Introduction: Haraway’s sf practice and bringing the fragments together 

I would like to start with a book cover as an example of a vegetal imaginary from the Donbas region in Ukraine. I came across it while reading about the mining industry and the local history of the region from which thousands of people fled after the outbreak of a military conflict in 2014. The book is called A Novel about a Fuel Rock (Повесть о горючем камне) (1981), written by Boris Rozen and the cover is designed by artist B. Silayev. The cover is a striking vision of the Carboniferous Period during which the “fuel rock”, meaning coal, was formed. It shows a bright green forest with trees from the Carboniferous, their bark imitating paleobotanic illustration, and a reptile. A bright big circle of orange sun is placed above the forest. The back of the book features an image of a plant fossil.

My PhD research focuses on human-plant relations in oral histories of internally displaced persons from Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, often referred to as Donbas (even if the oblasts cover the territories of other regions too, such as Slobozhanshchyna, not only Donbas). Donbas has a long history of mining, however the conflict and displacement led to the final disintegration of its identity as an exemplary industrial region and allowed for multiple contesting narratives to emerge. Among the multiplicity of visions, oral history testimonies by displaced persons populate the region with plant subjectivities. These testimonies offer us a way of approaching cultural memory of Donbas from a multispecies perspective. In my artistic research, I engage vegetal imaginaries of Donbas to step away from anthropocentric narratives about the region.

While reading about the history of Donbas, I came across a number of books on the geology of the region, among which scholarship in paleobotany. I immediately got drawn to the imagery of plants from different periods, such as the Carboniferous, and paleobotanic illustrations, such as the cover of Rozen’s book. Visions of the Carboniferous exist at the intersection of speculation, fiction and what we call a fact. Similarly, oral history exists at the intersection of fabulation and truth, though in his essay Demeure: Fiction and Testimony Jacques Derrida rightfully blurred the line between truth and fiction in testimonies. The in-between nature of speculative illustration and oral histories echoes the in-between nature of artistic research, which engages, explores and creates at the crossroads of art and academia’between research and imagination. Imagination has been indisputably central to the practice of storytelling, especially when it comes to telling stories about the past, whether it is a distant past of the Carboniferous Period or the not-so-distant past of the outbreak of the military conflict in Donbas.

In this artistic research I engage with visual and verbal stories from different geological periods to tell multispecies histories of Donbas. This exposition draws inspiration from Donna Haraway’s sf practice: speculative fabulation, science fiction, science fantasy and in my case a game of string figures, which in the words of Haraway is ‘about giving and receiving patterns, dropping threads and failing but sometimes finding something that works, something consequential and maybe even beautiful, that wasn’t there before, of relaying connections that matter, of telling stories in hand upon hand, digit upon digit, attachment site upon attachment site’.In order to develop her theoretical trope of sf, Haraway builds upon indigenous epistemologies. String figures come from Navajo culture and string games are called na’atl’o’. Haraway borrows this image to tell multispecies stories, and in her work string figures share the energy with speculative fabulation, science fiction and other sf practices.

While being aware of the Navajo origin of the sf imagery, I find it useful to engage in the string figure game in the context of Donbas, a very different land and culture, in which colonisation, industrialisation and wars left many (hi)stories fractured and which we can imagine only by bringing fragments together. In this exposition, I work with fabulations, but not science fiction or science fantasy, even if speculation is also extremely relevant to paleobotanic imaginaries, as well the possibility of generating new imaginaries of the future of the region. While I believe in the transformative power of fabulation and storytelling, I am also aware that in the history of Donbas, speculations also proved to be dangerous and manipulative. Moreover, fabulations helped to shape the image of Donbas as an exemplary industrial region of the Soviet Union, where the myth of Stakhanov as a miner who in a feat of socialist labour extracted 102 tonnes of coal in one shift and by himself (in reality the task was planned in advance and performed by a team). Speculation has also been employed as one of the strategies by artists working with representations of Donbas. For example, in 2011 artist and curator Andrii Dostliev published an essay Pravda o Luhanske (Truth about Luhansk) on his LiveJournal account. In the essay, Dostliev constructed pseudohistorical claims that Luhansk, one of the biggest cities of Donbas, had never existed. Another example is Alina Yakubenko’s 2017 mocumentary Svetlograd, which offers a utopic vision of Sievierodonetsk, Lysychansk and Rubizhne cities transforming into Svetlograd, where all factories are converted into art spaces. Finally, Ukraine’s 2020 Oscar nomination Atlantis directed by Valentyn Vasyanovych presents a dystopic vision of Donbas in 2025, after Ukraine wins the war and the region is completely depleted and ruined by fighting, deindustrialisation and ecological destruction.

