The following is an essay that I wrote last year as part of the VCE Units 3&4 English as an Additional Language assessment. I have decided to publish this essay for number of reasons, but mostly because even though 26th April 2016 will mark 30 years since the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, it’s effects can still be felt today.
The title is extracted from John Kinsella’s poem “Drowning in Wheat”.
The following is inspired by Holly Morris’s experience of covering the Chernobyl nuclear disaster for its 25th anniversary. It is written from the perspective of a fictional journalist visiting the area.
They’d been warned on every farm
Imagination transforms our landscape.
Sophie Wilson, reporting for National Geographic
I stand next to the wreck of a once majestic nuclear power plant, now amidst poisoned wilderness. The exclusion zone. The zone of death. All of this “registers somewhere deep in the soul”. My assignment is to report the situation around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, but my present aim is to get out of here as soon as possible. The Geiger counter in my hand is going berserk; to remain here for any longer than necessary seems to be a defiance of common sense. As we leave, smoke coming from a farmhouse in the distance catches my eye. But this is the exclusion zone! Who could be living there? I think to myself. Anyone choosing to live within 30 kilometres of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant is exposing themselves to 400 times more radiation than that emitted by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
It turns out that the lively old women, numbering 200 in 2011, who chose to continue to reside in the contaminated area around Chernobyl (and have now outlived their husbands) after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster are not lunatics. Instead, they have much to teach us about the connection a human can have to a landscape.
Most of us living in Western nations have a very transient concept of home; I have moved more than 20 times and sometimes I feel as though I have a deeper connection to my laptop than any possible piece of land. Conversely, the babushkas of Chernobyl have a strong connection to the land that they were born and raised on. After all, here they have been married. Here their first child was born. Here they have survived Stalin’s Holodomor of the 1930s and the Nazi occupation of the 1940s. And here, they are surviving the world’s worst nuclear disaster.
“If you leave, you die,” says one of the residents of the exclusion zone. And while that may seem pure idiocy, it appears to be the truth – official records point to the babushkas of Chernobyl outliving their evacuated counterparts by as much as 10 years.
“They are dying of sadness,” another says. She is referring to those who were evacuated in 1986, and who spent the (usually short) remainder of their lives in one of the numerous bleak and hostile high rise buildings on the outskirts of Ukraine’s capital Kyiv. It appears that being removed from their ancestral homeland severely affected the people’s emotional wellbeing, and in turn made them more susceptible to the various physical effects of prolonged exposure to radiation.
As I learn these facts, I begin to realise that over our lifetimes, we form an imagined connection to the physical location where the most significant events of our lifetimes have occurred. These experiences define each of us as an individual, and our memories define how each of us uniquely perceives that particular landscape. Consequently, the landscape is critical to our sense of identity; when we are removed from the landscape, we lose ourselves. Maybe what the former residents of Pripyat miss is not the city itself, but, as Alice Munro would say, some former self that they have had to finish with too soon.
One of the ways in which we define ourselves is by the communities that we belong to. Pripyat was a “nuclear” city with a population of 50,000 at the time, purposefully built to house the workers of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and their families. Consequently, the members of this community had close ties to each other due to their similarities. These intensified when disaster struck as wives helped each other while their husbands, inadequately equipped firemen who had been instructed to quench the fire at the nuclear power plant, succumbed to radiation sickness within days. No other group of human beings had experienced a disaster of a similar nature, so when the former residents of Pripyat were relocated, they felt alienated in the new communities, and they longed for the community that they had lost, and their former selves, who were not traumatised or physically damaged.
Similarly, the babushkas have formed a community, although the bonds within it could be said to be more imaginary than social. Although there are physical similarities between the babushkas, such as their age, their similar life experiences provide a stronger means of bonding. Imagination is one’s unique perception of the world around them, largely shaped by their memories and existing knowledge about the world. Due to their similar experiences of the Holodomor and the Second World War during their youth, the babushkas have a very similar perception of the world around them, although they themselves are not aware of it. Our imagination allows us to perceive the enormous mushrooms growing in the contaminated forest as either a health hazard or as a blessing that will save one from starvation. The babushkas choose the latter, thus utilising their imagination to transform the perilous landscape around them into a welcoming home.
I think that the Australian poet John Kinsella would understand the connection that the babushka’s feel towards the soil that they live on, as most of his poetry is inspired by the wheat farming landscapes of Western Australia. In particular, John Kinsella, as a passionate environmentalist, aims to make the reader aware of the danger that man creates for himself when he mistreats his physical landscape. However, there is one point on which they would most certainly disagree – the ability of a human being to survive in an environment that has been largely destroyed and is deemed unable to sustain life. John Kinsella’s almost post-apocalyptic scenery inspire misery in the reader and cause them to fear for their future and the future of their loved ones. However, I have now seen proof of just how strong the human will to survive is.
Over their impoverished and traumatic lifetimes, the babushkas have learnt to live in the present and to focus only on current problems, rather than mourn the past or envisage the future. The past is contentious and better forgotten, while the future is bleak. In the present though they have a house to be cleaned, a pig to be slaughtered, potatoes to be harvested, a cow to be milked, a modest state pension to be collected, and friends to be visited. I have seen with my own eyes that a human being is a powerful creature: we have the knowledge and the means to destroy our earthly home, but we also have the mental fortitude to survive in the harshest of landscapes, whether they are landscapes of geographical peculiarity, landscapes of natural disasters, landscapes of political conflict or landscapes of disasters yet to be fully understood .
They were told that they would die soon, and the truth of life is such that they will.
But they will also have been a testament to the power of our minds when our landscapes present us with danger, and I feel immensely grateful to have had the privilege of meeting them, for they have taught me that the connection we have with our landscape and the people we share it with is far more important to our survival (and happiness) than any safety precaution or material possession.
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