The body is the site of climate catastrophe

Astrida Neimanis

(in preparation for Rehearsing Hospitalities Companion2, Frame Contemporary Art Finland) 


The 2019–2020 “Black Summer” bushfires in Australia were in many ways unprecedented, even as this is a land grown of flames. Exacerbated by historic drought, the country started burning in June 2019 while the final fires were not extinguished until March 4 2020. More than 46 million acres of land were devastated, including 80 percent of the Blue Mountains World Heritage area in New South Wales, and 53 percent of the Gondwana world heritage rainforests in Queensland. At least 3,500 homes and buildings were destroyed and 34 humans died as a direct result of the fires. One to three billion animals were burned. The smoke circled the globe for a quarter of a year.  

If climate catastrophe is a phenomenon that we track through hockey stick graphs, sea level rise and PPM’s of atmospheric carbon dioxide, it is also written on, smouldering, coursing through, our bodies. “Pick up again the long struggle against lofty and privileged abstraction,” wrote Adrienne Rich, and begin “with the geography closest in—the body”.  Adrienne Rich, “Notes towards a Politics of Location,” Blood, Bread and Poetry (New York: Norton, 1986).


But what does it mean to say that the body is the site of climate catastrophe, when we already understand bodies to be excessive of their own containers, extended through deep time and into deep futures—in short, when we are always more than ourselves? 


What does this mean, when climate catastrophe is also already colonialism, white body supremacy, heteropatriarchy, ableism and hatred of the poor, and where the trauma of catastrophe is not only individual but social, intergenerational, and multispecies—and when it is pervasive as weather? 


If the body is the site of climate catastrophe,  how are we to feel? 

1. Bodies are always in excess of themselves.

The fact of embodiment lays bare the fallacy of a masculinist, self-sufficient, and exceptional human subject. Human bodies are implicated in, dependent on, composed of and constituting worlds. We are already everything; everything already is becoming us. 


News reports beamed around the world spoke of a whole country set alight. The extent of the bushfires was difficult to fathom: no state was missed and the wreckage amounted to an area larger than entire countries. Yet on New Year’s Eve, fireworks were still ejaculated from Sydney Harbour Bridge and intoxicated urban humans jostled for the money shot. Less than 100 kilometers away from that crowded quay others struggled to trace the shape of unbearable loss. Danielle Celermajer, “The Tragedy of Two Australias: A lament for New Year’s Eve” ABC Art & Religion (31 December 2019). is the wiliness of any geography, where a flat map is in fact a striated and cratered territory that, like a magician’s pockets, harbours ever-expanding and incommensurable worlds. We are all here, now, but how do we enter each other? 

Before, when the fires still felt far away, I accidentally read “Dry Spell,” a short story in a collection from the 1940s by Australian writer Marjorie Barnard. Marjorie Barnard, “Dry Spell.” The Persimmon Tree and Other Stories (Sydney Clarendon Publishing Co., 1943).This strange tale of cli-fi avant la lettre deposits the reader into a dystopian Sydney plagued by encompassing drought (“even the deep feeders, the black butts and the like, were dying”). The narrator stumbles with other Sydneysiders and displaced rural inhabitants, all of them trying to escape the fires in the countryside, all of them trying to reach the ocean. The story ends with a few fat drops of rain. “Feel that?” someone standing next to them asks the narrator, but the narrator refuses any meteorological redemption. “Nothing would come of it now,” the story concludes; “We must take up the burden of remaking the world.”   

In January I walk along the river under the piss-yellow sky and think about everything those waters are washing out to sea, carried from somewhere just beyond my field of vision. The mullets, like other fish that feed along the bottom of eutrophic waterways, have learnt to utilise atmospheric oxygen. They leap, sometimes two feet out of the water, trying to catch a breath. As ash from the fires settled into the waterways, bacteria started to eat the ash-borne carbon. This means eating up the oxygen, too. Jo Kahn, “Our drinking water, rivers and fish will feel all the impact of bushfires, experts warn.” ABC News (9 January 2020).

Now, half a year later, when the filter-out-the-smoke masks have become guard-against-the-droplets ones, the yellow sky still hangs in my lungs. 


2.  We need to talk about our feelings.

Embodied knowledge, while often denigrated and disavowed within the modern colonial episteme, confirms that Western scientistic validity comprises only one kind of knowing. Manifest through poetics, aesthetics, and other bodily attunements, sensuous knowledges open to alternative modes of relation. 


In confirming the body as site of climate catastrophe, we must simultaneously devise and hone tactics for living that resist categorical imperatives and rational logics; these will not be sufficient guides through our current dilemmas. A sensory, embodied, affective, and imaginative relation to the world opens to a different kind of ethics and politics.   


