Adonis vernalis dreamings: (re)making kin with a place
by Iryna Zamuruieva
Write, she says, about Adonis vernalis (horytsvit vesnianyi) and its dreamings and although I’ve been carrying around this idea for a while, I now doubt I have anything to say. With words, at least. Originally, I thought I had things to say with images and so I started making them: bright, iridescent, hot-yellow composite images layering khrushchovka homes, horytsvity-like hues, rivers, leaves, and other body parts from my kin-region.
I may have seen Adonis vernalis walking or driving through central Ukraine, without realising it was what I saw. My first proper encounter with this plant though was on the pages of the book “Protected (which could also imply sacred in Ukrainian) corners of Kirovohrads’ka land” (Andriienko, et. al. 1999). I brought this book back with me to my current home in Scotland from a short trip to my childhood home in Kropyvnytskyi in October 2021, the last time I have been there before Russia’s full-scale war on Ukraine would start. This book I brought back turned out to be something else in Scotland: the book about home quickly changed into being a book of home, a piece of home in itself, a home to turn the pages of, stare at, read attentively, feel home-sick-with, marvel at, learn about. I flicked through the pages, section by section, from regional geology, to climate, to plant and animal life, captivated by the simple stories describing the vibrant webs of life at home with my attention gravitating to one particular plant.
There is nothing terribly outstanding about Adonis vernalis: it grows, it blossoms, it heals, it poisons, it is eaten, it is pollinated, it creeps northward with the steppes as the climate heats up and it is also going extinct as its habitat is wrecked, polluted, ploughed and shelled. A day in the life of a steppe plant. In English it’s known as pheasant’s eye, spring pheasant’s eye, yellow pheasant’s eye and false hellebore. In Ukrainian its name has a twofold meaning: the second part “tsvit” means blossom, but the first part “hory” can be both mountains or to burn or blaze, as its petals glow with hot-yellow hues in the spring sunlight. It’s 10-60 cm tall and usually blooms April to May. Yet something, something, about it captured me. Perhaps it’s this nothing-special-at-a-first-glance quality. I am drawn to the mundane and everyday. I used to do this as a personal act of resistance and a sort of rebellion and the habit must’ve left some traces of how I pay attention now. I am not going to say it was random, because it wasn’t. I am thinking about a chapter in the Contemporary Art Dictionary’s (a collection of essays about different art concepts by Ukrainian artists, writers and culture critics edited by Kateryna Badyanova (2021) section on zakhoplennia, a word-play in Ukrainian that’s difficult to convey in English: zakhoplennia means both capture and fascination.
Zakhoplennia, as in capture, has become a staple in everyday language in the past year with the news of the Russian army capturing, losing control and attempting to capture again Ukrainian cities, villages and land. My very own zakhoplennia, as in fascination, with Adonis vernalis, began just like any other zakhoplennia with people, ideas or places: something catches my attention and I feel compelled to follow it. There was something about its hot-yellow glow on the steppe slope that was luring, radiating heat even from the book page. I started planning an expedition to my home that I was hoping to make in spring, the Adonis vernalis blooming time, spend time with it and other central Ukrainian steppe and forest-steppe inhabitants, find ways to speak about it beyond the commonplace narratives of our “industrial heritage” and “productive people and land”, paying attention to the intricate ecologies that sustain webs of life. Instead, that spring I was following the horrors of the war escalating and Russia committing war crime after war crime. Instead of planning the logistics of the trip and discussing where my papa could drive me in the region, I was frantically arranging the logistics of both of my parents fleeing as the explosions were getting close to home.
