everyday violence in the security sector. Her publications include Sins of the Nation and the Ritual of Apology (Cambridge, 2009), Power, Judgment and Political Evil: Hannah Arendt’s Promise (Routlege, 2010) A Cultural History of Law in the Modern Age (Bloomsbury, 2018) and The Prevention of Torture; An Ecological Approach (Cambridge, 2018). She is now moving in to work on the relational intra-space between human and non-human animals.