Cherry Trees

We are celebrating the publication of our twenty-fifth book, available now from our online shop. Our Spring 2024 issue is a hardback anthology of non-fiction, fiction, poetry, interviews and artwork from around the world, inspired by the struggle for land rights, and by the living land itself. In our last excerpt from its pages, we bring you this lyrical essay by Sophia Pickles, about her grandparents' flight from Ukraine, the legacy of displacement from the land, and her work of bearing witness to unceasing mineral extraction. Accompanied by artwork by Jim Carter.
investigates supply chains and specialises in natural resource extraction, trade and its impacts. She is a published author on human and environmental rights. Sophia has 15 years of investigative research experience, including in-person research in natural resource production and trading hubs. @SophiaPickles
Because of the ocean I carried nothing with which I could preserve your question, that crowded evening in Montenegro. I have forgotten now the exact order of our words but it doesn’t matter. The question caught in the salt heat water of the night and stained.

What do you do with it then, your privilege? you asked, black eyes flickering. I put down my glass.

*

My grandparents arrived to a cold country with a suitcase each and a pocket full of Ukraine’s soil. Brown, brown, brown – suitcase, soil, skin. My branches grew out and up under unspoken skies of inherited oppression. Centuries of violence spread across my shoulders and a pain in the bough of my neck that increased. Strong thighs and buttocks from generations of tilling brown land with the same colour hands.

By March 1930, seventy-one percent of the arable land in what was then the Soviet Union had been attached to collective farms – at least in principle. Like most peasants in Ukraine at that time, my great-grandparents were forced to sign away their farms. They no longer had the right to use their land for their own purposes. This was collectivisation.

The starvation that followed is incomprehensible, at least to me. In 1930, my grandmother was six years old. At least one of her brothers was sent to the Siberian steppes to labour camps, others went to war or were displaced – at least, that’s what we think happened to them. She never heard from some of them again.

The family I grew up in was haunted by hunger. Eat more, my grandmother would insist, as she placed plates piled with meat and potatoes and the special Ukrainian onions in front of us each Sunday after church. Eat! Eat, until you undo your belt, until the thick gravy has already coagulated on the plate and I developed a special trick of hiding food in a napkin under the table. I simply could not fit it all into my stomach. But Grandma’s steel blue eyes would not allow a captive to leave until the bare white of the plate was wholly visible once again. Eat, because only God knows what could happen tomorrow. There were twenty-three effigies of Christ in their living room. I counted one rainy Saturday afternoon.

My grandparents arrived to a cold country with a suitcase each and a pocket full of Ukraine’s soil. My branches grew out and up under unspoken skies of inherited oppression

This was before I read about the Holodomor, the Ukrainian famine created by Stalin’s collectivisation – when I learned the history of my grandmother, who as a child saw her village disappeared in ways she did not understand and refused to talk about until the last years of her life. The dark-skinned women and men, those young cherry trees ripped from their groves and resting places and sent thousands of miles in all directions. To labour camps, to the cities, to war. Torn out of their land, collectivised, weaponised, dehumanised. Gone. Timothy Snyder writes that fourteen million people were murdered by the Nazi and Soviet regimes in the middle of the 20th century in an area he calls the Bloodlands, and which includes Ukraine: deaths at the hands of policy, not of war.

The pair of shoes that at least five children of my grandmother’s family shared to walk from farm to school – the cold potatoes she was forced to plant in hard earth in a labour camp in Germany during the Second World War – her arrival in a strange refugee camp in Peterborough. And then the slow, painful, even unlikely recreation of a Ukrainian garden in a council plot in Bradford. They even planted cherry trees.

My grandfather failed to root in the desert where he was posted during the war, burying deep into the sand the grenades he was mandated to carry. He failed to root ever after, despite the abundant peas and dill and kohlrabi he planted and the honey he made in their Bradford garden where I danced as a child. A broken root, since leaving Ukraine. The bitter cherries of my childhood – they make sense now.

And how can one ever root again, really, when the familiar trees you tangled in as a child not only disappeared, but when you asked where they had gone you were told they had never truly existed to begin with. Your land belonged to someone else by then.

*

Fuck The War. That’s what my mother’s placard expressed to the streets of Manchester in 2022, almost thirty years after I had finished dancing in that garden. The cherry trees died just before my grandfather did. Fuck The War – and thank god that my parents are not alive to see this, she texted me that evening after the day’s protest. After everything, this would have killed them.

I think about my Mother, her protests and again I think about you – you who asked me the question in Montenegro years earlier. You didn’t know, because I never told you, that you were fucking a woman who was in some way at war with herself. A woman who was reconnecting with the land of her ancestors. Your question – unexpected, over an otherwise unremarkable, crowded dinner – was suddenly the invitation I had been waiting for. The space it created. And from then, every moment, every movement, every time you spread across me I brought myself closer to the edge of my own history. I was unlearning and repossessing…battering through the memories of my childhood and tearing through the stories of my grandmother and the painful realisation of what my past meant in the context of modern Britain.