At first Adonis vernalis was a conductor into the steppe for me. But then it turned into something bigger: a home, a kin. I’ve been living away from my hometown Kropyvnytskyi for 15 years now, making homes elsewhere, sporadically coming to stay there for a month at most, before my parents fled the war. And yet I feel a strong desire to connect with it, to understand it, to re-narrate it for myself. In Ukrainian there’s a way to describe your home-place as kin-place, ridnyi krai. It’s similar, but different to the notion of mother- father- home-land, different to the “native” land or “ancestral” land. There’s a sense of wider kin, rid, in this term, a kin that extends far beyond blood connections. In Scotland, where I am living now, people sometimes use Gaelic “dùthchas” to describe this complex connection between people and land, it is the closest concept I know of to ridnyi krai. Krai can mean both land, edge and region. There are no clear administrative borders to ridnyi krai. It can be a landscape, a river, an ecosystem, a town with its outskirts, a familiar corner of the forest. Ridnyi krai lets me say, I am of this place, of this used-to-be-steppe-turned-cracked-concrete-surface-and-wrecked-soils-yet-blossoming-land. I am of this place, of this apricot, apple, plum, walnut and cherry trees and spirea shrubs and so much more.
Since living away from my ridnyi krai in Ukraine, I keep wondering if an intimate, loving, caring relationship with a place is possible long distance. If feeling the pain of this violence is possible from afar, this means feeling the love for distant places must also be possible? Love, not in a romanticising way as mute adoration, but love as bell hooks (2016) writes about – one rooted in care, commitment, trust, responsibility, respect and knowledge, all these being equally valid for people and for places. And practising this love, what does it mean to study Ukrainian environments, now, during Russia’s imperial war on Ukraine, the question that Darya Tsymbalyuk (2022) continuously raises and tirelessly keeps finding new answers to. Part of the answer for me is trying to look very closely at one of the smallest scales I can see with a naked eye: a plant, whose native home is being wrecked and torn, just as mine. Our shared home has also been wrecked by exploitative, toxic and extractivist agricultural practices erasing the steppe. I want to imagine what not only studying but loving, genuinely and fully, our collective, shared, more-than-human environments means across distances and scales. What noticing and nurturing collective dreams of living and letting live looks like. A long-distance romance with a place, a love-based case study, an attempt to recraft allegiances on the ground.
Staying with this desire to understand my kin-region through the scale of a singular plant, I wondered what would be a way of exploring Adonis vernalis that is not strictly botanical, ecological or herbalist. When I started making the collages, I had the colour and the name first: zhovto-hariachyi, hot-yellow and mareva, dreamings. The shape and contents followed. The more I thought about the layers of history of my kin-region, the more I became captivated by the idea of human-vegetal dreaming. Ideas take you places and this one took me if not yet to the Ukrainian steppes physically, into the dreamings of it. In Ukrainian folklore dreams can often be seen as a site for intergenerational learning: ancestors may come to you in your dream to warn you about something, to give advice, to teach (Temchenko, 2014). “Wisdom that comes through the night,” says one of Olha Kobylianska (1902) characters in her novel “Land” referring to learning while dreaming. What was here before me, before I started dreaming that may be seeping into my dreams now? And what do those who have been here much longer dream of?
My mama tells me that when they just moved into what would become my home, too, a five-storeyed panel house, on the outskirts of Kropyvnytskyi (then called Kirovohrad) fields of golden wheat were stretching from their window till the horizon. This wheat was growing on what used to be the steppe stretching till the horizon. Now it’s the hot-yellow hues, akin to those one sees staring at the sun with eyes closed, mixed with the pale-beige facades of the khrushchovkas, mixed with the soft orange of the apricots and pale yellow of the plums. Do these khrushchovka basements dream about the past full of wheat dreaming of the past full of feathergrass, tarpans, saiga antelopes, groundhogs and Adonis vernalis? Does this filter through into my dreams somehow, up the drainpipes and the hot summer air as I sleep with my window wide open?
As I wander through these dreamscapes, making a self-portrait against the backdrop of an imaginary landscape (Pahutiak, 2016) in my mind, I also wonder, how come with all this desire to be with the place, I have not physically gone there since the full-scale invasion. The answer that lays on the surface is that I am afraid to go into a war zone, afraid to die under Russian shelling. But there’s more to it. Why can’t I go there, really? Can’t I go there, really? Is the fear of having to enter an empty childhood home and having to sleep there alone for the first time in my life actually stronger than the fear of physical pain? Is the fear of meeting too much of myself in the steppes and between the empty walls, more than I can handle? Is it a fear of not being able to leave? Of wanting to stay? The horrors of war exist, but it’s as if I am playing a silly tongue in cheek game with myself: it may not exist unless I’ve experienced it by being there.
