It was a week since children's camp had ended and I got up earlier than usual to try and recapture something that now seemed gone.
I belonged to my job again, though what kind of work could it be with a head crawling with snakeflies, glided over softly by water striders, bitten by the occasional red wood ant, and then stuffed with hygroscopic wool...
Through hot wafts of lavender, and flutters of orange butterflies, our botanist leads us towards a piece of dragonfruit he's cut up under a larch, which, when it's dry, you can't even nail a nail into. The creamlike dragonfruit is, by the way, a cactus just like those on the ground in bloom nearby. We crowd around. We're traveling through time, it tastes sour and sweet, we're in Asia, we're in our native steppes, we're in South America. Do girls need dates?
Everyone leaves and now we trace the steps of last year's botanical quest, making sure the girl Cossack is still under the awning, proclaiming that times are not what they used to be (she is, that much has stayed the same); that the bird feeder is still in the lilac bush, just above where the mouse had dug its burrow (it is, but the burrow's caved in); that there still are no benches to sit on under the heart-shaped leaves of the Manchurian pipevine (there's one now, but we don't sit on it).
A series of social nuances dictates we must enjoy a refreshing drink outside of the botanical garden. Out in the melting asphalt I feel stripped of purpose and will and anything I had been riding on, and start to melt too, in a dissociative way. We're at Domino's, he has to leave, I feel sick. I chug a carton of tomato juice I don't really want. He says his old research advisor made turf for playing fields for money; his method uses fewer seeds and more management. Back in the garden, hundreds of larvae of the American fall webworm moth are chewing on pear leaves, inside giant laced palaces.
In the following brief interlude, a ginkgo leaf, a magnolia pod, and three papery bladernut capsules explode inside a silk lilac bag.
Среди пафосных спинок и туй в горшках томятся реликты в лавандовом шелковом мешочке. Их периодически орошает прохладным туманом который пшикает на стол "под гранит" из специальных пимпочек под зонтом.
Вот листик, это гинкго, который в ранней жизни учился вонять плодами как рвотой, чтобы путешествовать сквозь динозавров, а потом сквозь сотни миллионов лет. Он рождался опять и опять, медленно, и консервативно, чтобы дожить до этого дня.
Вот ветка магнолии, живущей, когда-то, в голой тишине, без убаюкивающего жужжания еще неродивщихся пчел, прерванной только скрежетом лапок жуков которые её опыляли.
Вот клекачка перистая. Три фонарика на веточке, надутые коробочки, несут по три блестящих семечка. Куда?
Куда! На выставку, про реликты, в Малу Галерею Мистецького Арсенала!
Открытие в 6:30. Вы -- дары. Могли бы быть розою.
Внутри шелкового мешочка лист гинкго, каменный плод-шишка магнолии, и коробочки клекачки осознают всю тавтологию конца своего и тихо взрываются, превращаясь в пепел.
On the first day of camp, my hair was an electric blue. Children ran their hands across it, painting their palms.
On the second day, Oleksiy gave me a granite feathergrass seed.
On the third day, Alicia made a wooden axe to kill her love.
On the fourth day, Vlad handed me a tiny piece of green paper, and said "you need this".
On the fifth day, Tatyana said there was snow on the roof.
On the sixth day, we got up at sunrise, and slept in a field of invasive fleabane.
In a small town, the closets are full of skeletons, letters, and rotting yellow dresses. There is a woman who can still smell cookies from 1946.
In a city, closets are emptied by the first of the month, and the streets don't remember their names.
The horse chestnut is the official tree of Kyiv, it lines the streets. During the past two world wars, horse chestnuts were harvested (sometimes by girl- and boy-scouts in mass rallies) for starch, digested by the bacterium Clostridium acetobutylicum into acetone (we call it by the things it gives us), and used to make the explosive cordite.
We are using too many exclamation marks in our short, rare messages to one another. People shout when there's distance.
In our city nobody knows where to go--every day the streets are called something different. "It's impossible," says my blind grandmother. "And one doesn't get used to it. Just the other day, a stranger kissed me all over my face, for showing him the way."