These examples underline the central role of storytelling in the history of Donbas, where the fact that it remains a contested territory only strengthens significance of narratives in our engagement with the region and the need to be aware of their creative and destructive potentials. While being critical of dominant narratives, I seek to uncover plant stories and tell a multispecies history of Donbas and displacement from the region. In order to do so I bring together seemingly disparate threads and traces both through drawing and writing. Working with stories about human and nonhuman subjectivities (in this case, plants), I engage with nonverbal ways of making traces and communicating through the practice of drawing and collage, where central to this exposition are traces of traces left by the plants themselves, imprinted into fossilised matter. The drawings place different forms of expression next to each other, in conversation, and the text accompanying the drawing is an extension of the string figure game, in which threads are pulled out and connected to other threads, whether these are memories of Stalin’s Great Terror or a wilting apple tree in Luhansk.

The string figure game I am playing here originated from a visual encounter with an image of a plant fossil. Plant fossils are testimonies of other geological periods and of extinction, they are archives of nonhuman memory. In order to respond to the very materiality of plants I started to engage with the image materially, making my own traces that entwined with traces of plant shapes and filling in the gaps in paleobotanic drawings with my own colours, mapping the territories of not-knowing, of memory not preserved. Hence, the drawings emerged as a nonverbal, artistic practice of articulating themes I explore in my PhD research.


The drawings presented here are the first series of my exploration of spaces between paleobotanic illustration and oral histories. Recently I finished the second series, which though based on the same sources, has a different focus. The series discussed here is a reflection on structures of categorisation and hierarchy, which are central to research practices. For example, written documents are often seen as more reliable sources for studying the past than oral testimonies, which are interpreted as personal and subjective. Inscriptions left by nonhuman actors are categorised to be of interest to geologists mostly. These processes delineate different knowledges according to disciplinary systems. Artistic research emerges at the crossroads of various knowledges and challenges many existing ideas of what constitutes knowledge and knowing. As Lucy Cotter writes: ‘There is a very deep bias in academia towards linguistic articulation, and the expectation that all forms of knowledge can be translated into language has the effect of implying that traditional academic knowledge is the only real form of knowledge'. Working with the vegetal poses a dilemma of translating certain knowledges and experiences into words. Our interaction with plants is mostly nonverbal, we perceive them through sight, smell, touch and other senses. Engaging different senses might be a next step in my work, and I intend to do it by exhibiting the drawings in the Botanic Gardens of my University town and allowing them to be affected and changed by air, water and plant matter.


Each drawing began for me with a toponym and I write about some of the toponyms later in the text. As I was turning the pages of The Fossil Flora of the Middle Section of the Carboniferous Rocks of the Donetz Basin [Ископаемая Флора Среднего Отдела Каменнугольных Отложений Донецкого Бассейна] by M.D. Zalessky and H.TH. Tchirkova, which I use as a source for my drawings, one of the few things that I could immediately relate to were toponyms. I became interested in relations between certain plants and places in which their fossils were discovered and started to wonder if the knowledge about extinct plants would have an impact on our perception of these places today.


Moreover, since my research is focused on stories about plants, I wanted to explore relations between humans and vegetal matter also in the drawings themselves. The paleobotanic illustrations that I collaged into visual pieces allude to the plants from oral histories I recorded and also to vegetal matter broadly speaking, part of which are also fossils such as coal. Two dynamics define for me our interactions with vegetal matter: violence and tenderness, reflected in personal stories of care and abandonment, of overgrowth and making plant cuttings, as well as in histories of fossil extraction and destruction of wildlife, but also in histories of protection and preservation. My images are structured around violence and tenderness, where at times plants are piercing human bodies, sprouting through and within human flesh and memories. Finally, the texts play a central role in the drawings, as this series is an exploration of inscriptions and their role in constituting knowledges and knowing. Cotter opens her book Reclaiming Artistic Research with this statement that strongly resonates with my artistic practice:

I find that some thoughts prefer to move backwards and circle around themselves, allowing for a slow reconfiguration of meaning. While writing this text, I miss the freedom of drawing, where one can spatially mark out different kinds of relationships.              Distances between thoughts. Gaps that open space to think across

