How we Grieve over the Australian Bushfires

I’ve just finished reading Danielle Calermejer’s moving story about Jimmy who lost his life-long friend Kate to the bushfires.

At the beginning of the second paragraph she writes:

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.

And I find that this plays on my mind along with something else I have been thinking about since first writing about the ways ‘farmed’ animal deaths in the fires have been presented in the mainstream media. I can’t stop thinking about how we might tell the story of the impact of the fire on other animals if we didn’t have the – false and misleading – distinction between ‘human’ and ‘animal’.

I think of Adrienne Rich’s words “this is the oppressor’s language yet I need it to talk to you”, and I think of Audre Lourde’s argument that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (pdf here) and I wonder how our presumed clear cut distinctions between humans and all other species deeply affect the way we conceive of other animals’ experiences in the fires, and in turn how this dictates how we respond to them.

Without the false distinction between human and other species, one that signals our belief in our own supremacy like no other, how might we grieve over/with other animals affected by the fires? How would the headlines about animal deaths in the fires look?

“Australia fires: Almost 500 million Australians killed in NSW alone”

“Nearly 500 million lives have been lost in Australia’s wildfires”

Would we sit up and take more notice? Would we have room for more stories of individual loss experiences by those designated nonhuman?

If we did/do make this room then might this shift mainstream sensibilities about the general insensibility of other animals?

One thing is for sure, the way we talk about other animals positions them where they currently stand: as inferior to humans, as usable by humans and all too often, as resource for humans. Framing them as a mass – 500 million, a billion – and underlining their animality to our humanity is part and parcel of the normalisation of their oppression. As is this superficial consideration of their deaths. Superficial because it is told in terms of how it affects humans, or biodiversity, with little to no consideration of their individual experiences and stories. In other words, this is a safe way of talking about them, it positions them as un-grievable. As Judith Butler argues (when discussing the position of certain humans in war):

“One way of posing the question of who “we” are in these times of war is by asking whose lives are considered valuable, whose lives are mourned, and whose lives are considered ungrievable. We might think of war as dividing populations into those who are grievable and those who are not. An ungrievable life is one that cannot be mourned because it has never lived, that is, it has never counted as a life at all.”

I think this is partly why Jimmy’s story has stayed with me: it is deeply, deeply unusual to read about the grief of other animals in ways that dignify them and their relationships with others. As hard as the account might be to read – and I can only imagine it was significantly harder to write – this is one clear, respectful way to challenge our current understanding and treatment of other species.

Artwork: Heather Fraser

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