A Duet with Ursula K. Le Guin
A house is safe but nothing more, as I had once believed. There’s nothing I want to keep in it, that is all outside the house. The house is safe, though, and I am grateful to it.
“A leaf a gourd a shell a net a bag a sling a sack a bottle a pot a box a container. A holder. a recipient.”
This morning near the dumpsters some things were kind of white. White was the confetti of peach blossom petals on the pavement. Against them pigeons were picking at long pieces of pizza. Patches of fur on the Japanese cat--we call her that because she has two black dots on her head near her ears--where a used, matty kind of white, and so was the hair of the old woman trawling through the dumpster.
“If it is a human thing to do, to put something you want, because it is useful, edible, or beautiful, into a bag, or a basket, or a bit of rolled bark or leaf, or a net woven of your own hair, or what have you, and then take it home with you, home being another, larger kind of pouch or bag, a container for people, and then later on you take it out and eat it or share it or store it up for winter in a solider container or put it in the medicine bundle or the shrine or the museum the holy place the area that contains what is sacred, and then the next day you probably do much the same again--if to do that is human if that's what it takes, then I am a human being after all. Fully, freely, gladly, for the first time.”
Anna moved to Kharkiv. She makes clothes that wrap around people's special bodies. In June we will be in Lishnya together with 33 children. Until then, I ask her to sew 33 small cloth bags.
“Still there are seeds to be gathered, and room in the bag of stars.”
I pause for a long time before writing each of these sentences. What comes out is something I actually feel.
Quotes from "The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction"
I’ll start this post heavy. I’m currently living in a country where manifestations of violence abound. And I’m not talking about the onslaught of far-right violence against minority groups. On an almost daily basis, I witness normalized physical and verbal abuse between parents and their children. Drunk parents who hurl screaming insults at their children. Sober parents who hurl screaming insults at their children. Parents who hurl screaming insults at each other in front of their children, fight, throw things, slam doors.
My day job is in children’s education; I’ve done extensive volunteering with kids; I come from a broken home myself. Children’s rights and rearing practices have always been a topic to think about and to talk about. But since moving to Ukraine, they’ve also been a painful and yawning gap--for the overwhelming majority there are no rights or practices to speak of. And many would deny that childhood trauma has been taking place en masse, and still is--it’s blended into the fabric so well, that even the ways in which the adults themselves have been victims of violence is sublimated and obscured.
There’s nothing this exposé accomplishes; it’s another missive I’m sending into that empty space. But it seemed appropriate to start with, before explaining why a document from 1835 (holding 19, document list 1, document 765) caught my eye with the title “Petition by wardens of public charity and pupils of gardening at the Kiev Palace Garden, Grigoryev and Tukalskiy, regarding their inclusion in the common or state peasant class.”
Vasiliy Ivanov Tukalskiy, 26, and Lazar’ Pavlov Grigoryev, 21, were orphans. Both had been abandoned in infancy because they were born out of wedlock, and had spent their earliest years living with two different men in rural Ukraine--peasants, who were paid to keep them until they were of age to work. In the 19th century, that age came sooner rather than later.
Mulberry street in the early 1900s (some mulberry trees are still to be seen on the right)
Mulberry street today
In 1825, the head gardener at the Kiev Palace Garden (the remnants of which are now called Mariinsky park) requests that two boys be brought on to help with gardening tasks. Vasiliy is 16; Lazar’ is 11. The tasks of their labor are many and varied. There are horses to tend to, earth to move, roots to dig up, trees to plant, fences to erect, and instruments to fix. Firewood must be chopped, rubble carted, greenhouse windows installed, and compost turned. There are orchards, plant nurseries, vineyards, and a mulberry plantation. The mulberry plantation is fattening droves of silkworms. Located on the current site of the Oleksandrovsk hospital, on what has ever since been Mulberry street, it even hosts a mulberry school, in which mulberry specialists are taught the art of boiling the silkworm cocoons in copper cauldrons and unwinding them on silk-spinning machines. The silk and the silk specialists are in high demand across the Russian Empire.