                                                                                     seemingly unrelated


I tried to replicate her typeset here, which she uses to highlight the different relationship with space that drawing offers to us. Here, Cotter engages freedoms of drawing to write an academic text, thus inviting us to a different kind of reading which has long been employed in poetry and experimental literature, but not so much in academic writing. In this kind of reading, the text inhabits the space not only as a mere background, but as an element that co-creates the experience of engagement with what is written, where distances are also felt and not only read about. In a similar way, words in my drawings are visual and textual at the same time. Just like images, they are presented as fragments of knowledges, where the new kinds of knowing and imagining comes in between all of the elements that make a piece, in ‘distances between thoughts’.

Finally, while the drawings are already rich in stories, this essay seeks to expand discussions they present even further, engaging more threads and traces. Therefore, the essay adds more connections to the string figure, making lines of flight into other time periods and experiences. Each of the three sections in this text stands out independently from each other, and I invite you to read them in any order you prefer.


Рис. 55а Alethopteris Davreuxi Brongniart. Рудник «Антрацит», штольня на пласт угля k5  балке Мельниковой, свита С5/2. 1:1

Ill. 55a Alethopteris Davreuxi Brongniart. Mine “Antratsyt”, an adit on coal seam k5 in Melnikova beam, suit C5/2. 1:1



Обстрелы, воды нет, света нет, люди на улицу не выходят… Приходят: «Дайте нам какой-нибудь цветочек посадить… там петунью… Стресс снять…»



Shelling, there is no water, no electricity, people do not go outside…. They come: ‘Give us some kind of flower to plant… petunia for example…. To relieve stress…’


Boris Rozen 

A Novel about A Fuel Rock 

Moscow:Nedra, 1981 

Cover art by B. Silayev

What do humans remember? Oral history and displacement

As mentioned earlier, my research focuses on oral histories of displacement from Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts in Ukraine. After the outbreak of the military conflict in Donbas and the annexation of Crimea in 2014, more than 1.4 million people who lived in the occupied areas have been internally displaced. This is the number of people who have registered on government-controlled territories as internally displaced persons, IDPs. The actual number is much higher. Since 2015, I have been interviewing displaced persons. Just like this exposition, the academic side of my PhD started with artistic practice, as my initial engagement with stories and mental maps about displacement was part of a collaborative art project Donbas Odyssey, which I initiated together with Julia Filipieva and Viktor Zasypkin in 2015. Donbas Odyssey made interventions in public space and exhibitions that told stories about cities and towns in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. Our main materials were oral histories and mental maps made by internally displaced persons during the interviews we conducted. I do not come from Donbas myself, but having lived in Kyiv when the war broke out and having been involved in the political life of the country as an activist during the Revolution of 2013-2014 and after, in the Summer of 2015 I became acquainted with several families displaced from Donbas. Simultaneously I was taking part in a summer school Mosaics of the City organised by the CSM/Foundation Centre for Contemporary Art, which introduced me to methodologies of participatory art and art in public space, and where I met my future colleagues Julia and Viktor. Together we developed Donbas Odyssey's methodology, which I discuss in greater detail in an essay for an edited volume on oral history forthcoming in the Herder Institute, Marburg.  After the first series of interventions in 2015 in Kyiv, Donbas Odyssey was presented in different spaces and cities, and I started to work with the interviews I had recorded academically, first as a MA student and now as a PhD student. After 2015 I returned to the field several times, with ethical approval from the University of St Andrews, and recorded more interviews. Quotes presented here are from oral histories collected both for Donbas Odyssey and my research, where the two projects are strongly entangled, and the authors gave me consent to use them for artistic initiatives and research publications. First names of the narrators are preserved.

As I was looking at interviews I recorded with Donbas Odyssey, I noticed that many of the oral histories featured narratives of plants and gardens, which is not surprising, as our environments are constructed with and through interaction with other species, whether we are aware of it or not. My attention was especially drawn to the presence of plants in narratives of displacement when one of my interviewees drew a Ficus houseplant and on the plant’s pot she wrote: ‘I  Ficus’. 