Trying to become better read in the field of trauma studies, I learn that “the body keeps the score”: both personal and intergenerational traumas are lodged not only in something we might call mind or psyche, but in the wet fabric of our flesh. I am reminded of Sandor Ferenczi’s thalassal hypothesis, which suggests that dreams of water recall not only the trauma of birth as we are expelled from our mothers’ wombs, but also the phylogenetic catastrophe of the drying up of the seas. Sandor Ferenczi. Thalassa: A Theory of Genitality (London: Karnac Books, (1938) 2005). Tetrapods were finally forced “to adapt themselves to a land existence, above all to renounce gill-breathing and provide themselves with organs for the respiration of air.” Ferenczi posited this “phylogenetic recognition of our descent from aquatic vertebrates” as an embodied collective memory across deep time, whereby loss, sociality, desire and grief circulate through our cellular structures—a biological unconscious.


When places like Mallacoota on the South Coast were overtaken by fire, everyone made for the beach. 


3. Climate change is all the changes, and all the nothing-really-changes, too.  

While the Black Summer fires may have been unprecedented, they did not arrive unannounced. “Indigenous peoples around the world have warned of colonial mismanagement of land, water, skies and people,” writes Hannah Brontë, a Wakka Wakka and Yaegl artist, in her text that accompanies a photography and video work called tellus terra (2020) Hannah Brontë, tellus terra (2020). All About Women Commission. Sydney Opera House Sydney, Australia. The series depicts five women (“some traditional owners, others visiting from lands connected and affected by rising seas, droughts and volcanic eruptions”) holding children on, beside, and inside their bodies. The women, like the scorched trees in the forest in which they stand, are wrapped in black. Out of the blackened bark new branches sprout incandescent green. “How will I water my children while our country is on fire?” Brontë asks. 


As far as I can tell tellus and terra mean the same thing: country, land, mother, earth. In an interview about another work called Heala, Brontë reminds us: 


Most women have been sexually assaulted. I don’t want to continue to make that all ours to wear. We all carry it around secretly, it feels so cyclic and insane. But it’s a fact, a story like anything else. Hannah Brontë and Anne Loxley, Heala (2018): Artist’s Text.ë/heala/


The ABC reported that during the bushfires domestic violence rates will spike, as they have in former bushfire disasters, one crisis slipping into another. Hayley Gleeson, “A new bushfire crisis is emerging as experts brace for an imminent surge in domestic violence” ABC News (24 February 2020).


(Two words can mean the same thing and neither might be a lie. But we still have two words, and what are we to do with that?) 


“The capitalist patriarchy that enforces white supremacy is on fire,” writes Brontë. Hannah Brontë, tellus terra (2020). The video soundtrack in tellus terra is water, only water.



4. Everything and everywhere is not every-same. “Everywhereness is not an everysameness.” Tess Lea, "'From Little Things, Big Things Grow': The Unfurling of Wild Policy." e-flux 58. (2014). 6.

We keep telling the nine-year-old that in Sydney we are safe. She points, incredulously, to the trees that surround our little rented house on the river: why those trees but not these? 


To say that our bodies are already becoming everything already becoming us feels too dangerous in its expansiveness. Total subsumption. We selectively siphon up the weather, some bodies storming, others keeling: patterns emerging. As one expression of this, cultural theorist Denise Ferreira da Silva offers us the idea of difference without separability. On this understanding, “difference is not a manifestation of an unresolvable estrangement, but the expressions of an elementary entanglement.” Denise Ferreira da Silva, “On Difference without Separability” Incerteza Viva (Live Uncertainty). Catalogue of the 32nd Bienal de Sao Paulo (2016): 57–65.Bodies differ because they are constantly finding new ways to manifest a subatomic, fundamental constitution. Ferreira da Silva’s is an invitation into: 


the World as a Plenum, an infinite composition in which each existant’s singularity is contingent upon its becoming one possible expression of all the other existants, with which it is entangled beyond space and time.  Ibid.


I finally can name some of the trees that line the path along the river: mangrove, jacaranda, casuarina, Illawara flame tree. Hannah Brontë writes: 


Colonising plants don’t know the fire, they weren’t born of flames. They don’t know the intricate veins that run far below the surface. It would be impossible for them to feel that deep. Slowly and carefully the native greens settle into the soft terrain, taking up space just like she should.


Many oceans brought me to this place, but that does not mean I was invited. In this “surfeit of such ecological catastrophes, intertwined with personal ones,” I whisper into the rain, always still louder than me: who am I to feel this trauma?" Catriona Sandilands, “Losing my place: landscapes of depression,” Mourning Nature, Eds. Ashlee Cunsolo and Karen Landman (Montreal: McGill-Queens UP): 244–268.


(Who are you, breathing in the ash of one and a half millennia of white body supremacy, of witch hunting and holocaust, of slavery and colonialism and persistent incandescent survival in the wake;On weather, see also this phrase is a direct reference to the work of Christina Sharpe, In the Wake (Durham: Duke UP, 2016). who are you, breathing in all that is wasting and worlding at the bottom of the sea; who are you not to feel this? This is also what made you. The rain whispers back.) 