Some of these are not unusual questions to cross the mind of a migrant, yet the war covers them with another layer. It brings a sense of loss, not in a physical sense for me, not as of the time of writing it at least. And yet, something intangible is lost. The possibility of imminent destruction of the life-nurturing capacity of home, of its vibrant webs of life, mixed with the glaring empty holes that punctuate the fields, the emptiness that seeped into my home – the little flat with mama and papa waiting for me in a sleepy district, the whole ridnyi krai – this war took it away from me as I knew it, it took away the sense that I have a place I could always return to. The war has made me think of it through a (misplaced?) (pseudo)heroism (?): do I love my kin-region as much as I think I do, that I could return to it even as it’s become a physically dangerous place? And don’t get me wrong, I grew up in the hot-spot of criminal gangs’ razborki all around in the 90s, I’ve carried pepper sprays in my handbags and squeezed keys in my fist as I walked home at night in Kyiv, I am not used to carefree safety. But this, this, this is loss, threat and danger of an entirely different magnitude.
Adonis vernalis has healing properties and has long been used in medicine, known to treat heart diseases, dystonia, asthma, mild forms of epilepsy and calming down the nervous system. Its extract is prescribed to those whose hearts are beating too fast or irregularly. I can’t help wondering if Adonis vernalis treatment is long overdue for all of us affected by the Russian violence against Ukrainian land, people, culture and environments.
I also wonder what would a place look like if Adonis vernalis dreams were centred in planning and regional development? Ukrainian artist Alevtina Kakhidze imagines what demands plants would make at political demonstrations (a “violet party” poster depicting a violet iris proclaiming, “let a flower become mayor”, weeds from a “weed party” saying “we know how to be homeless”). I imagine Adonis vernalis may show up at a demo with “More diversity, less monocrop plantations”, “Let steppe be”, “Let us be”?
Writing about dreams to explore these human-vegetal dreamings feels bitter. My own dreams and desires collided with Russian imperial dreams and desires to destroy, erase, impose and control. I am no longer throwing my hands up in the air asking, “why me, why us”. Instead I am pensively looking at this dream crash site. There’s wreckage, there’s land with mines that will take decades to clear, there’re steppes and fields punctuated with glaring holes from Russian missiles, there’re dark red hues saturating the soil, there’s fear, there’s anxiety, there’s exhaustion, and, perhaps most importantly for me there’s some new reckoning with what home is.
Have I finally, reassembled the notion of this kin-region to be not only about cultural codes, histories, foods, languages (which are tremendously important, but something was missing) but to be about the particular geological plateaus, the soils, ways of being and speaking, the fungal and vegetal life-worlds, the birds, insects and other animals that are all part of the web of life of my kin-region? All these elements do constitute home for me. With the beginning of the war, many Ukrainian friends and colleagues have struggled between the desire to be more patriotic (which during the war means ultimately supporting the Ukrainian state/government) and staying true to the political commitment to abolish nation-states and borders altogether (Al-Ghusaine, 2016). This ambivalence shouldn’t be an obstacle for genuine transnational solidarity: we have to start with truly seeing the real bodies, human and not, rather than abstractions, real bodies who are resisting and suffering from the brutal Russian imperialism. If we are really trying to feel-think (Kohn, 2007) with the living beings in places where Russia is waging its colonial war, we must ask: what is needed for life to defend itself from death? As banal and as simple as that. Even though this vital life support, such as military aid to Ukraine may seem like supporting state violence, it is in fact supporting people defending their homes, bringing solidarity to the ground, literally. My hope is that by making these demands for Ukraine, it opens up avenues for practical, not state-to-state, but living beings-to-living beings solidarity with transnational, feminist, more-than-human liberation struggles. With Adonis vernalis I turn my attention to all the living world around my concrete and brick city, which made me think, ah that – all that is also home, much beyond and deeper than a national sentiment would let me think. A nation < kin-region with all its web of life. Have horytsvity become a path into all this, a random path that I stumbled upon, that captured my attention and lured me down itself? I suppose I was already looking for the path and it found me.