In Russian the verb ‘to be’ in the present tense can be omitted and substituted by a dash, so the phrase could read: Я – фикус [Ya – fikus], I [am] Ficus, which positions the “I” and the “Ficus” as equal subjects, allowing for recognition of one in the other and the identification with the other, whether it is a Ficus or a human speaking. Or, the inscription could read as two separate words “I” and “Ficus” not forming one sentence, where the relation of one subject to the other exists in a form of two independent entities positioned in one box - a flowerpot. Regardless of the interpretation, clearly Ficus was an actor in my interviewee’s experience of displacement, which therefore has been a multispecies event.

This encounter with a drawing of a Ficus led me to pay closer attention to other plants in the interviews I recorded. Stories about plants that originally emerged from my interviews about memories of cities and home for Donbas Odyssey are often mundane and concerned with everyday matters. When writing about displacement, media either tends to focus on more dramatic narratives, such as narratives of victimhood or trauma, or to present stories of successful experience of migration, portraying an effortless integration of displaced persons into new communities. Stories about plants allow to narrate experience of displacement in a more nuanced way as well as discuss displacement as a multispecies event. Obviously, during my interviews for Donbas Odyssey not everyone shared stories about plants, since not everyone closely engages with plants and the interviews focused on memories about hometowns. When I went back to the field in 2019, I conducted second interviews with some of my previous participants, as well as interviews with new participants, this time focusing on human-plant relations.

Displacement caused a rupture and a reconfiguration of the relations between humans and other humans, humans and other species, and this rupture is central to all quotes I used in the drawings. In stories that tell of personal intersubjective experiences between a plant and a human, the rupture often comes as a result of different (im)mobilities of humans and plants. Because of their sessile nature, plants have often been seen as immobile and therefore equated with objects. In Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life Michael Marder discusses how the concept of motion being central to the idea of life in Ancient Greece and upon which most Western perceptions of plants have been constructed has led to plants being seen as inferior to humans and animals, and lacking life itself. Marder also writes that etymology of the word “plant” in English and several other European languages creates a prejudiced perception of plants as static, when, for example, in Russian language ‘the plant is rasteniye (растение), stemming from the verb rasti (расти), which means, precisely, “to grow”. Ukrainian follows the same logic, where “plant”, roslyna (рослина) comes from “to grow”, rosty (рости). My interviews were conducted either in Ukrainian or Russian, and many of them challenge Western perceptions of plants as static. For example, here Halyna talks of strawberries that used to grow in her garden in Donetsk as mobile and agential beings:


Полуниця… Вона сама переміщалася: куди їй треба було… (…) Спочатку вона у цьому місці була… потім сюди перекочувала… сюди перекочувала… Потім назад повертатися почала…


The strawberry plant… It travelled by itself, wherever it needed to move … (…) At first, it was in this place… Then it moved here… moved here… Then started to return…  


In Ukrainian the noun strawberry has a feminine gender, so the pronoun used for the strawberry is “she”. This strawberry episode was told within a larger narrative of displacement, and if we delete the word “strawberry” from the quote, the original in Ukrainian would read: ‘she travelled by herself, wherever she needed to move … (…) At first, she was in this place… Then she moved here… moved here… Then started to return…’. Here, she could potentially signify Halyna herself, as much as it could signify a strawberry plant, narrating her experience of displacement. Moreover, to describe strawberry’s movement across the garden, Halyna uses a verb perekochuvaty [перекочувати], the stem of which is kochuvaty [кочувати]. One of the meanings of kochuvaty is to frequently move from one place to another, changing accommodation or jobs, or carrying belongings with you, kochuvaty is often used to describe the lifestyle of nomads. The use of the verb perekochuvaty [перекочувати] allows one to imagine the strawberry plant as a migrant, just like the narrator herself. Moreover, the agential movement of the plant subverts the view of gardens and vegetable patches as spaces controlled by humans. An example of such view can be found in Kenneth I. Helphand’s Defiant Gardens. Making Gardens in Wartime: ‘…gardens only exist as human creations; they are places where we have exerted control over the natural world’. Halyna’s representation of the strawberry plant undermines this view, as her plant ‘…travelled by itself, wherever it needed to move…’. This quote narrates human-plant relations, in which despite their circumstances, whether it is a forced displacement or a limited territory of a garden, each subject affirms their agency.