The silkworm moth
Ten years pass. Vasiliy and Lazar’ are still at the Garden. They have been specially trained to tend the grapevines Peter I imported from the Rhine. Living as child serfs, they’re bound to the land and to their duties, and will be serfs, for as long as their debt of illegitimate birth is outstanding. How long is that?
Views are split. According to the law and their petition, they should be released from their labors upon reaching adulthood, and written into one of the two lowest classes available: the urban commoners or the state peasants (for more on social hierarchy, or sosloviya, in the Russian Empire, go here). But the new head gardener Kamenskiy quickly follows up their petition to the local government with a small letter of his own:
The boys, by the way, are still very much needed here.
They aren’t let go. According to a new rule, which the municipal government alone seems to be privy to, they are to work for another decade upon reaching adulthood. Even then, they’re strongly advised to stay on, given that they have learned but one trade, are “useless for anything else” and are needed at the Garden.
The boys rebel, leaving the property “without taking proper leave” at night, and Kamenskiy is quick to file this transgression with the local authorities. Then, silence. After a few months the authorities are curious--how are the boys? Are they still rebelling? And... have they married?
The boys are giving me no trouble. They are very well-behaved, and single, replies Kamenskiy. The record fades.
A section of a map of Kyiv from 1852
I’ve placed some items from the mulberry garden inventory in the visual list at the end of this entry. The asset list is part of a different set of documents from 1835, which detail the destruction of the mulberry garden. That year, Kyiv’s military governor strongly “suggested” that the Building Committee remove the mulberry trees and the grapevines, to make way for roads, and buildings, and for more reinforcements of the hill to protect the esplanade below. An incredibly detailed map of Kyiv from 1852 shows the mulberry garden long gone, the governor having set up his office in its place (16). Other notable locations are the Palace Garden (23), “Countess Levasheva’s Boarding House for Poor Ladies” (the governor’s wife) (21), and the “Artificial Mineral Waters” establishment (14).
The Wasp and the Caterpillar is a tentative title for a virtual experience I have been working on, exploring possession and control, and also biohacking, and unnatural nature, and all that usual stuff (if you’re on a computer, here's a different work with similar themes). It was triggered by my fascination with reports of parasitic wasps zombifying spiders to weave them custom cocoons, and especially with their manipulation of their hosts’ DNA, leading me to have the fun thought that wasps are the original biohackers.
When I started to think in the direction of narrative, personal history, and archival documents, I wanted the work to take a turn. The first thing that came to mind is my own experience with possession and control. While the option doesn’t disgust me, I think I may have stumbled upon the perfect narrative yesterday, while at the National City Archives of Kyiv. I’ll be previewing that story in the next post; meanwhile, here’s a little bit about working with archives in Ukraine, in case you’ve never done that before.
To gain access to archives in Kyiv, I first had to determine which of the many archives I wanted to work with. Seeing as I’m specifically interested in urban nature, I’ve started with the city archives, which hold lots of historical documents generated by various local formations: local governments, local groups, local universities, etc. They also have documents belonging to groups which, at one time or another, made urban forestry decisions in this city. This is essentially what I am after on my quest to find out about the people and desires responsible for this city’s “second” nature (to use William Cronon's usage of Hegel's term, meaning human-constructed).
I contacted them using an online form, which required me to state the subject of my request, the time period of interest, give my address, and paste my signature. After this, I naturally assumed that sweet archive angels would descend upon me with hundreds, perhaps thousands of photocopied pages of pertinent information, and maybe even deliver them to my mailbox (!) seeing as they wanted to know where I live, and seeing as I’ve been a big baby about venturing into the cold this winter and this would have been very convenient. I received no reply. When I followed up, I got this cryptic e-mail:
вх.№068/Б-1863 від 28.12.2018.
They couldn’t establish my identity when I called, but then a woman rang back to say “but of course , you have been invited to the reading room !”, as though it was inconceivable that I had not understood that from the email.