The path into the steppes and home is a painful one to walk even in this dream-like manner. Some 200 years ago the steppe amounted to about 40% of Ukrainian lands, now it is down to 3% (Malakhov, 2022). Numbers are not adequate to capture the sense of loss, just as with the casualties in the ongoing war, but they do give a sense of scale of this loss. Steppe inhabitants have been losing their homes with the conversion of land into arable land in the name of agriculture and economic development (Drozdova, 2021). Someone’s gain is someone else’s loss and those are important to pay attention to. From the summer 2022 the majority of the war action is unfolding in the Ukrainian steppe zone (Malakhov, 2022). There’s no exact data yet, but one can imagine the damage being left behind the rockets, burnt down tanks and missiles. At the beginning of 2022 together with Darya Tsymbalyuk we started planning an environmental humanities residency/summer school in Ukraine. Instead, we had to focus on anti-war organising while we both were in Scotland. We eventually hosted a small event – a workshop and performance “i dream to see the steppe again” in Sett Studios gallery in Edinburgh (Tsymbalyuk and Zamuruieva, 2022), to raise funds for Kreidova Flora that Darya has been working with and talk to people in Scotland about the steppes. Ukrainian steppe is our shared kin-region and we are both trying to nurture a caring relationship with it from a distance. Another imperial dream crash wreckage seeps to our reality from a distance: bits and pieces of plans to walk in the steppes, to bring other kindred spirits thinking about their kin-regions together, the landmines left behind, imperial delirious desire to capture and control, erasing habitats and life.
I pick up the book again. I wonder if maybe this coming spring I will gather enough courage to go into my kin-region’s steppes, wander through it physically, stay with it, hope it’s not as bad as I imagine. In analogue photography when you work with developing images, you develop an imprint of a physical world – an impression, a memory, a particular moment in time into being. Proiavliaty, to develop images, in Ukrainian doesn’t have a “development” connotation, but more actualising something, making something real. Thinking and writing about Adonis vernalis, the steppes, my kin-region, my home feels like image development in reverse (or at least looped and spiralling): dreaming up images in the dark room and hoping to bring them out into the bright, making them real, hoping they will turn out, somehow, undimmed, still glistening in the sun.
Following my zakhoplennia with Adonis vernalis gives me an excitement of going down unexplored tropes, cheap (and not so cheap) thrills, a sense of wonder in every new step forward, backward and sideways, and also, also, of course, fears I won’t make it out of this place before sun sets (but should I even anyway)? Thinking with Adonis vernalis seems naive, impossible, painful and like the most worthwhile and meaningful thing to do now at the backdrop of ongoing Russian epistemic and physical imperial violence against Ukraine. It is part of a long conversation in Ukrainian humanities and wider culture of people reckoning with what home, what kin mean, how to nurture these when someone is not letting you live. It is part of a fundamentally strange and mysterious story of what it means to think-feel and dream with ridnyi krais – of birth or of choice. ∎
I am deeply grateful to Darya Tsymbalyuk for her invitation to contribute to this dialogue, encouragement to develop my thinking about Adonis vernalis through language and her insightful advice on writing. Thank you also to Elliot Hurst, Taras Fedirko and Antonio Salvador M. Alcazar III for their thoughtful and generous feedback that helped shape this essay.
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About the contributor
Iryna S. Zamuruieva makes images, writes, walks, organises and performs. Across her work she explores human-environmental relationships through environmental humanities and cultural geography research, curating, photography, collage and gatherings of all sorts: sensory group walks & counter mapping, street interventions, mourning ceremonies. Most recently she has been working on land, resilience and climate justice at a sustainability charity Sniffer in Scotland and writing about the roots of eco-feminist thought in Ukraine: Iryna’s forthcoming essay Gathering ecofeminist stories with Kateryna Hrushevska will be published in the East/West: Journal of Ukrainian Studies in Spring 2024.