Another example of a story that reflects the rupture of human-plant relations caused by the experience of displacement is told by Natalia. Natalia’s interview features a long memory about an apple tree, under which she grew up and with which she used to talk. The apple tree lives in Natalia’s garden in Luhansk, and Natalia now lives more that 1300 km away. In one of the quotes I used in the drawing Natalia says:


В горшочках можно взять перевезти цветы… А деревья ты не перевезёшь… А ты вкладываешь душу… Я ещё не могу так жить, чтобы совсем не привязываться…


You can transport flowers in pots… But you cannot transport trees… And you pour your heart into them… … I still do not know how to live so that I do not get attached (to anything/anyone) at all… 


The traumatic nature of separation is reflected in the intensity with which Natalia speaks of her affection for trees: ‘you pour your heart into them’. The pain brought by the rupture of her relations with plants makes Natalia reflect on her attachments in general: ‘I still do not know how to live so that I do not get attached at all’. In another quote, Natalia further reflects on the rupture as experienced not only by her, but by the apple tree as well.

У меня до сих пор душа кровью обливается, потому что мама говорит она (яблоня) начала усыхать… Её посадили где-то в конце 50х, то есть сколько ей лет? То есть она уже старенькая… Мы её каждый год поливали со шланга, поливали сам ствол… Там же ж лето очень жаркое на востоке… Не так, как здесь… Там до 40 градусов может стоять месяц… (…) И так, как мама то здесь, она ж там непостоянно находится, поэтому поливать её некому… И она начала немного усыхать


Until now my heart hurts because my mum says it (the apple tree) started to dry out… It was planted in the end of 50s… so how old is it? So it is already old … Every year we watered it from a hosepipe… watered the trunk itself… The summer is very hot there in the East… Not like here… It can stay up to 40 degrees for a month… (…) And because mom is here sometimes… she is not there all the time… so there is nobody to water it… And it started to dry out a bit…


Luhansk oblast, where Natalia is from, is known for its dry and hot summers, and many plants need extra watering in this kind of climate. Natalia’s family and the apple tree have had a sustained relationship of care. The tree was planted by Natalia’s grandfather, and several generations have enjoyed the shade and apples the tree has been providing, and the tree has enjoyed extra watering. Since the beginning of the military conflict, and displacement of family members, this relationship has been disrupted, and the tree started to dry out and wilt. Natalia’s story about the apple tree provides a view of the way plants have been affected by displacement and the military conflict, and therefore offers a multispecies understanding of these experiences.


Finally, in a third story I engage in my drawings, Serhiy also discusses the effect of the conflict on plants, this time taking the conversation from private space of home to the space of a natural reserve, commenting on the damage it suffered because of military fighting:


Сами по себе, с годами, это как рана, оно зарубцуется… Ещё со времен Великой Отечественной или Второй Мировой, как говорят, остались… Они все зарубцуются… Но лучше было б их рекультивировать… (…) сейчас, может, даже и поздновато… Зарыть… Как разрыли, так и заройте…. Пока оно свежее, пока там не сильно нарушено рядом… сама экосистема…


They will do it themselves, with years, it’s like a wound, it will become a scar… There are some that have stayed since the Great Patriotic and Second World War, as they say… They will all become scars… It would be better to revegetate them… (…) now, perhaps, it is a bit too late… To bury… Bury it the same way you dug it up… While it is fresh, while it has not been destroyed nearby… the ecosystem itself… 


Serhiy works in Kreidova Flora, a Chalk Flora Nature Reserve, which is home to a relict genus of pine Pinus sylvestris L.var.cretacea Kalenicz.ex Kom. In 2014 the territory of Kreidova Flora became a battlefield in the current military conflict. Numerous mines and trenches remained after the military left the territory of the nature reserve. Serhiy uses corporeal metaphors to describe the traces left by the military, comparing them to scars and wounds. He also refers to a previous experience of fighting, traces of which can still be found on the territory of the reserve – Second World War. For Kreidova Flora military conflict caused ruptures on the surface of the land, which lead to disruptions in ecosystem and possible arrival of invasive species. Kreidova Flora is a protected territory, no visitors are normally allowed, and because of that, traces of fighting have been carefully documented. Serhiy’s account, however, makes us wonder how many disruptions to ecosystems caused by the conflict remain invisible to the public and for how long the land will carry nonverbal testimonies of the war.  