The reading room is open Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, from 10 to 1 and from 2 to 5:45. If you have a 9 to 5, sorry. The keeper of the keys is a rather reserved elderly lady, who sits behind a desk, behind a security guard, within a glass-walled room, so as to better observe the Ukrainian public as it thumbs through one-of-a-kind pieces of paper. The lady turns out to be helpful, if only you’re respectful and if you don’t betray that you don’t know what the fuck you’re doing (I’ve observed mild wrath when circumstances are otherwise). But, of course, there were no photocopies of pertinent documents waiting for me (ha!). What was actually waiting for me was:
First, a brief interview, during which I noticed she was expecting some qualifying enunciations/incantations from me, and, feeling instinctively that being an artist and looking for cool stories wouldn’t get me in, I became a graduate student researcher at Rice University, writing a monograph on the history of park culture in Kyiv (I’m not, and I’m not). Technically, the archives are openly accessible to any member of the public, and people come here for various reasons--at least half seem to be looking to settle property or inheritance rights in court. But, in my opinion, if you’d like carte blanche for using the facility, you’re best off declaring you’re a student or a writer with a broad topic of interest.
Two photographs, a photocopy of my passport, and a statement of purpose later, I was the lucky beholder of a National City Archives of Kyiv membership card.
Plastic sleeve belongs to the artist.
The Reading Room at the National City Archives of Kyiv (currently with more plants).
The first step towards gripping the coveted archival text is to select a book describing the holdings for a specific period (pre-soviet, soviet, or post-soviet). I've started with the oldest records, working forwards. The book presents you with broad categories into which the holdings are grouped (e.g. health, education, labor unions), which are split into organizations (e.g. the pigeon-breeders’ club of Kyiv, which is real). Next, I fill out a form to request a list of that organization’s documents, and submit. Two days later, I return to what at times is a massive 5000-page book, or a smaller, 1000-page book, and if I’ve been greedy and ordered many document lists at once, I have several of these babies. The job now is to pour over the descriptions of each document described within (about ten descriptions per page, you do the math).
I’ve been looking through various municipal documents, because prior to the establishment of any official urban forestry group (the first being the “Garden Committee” in 1887), any questions of plants and gardens were dealt with by the general municipal assembly. This basically means that documents concerning plants and gardens are sprinkled sparsely throughout a gargantuan list of everything the local government discussed within an approximately 50-year period (I'm actually relieved that not every decade is accounted for). The task is to literally spot the “tree” in a forest of documents that all sound like “Concerning the business of Madame Grigoryeva's application regarding the land directly adjacent to her lot to the west, and the possibility of establishing a road through it”.
Right now, it takes me an average of three days to look through one list of documents. As I do so, I'm trying to stay lively, going for speed but also clever triage. When I notice documents that sound interesting, I try to see them in perspective against the general corpus of things I've already selected (otherwise, you can find yourself stuck with thousands of pages of one type of land use debate the next time you come around, wondering why you did this to yourself and whether it's a kink). A very interesting list could mean three such forms, and thus 30 documents:
One type of form you’ll be filling out.
Pre-1917 documents often suffer from water damage and always from handwriting!
Actually, much of the time, I can't understand what I'm reading, either because the handwriting is very special, or because parts are missing or crossed out. When I do get in the groove and make progress on understanding a document, it often turns out that it's rather boring in its specifics, while the more general historical information it offers I already know. In any case, once I've made a reasonable attempt to decipher the writing within (and maybe took some notes), I fill out a form detailing the kind of work I've used the document for, and another form if I'd like to take any pictures (add four days for approval on that). Then I take 1-2 ibuprofen. And I'm done! I've read an archival document!
Anyways, though I’ve clearly been shedding light on the painstaking realities of working with archives, the process has in fact been meditative, and instructive, and I’ve pretty much stopped worrying and learned to love the form, and to love the elderly lady, who sometimes yells at me from behind the glass because she thinks I’m photographing things on my phone, which I sometimes am. And, as I mentioned, gems have been uncovered. Or at least I think they’re gems. Or maybe I’m suffering from Stockholm syndrome, and this is the true way in which working with the National City Archives of Kyiv is weaving itself into the themes of possession and control in my work. And perhaps, “not long from now, the subservient arachnid will be dead, its web transformed into a shelter for the spawn of the creature that once controlled it, according to a new study”.