Climate catastrophe is like weather: everywhere and always, the lifeworld made sensible. But the metaphor reverses and literalises itself too because climate catastrophe is also just weather. This observation references Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved: “By and by all trace is gone, and what is forgotten is not only the footprints but the water too and what it is down there. The rest is weather. Not the breath of the disremembered and unaccounted for, but wind in the eaves, or spring ice thawing too quickly. Just weather.” Toni Morrison, Beloved (Alfred Knopf, 1987): 275


5. Climate catastrophe is a structure of feeling.

bones strong

eyes averted

fascia strained

waters spilled


All the pieces may be pulled apart (splayed, pinned, inspected) but a structure of feeling can only be discerned by looking at the “lived experience” in its entirety. It is not contained in any part but seeps through them all. A structure of feeling will “saturate the lifeworld in complex ways, as mood, attitude, manners, emotions, and so on.” Ben Highmore, “Formations of feelings, constellations of things.” Cultural Studies Review 22 (1): 144–167.


blood rushing

breath shallow

heart broken

heart full 


I take pictures of the river everyday over the course of the Antipodean summer, trying to be present to its tiniest politics. Dany writes to me in March or was it April: have you read Jenny Offill’s book? Jenny Offill, Weather (Granta Books, 2020). We discuss the project of writing a novel where climate catastrophe is the unremarked backdrop. 


Last year, I read City of Trees by Australian writer Sophie Cunningham, a collection of essays about extinction and our connection to non-human worlds. Sophie Cunningham, City of Trees (Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2019). The chapters consider what gets lost, and what gets saved, what we let go of and what we keep; trees bear witness to this all. Near the end of the collection, Cunningham picks up a thread she has woven through previous chapters about her two fathers, and their deaths, and sets her complicated sadness over these events alongside the story of Ranee, an Indian elephant gifted by the King of Siam to the Melbourne Zoo in 1883. When upon reading her draft manuscript one of Cunningham’s friends suggests that the essay is “repressed grief” about her fathers’ deaths, Cunningham is “horrified”: “Not because she was wrong,” Cunningham explains, “but because I don’t want to suggest that the natural death of a parent is in any way akin to the grief that we may soon live in a world where there will be no elephants left in the wild.” Cunningham, City of Trees, 287.


I still don’t understand this part of the book. Cunningham asks us, rightly, to resist the levelling of all catastrophes. She is also properly wary of the urge to personalise these more expansive deaths, because to do so is also to metaphorise them. But I want to know: how else are we to feel them, if not as the lump in our own throats? Writing about his own father’s death amidst a world of extinctions, Australian cli-fi novelist James Bradley suggests that:


 a lifetime is an ocean and an instant. It does not matter whether something happened a week ago, a year ago, a decade ago: all loss is now. Grief does not stop, or disappear. It suffuses, inhabits us. [...] What is lost remains with us, felt in its unpresence. James Bradley, “An Ocean and an Instant,” Sydney Review of Books (2018).


Interviewed in the first days of January, a dairy farmer from around Cobargo in southern New South Wales describes “a raging ocean that went through”.  Julie Power, “Despair and Destruction in Cobargo: ‘Most People are Running Dead.’ Sydney Morning Herald, (January 15 2020). I think a lot about this slip-slide in the farmer’s imaginary: blanket of flames thrown across the country becoming ocean. 

To find poetics in a disaster may not be at all “to give in to the siren song of a resolved narrative,” as Cunningham feared and resisted. Cunningham, City of Trees, 287.It might be instead to insist on the incommensurable connectedness of things whose holding-together we almost cannot bear—a work that only poems and bodies know how to do. 


6. We are all bodies of water.

As bodies, we are also always almost gone: flesh to food, bone to earth, water to water. To be a body of water is also to know that we, that I, will ultimately dissolve. Dissolving into other oceans, we are physically but also chemically transforming. While climate catastrophe demands of us a reckoning with so many worldly dissolutions (of bodies, species, entire lifeworlds), it also takes seriously the work of dissolution as a way of reorienting ourselves to these times:


What can we stand to relinquish? 

Of what should we let go? 


On the evening of the summer solstice in December we are on Helen’s dead mother’s porch and we scrawl messages on small pieces of paper, then set them on fire in a large bowl. I don’t remember what I wrote, but I remember the quiet transgression of lighting a match and burning something, even though the porch was enclosed and the floor was concrete. 


This is an argument neither for retention (memory) nor for dissolution (forgetting)—it is rather a question about difference without separation.  When our bodies no longer remain, and all the worlds have been unworlded and then worlded again, there is still the weather.


Your body is the whole ocean. My body is the droplet, or the spark, forming below your tongue. 

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