Рис. 27. Mariopteris latifolia Brongniart. Горловка. бывш. шахта №8, кровля пласта угля 7-8 (k1/2), свита С3/2. 1:1

Ill. 27. Mariopteris Latifolia Brongniart. Gorlovka, ex-mine 8, roof of coal seam 7-8 (k2/1), suit C 3/2. 1:1

Рис. 67 Necropteris Scheuchzeri Hoffmann, г. Константиновка, балка или речка Грузская, прав. бер. ниже 2-го моста от устья, свита С 2/3. 1:1

Ill. 67. Necropteris Scheuchzeri Hoffmann. Konstantinovka, beam and river Gruzskaya, right bank, below the 2nd bridge from the mouth, suit C 2/3. 1:1


Рис. 42. Pecopteris Asterotheca Miltoni Artis ( = P.abbreviata Brongniart). С. Дебальцево, ручей Скелеватый, прав. бер. свита С2/3. 1:1

Ill. 42. Pecopteris Asterotheca Miltoni Artis (=P. abbreviata Brongniart). Debaltseve village, Skelevatyy spring, right bank, suit C2/3. 1:1

В горшочках можно взять перевезти цветы… А деревья ты не перевезёшь… А ты не вкладываешь душу… Я ещё не могу так жить, чтобы совсем не привязываться…



You can transport flowers in pots… But trees you cannot transport… And you pour your heart into them… I still do not know how to live so that I do not get attached at all…


Сами по себе, с годами, это как рана, оно зарубцуется… Ещё со времен Великой Отечественной или Второй Мировой, как говорят, остались… Они все зарубцуются… Но лучше было б их рекультивировать… (…) сейчас, может, даже и поздновато… Зарыть… Как разрыли, так и заройте…. Пока оно свежее, пока там не сильно нарушено рядом… сама экосистема…



They will do it themselves, with years, it’s like a wound, it will become a scar… There are some that have stayed since the Great Patriotic and Second World War, as they say… They will all become scars… It would be better to revegetate them… (…) now, perhaps, it is a bit too late… To bury… Bury it the same way you dug it up… While it is fresh, while it has not been destroyed nearby… the ecosystem itself…


Рис. 116 Lepidodendron Wortheni Lesquereux. Шахта «Эрнест» б. Петро-Марьевского Общества, свита С 1/3. Изображён на табл. V, фиг. 5 под названием Lepidodendron lycopodioides Sternb. в мемуаре М.Д. Залесского “Lycopodiales каменноугольных отложений Донецкого бассейна». 2:1.

Рис. 117 Lepidodendron Wortheni Lesquereux. Часть поверхности образца, изображённого у Zeillera, Flore fossile du bassin houiller de valenciennes на табл. LXX под названием Lepidodendron lycopodioides Sternberg. 2:1


Ill. 116. Lepidodendron Wortheni Lesquereux. Mine “Ernest” ex Petro-Maryevske Society C1/3. Depicted on table V, fig. 5 under the name Lepidodendron lycopodioides Sternb. in the memoire of M.D. Zalessky “Lycopodiales of coal deposits of the Donets basin”. 2:1

Ill. 117 Lepidodendron Wortheni Lesquereux. Part of the surface of the sample, depicted in Zeillera, Flore fossile du bassin houiller de valenciennes on a table LXX under the name Lepidodendron lycopodioides Sternberg. 2:1

Полуниця… Вона сама переміщалася: куди їй треба було… (…) Спочатку вона у цьому місці була… потім сюди перекочувала… сюди перекочувала… Потім назад повертатися почала…



The strawberry plant… It traveled by itself, wherever it needed to move … […] At first, it was in this place… Then it moved here… moved here… Then started to return…


Вот этот кактус тоже выбросили… Я его притащила домой… (…) Он был без ничего, и, по всей видимости, он стремился к свету, поэтому у него такой наклон был…  И вот, когда я его принесла, он оброс детками…



This cactus was also thrown away… I brought it home… (…) There was nothing on it, and, it seems, it was striving for the light, that is why it was at such an angle… And when I brought it, it grew pups all over….