Sometimes when I’m listening on the job I can see your eyes. Investigating and writing about natural resource supply chains brings me into contact with remarkable stories, the realities of daily lives different to my own. This work has taught me the importance of listening. Do you use your privilege, your eyes tease. And though your gaze is elsewhere now, the lightning dark of my memory of your eyes remains, and they remind me. Step away from the artifice, they say, from your mental constructs. Especially the white ones that you absorbed without even realising while you grew up in supposedly post colonial England. The ones that pretend they are normal, and invisible.

My privilege is my voice, I replied to you years later. That is how I use it.

The startling propensity some humans have to extract and to accumulate our planet’s natural riches at any cost. I hear it in the stories of my work, time after time, iteration after painful iteration

So Fuck The War and more and more I am preoccupied by the startling propensity some humans have to extract and to accumulate our planet’s natural riches at any cost. I hear it in the stories of my work, time after time, iteration after painful iteration. And I reflect on my own family history – that Stalin’s vision was one of communism, that required collectivised agriculture and tearing hundreds of thousands of peasants from their land and their lives to build his better future. And then to today’s form of extraction, which from where I am listening to the stories shared with me, is the green transition, or, put another way, a race between China and Russia, the Middle East and ‘the West’ to control the minerals which it seems will power our future, but which are also used to manufacture the guns, tanks and defence machinery that undermine and destroy our future. These minerals are our future wars.

My work – all this listening I am paid to do – is rapidly revealing the extent to which this race requires the collective destruction of territories, ecosystems, indigenous knowledge, forests and waterways and tearing hundreds of thousands of people from their lands to access raw materials needed for electric vehicles and solar panels and someone else’s promise of a better future.

Recently, I spoke with a man in Namibia who described how the air and soil in the town where he lived had been so polluted by arsenic and sulphur dioxide by-products from a local copper processing facility, that the town’s people developed skin and lung diseases. Copper is used in the manufacture of solar panels, wind farms, energy storage, and electric vehicles and has been identified by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre as important to the defence industry. A large part of the copper ore processed in Namibia is mined in Bulgaria, where its processing was banned by the Bulgarian government in the late 1980s, due to its toxicity. Now, the arsenic-rich European ore is shipped to Africa and Namibian land and people carry the cost. The finished copper from the Namibian processor is shipped internationally, including back to Europe.

Shortly after, a researcher and writer in South Africa shared his observations about the impacts of a platinum smelter on a local community in the country. Platinum alloys are used in jet and rocket engines and can be used in fuel cell electric vehicles. We were talking about ‘value addition’ – an argument commonly used by companies and governments to gloss over the inconvenient environmental and social destruction that mining and metal processing so often has. ‘It depends where you are seated’, he told me. ‘The argument is often between those who have access to the data, [the companies] who say that they have not surpassed the emissions limit, andthose living there who say there is a big cloud hanging over us; we are coughing.’

This isn’t a new story, and I’m not the only observer. Over and over, time and time again I listen to the same story in my work. The land was ours but they took it, they destroyed it. The air was clean and the water cool but they took it, they destroyed it. ‘The Foreigner has big eyes but does not see’, said Esther, a radio journalist in DR Congo, describing her feelings about a forthcoming lithium mine planned kilometers from her home and for which the environmental and social impact assessment was described to me by an expert as the ‘worst kind of freshman homework – there’s nothing there’. And I wondered about this Foreigner and their big blind eyes. There seem to be Foreigners blindly destroying everywhere, throughout my work, and in my history.

According to the Ukrainian Geological Survey, Ukraine has large and as-yet untapped lithium reserves, as well as reserves for tantalum and titaniu (which it also already produces), and other metals that are now known as ‘critical’ raw materials. I am poised, awaiting the next move of the Foreigner as the shadows of my ancestors gather in my mind. For Ukraine is rich in minerals, beneath the cherry trees.

 

IMAGE: Jim Carter
We burnt our hands in summer fires to change the future
Photograph
This work, made from organic materials including oak, ashes, sheep ribs, crow remains, river water, soil and bracken, suggests a ritual function: a boundary marker to protect a disappearing and fragile habitat, discouraging trespass and violation. Cuts drummed into the wood using fox, cow and bird bone emphasise a will to repel a growing threat while marking the land beyond the boundary as vulnerable but fertile and animate.

Jim Carter is a writer and land artist living in West Cornwall. He is the author of The Hail Glow (2017) and Mystes (2022). His installations include Of Black Shires (2022) and Scraps from the Crow Cult (2023). He is currently writing an eco-fable, Lindo the Fey. instagram.com/hailglower

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 25

Our Spring 2024 issue is an anthology of non-fiction, fiction, poetry, interviews and artwork inspired by the struggle for land rights, and by the living land itself.

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