Granta, Issue 142, ‘Animalia’ February 2018.
Edited by Rosalind Porter
I believe, against the data, that the summers of my childhood were hotter. If pressed I will concede I only remember the weather felt worse, that its frustrations seemed greater, and that this has little to do with what meteorological instruments record. How we weather the seasons in our bodies and buildings is what comes back to us, not the recorded temperature of the days. What I remember is this: in Perth in 1991 you could run a hand across the fibro walls of our primary-school classroom and notice the metal struts within still radiating heat from yesterday’s sun.
At the beginning of last year – on an afternoon when over a fifth of the country darkened to wine-red in the Bureau’s schematics, indicating temperatures of above forty degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) – I sat in air conditioning and found it was not hard to ignore the weather of the future. Things were bad enough already. A schoolmate’s toddler had been rushed to Emergency having stumbled barefoot off the grass onto a metal manhole cover. I heard he had partial-thickness burns. Blackouts rolled through the western suburbs of Sydney as the grid crashed. On televised maps a streak south of the Australian centre keeled towards purple, a colour that had only been added to the range in 2013 to indicate temperatures above fifty-two (126 degrees Fahrenheit).
It helped to lie to yourself and think: no one lives out there.
Meanwhile, an ABC News 24 reporter surveyed a beach in Queensland and pointed to piles of what looked like soft grenades or little kids’ shoes, abandoned tread-side up. These were dead turtle hatchlings, surfaced from clutches buried months earlier by their sea-bound mothers.
‘Loggerheads,’ the reporter said in a neutral tone, ‘have cooked in this terminal sand.’
I went into the faculty kitchenette, turned on the tap and waited for water heated by the pipes to run cold over my forearms. Terminal sand.
What idiom or instrument captures how the weather is felt by the animals, in their bodies, their nests and niches? The planet’s atmosphere was never more quantified or monitored, but the uneven sensitivities of other species to the weather seem too alien, too interior and multiple to measure or articulate. Hard to picture, let alone describe, the way the summer is experienced by organisms arrayed with senses dissimilar to our own.
I want to suggest that this problem is like asking, ‘How do animals experience pain?’ But it is not likethat question. Very often it is exactly that question.
‘Weather,’ writes the anthropologist Tim Ingold, ‘is not perceived, but is the atmospherics of perception.’ Ingold is most right, I think, apropos of heat. Lacking the visible theatre of snowfall or rain, heat stupefies and narrows the temper. Heat summons haze in everyday car parks, distorting parts of objects that touch or detach. Meddling with ways of seeing and states of mind, heat heightens attention to smaller, effortful labours. Heat dehydrates, forces squinting, stipples the skin with sweat or scorches it. When Ingold refers to ‘the atmospherics of perception’, my guess is that these are the sorts of things to which he is referring. Heat is intimate. Heat generates surprising intimacies with others, as when, for example, you find yourself discussing sleep and sleeplessness with strangers.
A scaly creature basks in the same weather as us, but in different atmospherics of perception. Schoolbooks still teach that reptiles belong to the category ‘cold-blooded’. A misnomer. Ectotherms internalise the temperature – their metabolism is sped on by the sun. Our human vocabulary seems inadequate to evoke the anguish of a reptile when it’s seared in its surroundings. Lacking the physiology to pant, perspire or otherwise shed temperature, turtles, reptiles, can only seek shelter. Their blood runs hot and hotter without it. Sea turtles (as the tortoises in fables) are slow on land and clumsier flippering through the sand. The rookery on Mon Repos beach looked mercilessly exposed.