What do plants remember? Plant fossils, inscriptions and history of mining


Since 2014 Donbas has been mostly known as a war zone, but before that it had been famous for its mining and metal industries. As I have already mentioned, Donbas was one of the exemplary industrial regions in the Soviet Union and was the birthplace of the Stakhanov movement of shock labour. Local history of the region extensively focuses on the role of industry in the development of Donbas. Even the toponym Donbas stands for the Donetsk Coal Basin [Донецький Вугільний Басейн]. The name itself was given to the region by a mining engineer Yevgraf Kovalevsky in 1827. It is clear that histories of mining and histories of Donbas are closely intertwined. The advancement of mining has developed alongside many natural sciences among which is paleobotany, a science concerned with plants that existed in other geological periodsSoviet and Russian-language paleobotany emphasises a close relation between the science and mining industry. In the introduction to The Fossil Flora…, Zalessky and Tchirkova write that for a successful development of paleobotany scientists have to collaborate with the mining industry: ‘a further collection of fossil flora is necessary […] with a compulsory participation of people involved in coal industry and management of particular mines’, where the participation of workers of the mining industry is highlighted by the adverb obiazatelno [обязательно] – compulsory, required. Paleobotany is beneficial to the mining industry, since it helps with the stratigraphy of coal and studies the substance of coal. Collaboration with coal industry gives paleobotanists access to sites, since many plant fossils are discovered at mining sites and that is the reason we know more about plants of the Carboniferous Period than about plants from any other period.

While researching history of Donbas I came across Soviet and Russian-language literature in paleobotany of Donbas and was struck by the fossil plants illustrated in it. For this project I use drawings which were made by an artist B. Sboromirsky. Even though his drawings take up a significant portion of the book, and are a valuable source of knowledge, the artist is mentioned in the text just once as B.I. Sboromirskiy [Б.И. Сборомирский]. I tried to trace his story and I came across an artist Boleslav Ivanovich Sboromirsky who was executed during The Great Terror in 1937. The place of his execution is Oryol, the hometown of the author paleobotanist Zalessky, where Zalessky returned in 1918 from St Petersburg and founded the first paleobotanic laboratory in USSR. This makes me believe that B.I. Sboromirskiy, who made the drawings for the book, and Boleslav Ivanovich Sboromirsky, who was gunshot by the Soviet authorities in 1937, are the same person. If that is true, The Fossil Flora…, was published after his death.

Illustrations in the book are made by inscribing lines on paper and carefully tracing vegetal forms imprinted on fossils. They are not unmediated images directly made by plants. When I first came across them, they stood out to me as testimonies of previous geological periods, and of Donbas before humans, even if I knew I was looking at their translations by B.I. Sboromirskiy. Plant fossils preserve a trace of vegetal matter imprinted, inscribed onto a surface. Building on a provocation by Claire Colebrook to consider stratifications of the Earth as inscriptions, I argue that plant fossils are inscriptions made by plants that lived in other geological periods. In The Intensity of the ArchiveColebrook questions the anthropocentric nature of memory studies and explores the connection between memory and the Anthropocene. Colebrook writes about the archive as central to the concept of humans as ‘we’, which allows one to imagine the past and envision the future: ‘To be able to say ‘I’ or ‘we’ is to be composed of an archive that, in turn, generates a horizon of the future’. Since it is inscriptions and their maintenance in archival form that make ‘the flow of conscious time and memory possible’, Colebrook suggests that ‘the inscriptive event of the Anthropocene is an extension of the archive, where one adds to the readability of books and other texts, the stratifications of the Earth’. She therefore suggests that stratifications of the Earth are a type of inscription just like texts and audio recordings of oral histories, and are therefore a memory of the Earth.

Donbas history, closely related to the development of industry, predominantly focuses on human experiences. If nonhuman subjectivities are present within the history of the region, they are most often generalised into a broad category of a landscape, where a wild and hostile steppe is juxtaposed with industry and is presented as a space for colonisation and urbanisation. While there are multiple stories about mining, plant fossils constitute a nonhuman history of coal, inscribing themselves into available anthropocentric narratives of industry.

In addition to incorporating nonhuman memories of Donbas, I am interested in working with plant fossils in order to address the question of representing others in my research.  One of the biggest ethical concerns of writing about human-plant relations and migration is representation of both experiences of the displaced persons and of plants. In Thus Spoke the Plant, Monica Gagliano addresses the dilemma of writing about plants by calling her book a phytobiography, in which ‘the human acts as a coauthor who physically delivers […] conversations to the page’. John Ryan develops a concept of phytography, as ‘the writing of plants – as our writing about their lives and their writing about themselves, and, possibly, about us and us in relation to them’. My approach is also a kind of phytography, but a visual one. I am especially interested in including direct speech by other narrators into my research in order to disrupt a narrative by a single author and create a polyphonic space. For example, I integrated quotes from oral histories into the body of my writing and drawing. When quotes from oral histories are transcribed and translated they become inscriptions. Marder writes that the language of plants emerges ‘on the horizon of the ethics of otherness’hence challenging our anthropocentric views of what language, communication and inscription mean. Therefore, extending the category of an inscription, I work with oral histories as inscriptions of experiences of displaced persons, and plant fossils as inscriptions of experiences of plants, where the space of drawing allows to place them next to each other in conversation.



