Jimmy escaped the fires, but not the pain of devastating loss
Posted Mon 13 Jan 2020, 10:27am
As I write this on Friday afternoon, it’s been forty-eight hours, and he has barely lifted his head. We call him, but it’s only when we get right up close that he answers, and then in the softest voice — a voice very different to 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’ve held off to this point 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, someone who knew we had rescued a few animals emailed to ask if we could offer a home to two pigs who had been saved from being 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 huddled by each other’s side, 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 when the chickens got into their area, Jimmy — all 150-odd kilograms of him — scurried away in fear.
On 26 December, the fire that had been slowly advancing on our place was finally near enough to pose a real threat. When I telephoned the woman who had raised Jimmy and Katy, to see if she could, once again, offer them sanctuary, she said she’d been half-expecting my call. She said she would be here 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 enveloped my friend’s place, descending upon them from three sides, razing every building, 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 vaporised everything else.
With roads closed, and another catastrophic fire roaring through just four days after the one that killed Kate, it took us a full week before before we could get to Jimmy. Any fences that would have kept him in had been reduced to ash, but after twenty minutes calling out, he appeared, pink on the black. He was clearly coming toward us, but when he approached, he kept about ten meters between us — as if the desire to be close could quite not break through the world in which he had been caught. His movements were frenetic. He seemed wracked by the hypervigilance that 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 still emanated a week later 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?
When 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 Katy. Everywhere. In their house, down in their woods, up under the trees. 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 that he was home, he could stop 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 gotten back 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 where Jimmy has been lying. It’s way down in the bush over a gully. The light is soft, you 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, but it seems that he is taking himself back to an ecology not wrought by the terror of the fires fuelled with our violence on the earth. He is letting another earth heal him.
When people talk about these fires, they often speak of being overwhelmed by the enormity of the devastation. We don’t really have the capacity to grasp this much loss — not only to humans, but to wild and domesticated animals, to the bush, to the very 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.
Danielle Celermajer is Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney.
(Photos by Leonard McDonald)