Picking the next topic is existential problems and I was lost for weeks (?) and almost wrote about Georgi Markov. Almost ;).
I was furiously pedalling on a spin bike and going nowhere the other day when the podcast I was listening to stopped being about Osip Mandelstam's death anniversary (December 27th, 1938) and started being about plants that "shouldn't be there".
One of RFE/RL’s cultural digests--“Time of Freedom” by Andrey Sharogradsky, reported about an exhibition that recently opened at the Moscow Museum of Architecture,“Засушенному -- верить” which I can only translate as “What’s dried out can be believed”. Unfortunately, as a Ukrainian I’m well advised to avoid travel to Russia and won’t be able to speak to the contents of the fascinating materials presented there, but, to summarize their general nature, the exhibition traces the history of Stalinist repressions through herbariums collected at the Solovki prison camps--some of these collected by the prisoners themselves--supplemented by archival materials (letters, official documents).
The wellspring of this project seems to be Moscow University botanist Vladimir Vekhov who, in the 1960s, founded a botanical garden on the Kindo peninsula near Belomorsk (on the mainland near the Solovetsky Islands) and also discovered six plants that were rather out of place within the native boggy taiga vegetation--among them the wild pea Lathyrus gmelinii, endemic to central Asia, southern Siberia, and southern and central Ural, and the five-leaved white lupine clover Lupinaster albus which was known to grow in northern Asia and North America, and was never previously found in northern Europe.
Introduced plants are nothing new, but none of these species were found anywhere near current human settlements in the region, or even railways serving them, where they would have been in the company of many other introduced plants, mostly “weeds”, which often arrive surreptitiously via shoe soles, airstreams, and bird droppings. Moreover, none were the type of invasive species that could even be classified as weeds (which further piques curiosity as to how and why they found a life there).
Upon questioning the locals, the botanists learned that in the 1930s and 40s the half-ruined barracks near the White Sea Biological Station from which they were conducting their field experiments belonged to forced labor camp prisoners logging wood in the surrounding forests.
Biologist D.D. Sokolov picked up the threads of this story in the late nineties. When he arrived on the scene 40 years later he was not only able to find and add several new species to Vekhov’s special group of exotics (Calamagrostis obtusata, Stellaria holostea)--he also discovered the same exotic species group near labor camp barrack ruins of the same period on a neighboring island, and determined that we could reasonably expect to find all these species growing together in a meadow in southern Ural. Sokolov's guess is that these plants were seeded from hay, prepared in the East and shipped to the area during the period of Stalinist repressions.
Weeds and “alien” plants are fucking awesome and were my gateway drug to the present obsession with ecological underdogs (trash monsters, bed bugs, flies, pigeons) and their lifeways. I've jokingly thought of myself as a spoiled disciple of Timothy Morton's Dark Ecology/Ecology without Nature... Since that's what I'll be having but with all the nature. Anyways.
In actuality I was the disciple/child, of Tengis Gudava--a repressed Soviet dissident, who spent 5 years in labor camps in Perm, and would have spent more but was pardoned. As one might not imagine, a life with the remnants of someone who was broken and tortured in labor camps is a special sort of not nice, though those remains did do some fun stuff in the meantime like write a fiction novel about an intersex angel in a gulag that is apparently popular with the gay community and a really intense manuscript about Sumerians and the Bible that isn't popular with anyone.
I've read none of it, not least of all because reading my stepfather's work is not just personally unpleasant but often deals with intense trauma as its subject and not with weeds or pigeons. Sometimes I’ll think about how I could cut, reframe, repurpose, and appropriate some of the things he wrote so that maybe something new comes out of the pieces. Like how the Myennis octopunctata fly came to be on the pieces of maple KyivZelenBud left behind.
Meanwhile, I've been working on a sound album, featuring one fabulous Ukrainian lady (identity to be revealed), to bring to life the generated KyivZelenBud poems I gave a peek of in my first post. Ultimately I am aiming for an album of field recordings, minimally manipulated, highlighting all the participants of the mistletoe-Myennis chain. Playing around with those sounds during the short days and long nights of this endless gray winter, here's something noisier I inadvertently created, as one is wont to do when trying to make something nice.
Reasonable panic has been brewing in Kyiv--maples, poplars, oaks, and other popular urban tree varieties are being indiscriminately mauled by the city’s municipal landscaping organization “KyivZelenBud”. I’ll leave that story alone, as I trust it’s receiving its share of attention, and instead tell another--a multispecies muddle (to use Donna Haraway’s phrase)--one that’ll fit some birds, a shrub, a tree, a KyivZelenBud (KZB) worker’s chainsaw, and a fly (among other insects). Just in time for the holidays, here’s the magical-but-very-real urban ecology story you’ve been waiting for!
As its name suggests, the mistle thrush likes mistletoe, and its sticky berries, though they contain a toxin called viscumin, which gives it the shits. This, for the mistletoe, is the entire point, as, relieving itself while still “at the table”, so to speak, the thrush “plants” the seed pod onto a nearby branch to spread.
We, the citizens, hate mistletoe. Long gone are the days when we donned white gowns to cut it with a ritual golden sickle and stirred it into magical elixirs. The mistletoe is a parasite. An evergreen hemiparasite, which can produce almost all its food on its own, even in the winter, feeding birds and insects while its host stands bare... but a parasite nonetheless! An opportunist.
And so, according to KZB protocol, city trees must be free of mistletoe.
Years ago, when a maple tree on 1/6 Zakhidna street was pruned by KZB workers to remove its mistletoe, the wounds invited some Fomes fomentarius spores inside. First a parasite, then a decomposer, Fomes is a harbinger of death, finding weak trees and making them weaker, for decades sometimes, until their insides are rotten and ready to take on new, simpler forms (amino acids, compost).
I could end the story there, but here’s how this one keeps going.
During the spring and fall, Fomes fomentarius (the tinder conk, the hoof fungus, the blood sponge, the Iceman’s mushroom) releases 887 million spores per second. The spores are so small, they look like smoke.
On the night of August 8th, I was taking a walk past the maple on 1/6 Zakhidna street, and under the lamplight it seemed the mushrooms were burning. I looked closer, and found a squirming, thriving, vibrant insect community!
The colonies changed in composition--crawling worms and moths at night, orange, red, and brown flies in the daytime, all insects I couldn’t identify. Among them was... another insect I couldn’t identify, but which to me was markedly different from the rest--a beautiful, tiny, shiny, zebra-striped fly.
The insect community was elating enough in itself, but the fly became an obsession.
At first I entertained the wild notion that the Australian Lenophila nila had migrated to Ukraine, but my conscience wouldn’t let me enjoy this outlandish LIE. Three months later, with Medvedev’s Keys to the Insects of the European Part of the USSR, and hundreds of diptera.info pages behind me, I made a definitive classification -- Myennis octopunctata, a picture-wing fly! As flies eat both mushrooms and nectar, I am still unsure about what attracted them to the mushroom--the fungus itself, or the syrup that was oozing out of its top.
Cathartic identifications aside (and believe me this is not the last you’ll hear about flies from me)--how humbling! This unexpected, promiscuous, and unruly intrusion. These cavorting fungi and birds and flies and beetles, all continuing on, when we’d rather be solemn, and mourn our thwarted desires for maples! To join in the merriment, I’d like to naively celebrate KyivZelenBud as the poetic agent of this holiday story, with a few, robot-crafted poems--sourced from the posts on their website, and fed through a Markov chain.
molded trees, branches,
5 meters processed against mites.
She is weighing she comes
here constantly, after all
he is at
We are together
with the invasive species; -
In the Dniprovsky
and shrubs, removing deadwood
after such a
On the eve of the
May holidays we remind that
on a blue and yellow
of huge sizes
Thank you for your attention if you made it all the way here! As Anna Tsing put it, “if a rush of troubled stories is the best way to tell contaminated diversity, then it’s time to make that rush part of our knowledge practices”. I’m still learning about all the actors in this story, and I think there’s lots more to come. If you’re interested in hearing more about the blood sponge, seeing pictures of fly genitalia, or sharing your own nature stories, you can subscribe to my Instagram @lisabiletska.