What do toponyms remember? Paleobotanic descriptions and places

In The Fossil Flora… each paleobotanic illustration is accompanied by a description that states the name of a plant in Latin, a name of a paleobotanist, for example Brongniart or Lesquereux, a geographic location where a plant fossil was discovered and a suite (a lithographic unit). Marder critiques Linnaeus’s taxonomic method for reducing the plant to its name and precise allocation in a system of classification. Naming is an expression of power and authority. Usually, we do not choose our names; our parents or a community do. Without a name, there is no identity, that is why we give names to hurricanes. These days urban botanists have been using the instrument of naming subversively by writing with chalk names of pavement plants which are considered to be weeds. This strategy proves to be successful precisely because of human’s inability to recognise plant’s value and singularity unless it is named and categorised.

With regard to fossils, names are used for the purpose of categorising particular fossil as a plant fossil rather than fossil fuel, therefore deciding what benefit can humans obtain from a particular fossil. In my drawings, names of plants in Latin and names of scholars of paleobotanists are the only words that can be accessed by non-Ukrainian and non-Russian speakers. The supposedly universal accessibility of Latin is a reflection of coloniality within scientific nomenclature, where, as Marder points out, the system of categorisation and classification is reflected in the very use of ‘dominant, imperial languages of Latin and English’.

Discussion about naming is relevant not only for plants, but also in the context of migration. Previously I have written about internally displaced persons being reluctant to identify themselves with the names such as internally displaced persons, IDPs, pereselentsy and other, and the tendency to subvert these names in oral history interviews I conducted.

Finally, paleobotanic descriptions state locations where plant fossils were discovered. Some of these locations are very present in the recent history of the military conflict and cultural memory of Donbas. For example, Horlivka/Gorlovka is a city which since 2014 has been occupied by the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic backed by Russia. 

The town of Kostiantynivka/Konstantinovka has been reclaimed by Ukrainian forces in July 2014. Kostiantynivka/Konstantinovka is now known as the town closest to Donetsk (the biggest city of Donbas) reachable by a train from Kyiv, so it is the last government-controlled city of Ukraine, and the conflict zone begins right outside of it. The location of the town as a last frontier is (symbolically) reflected in the title of Korniy Grytsyuk’s 2019 documentary film ‘Train: Kiyv-War’, in which passengers of the Kyiv-Kostiantynivka/Konstantinovka train are depicted.

The town of Debaltseve/Debatlsevo, yet another toponym mentioned in the book, is known for one of the key battles of the conflict in 2015. As a result of the battle OSCE Special Monitoring Mission reported that most buildings in Debaltseve/Debatlsevo were ruined or damaged, and approximately 500 civilians were killed. Since the battle, Debaltseve/Debatlsevo has been occupied by the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, backed by Russia.


Moreover, some of toponyms used in the book are from Soviet times, others are from pre-Soviet times, which, with addition of our knowledge of the recent events, brings multiple timeframes into play. Many descriptions feature mines indicating a close relation between advancement of natural science and industrialisation. Since the publication of the book in 1938, many of the mines have grown into whole monotowns: company towns where life is dependent on one industry or other kinds of settlements. For example, Rudnichnaya station, [ст. Рудничная] was soon renamed into Rutchenkove station located near Rutchenkove settlement. 

In 1938 Rutchenkove became a part of the city Donetsk, at that time known under the name Staline. Toponym Rutchenkove is well-known even outside the city of Donetsk because of the tragic events that took place there during the Great Terror. In 1930-1940s, which is exactly the time The Fossil Flora… was published and its illustrator was executed in the Great Terror, Rutchenkove pole, Rutchenkove field became a place of mass killings and burial of thousands of political opponents (some sources claim 40 000 people). Seeing the name Rudnichnaya station in a paleobotanic description from 1938 exposes uncanny threads that even if not connected directly, are nevertheless linked by physical and temporal proximities and the actions of burying and unburying memories.  At the time nonhuman life forms were dug out from the ground in the form of plant fossils, people were mass buried with no traces of identification. Only in 1988-1989, just before the collapse of the repressive apparatus of the Soviet state, the story of Rutchenkove pole was uncovered. As Victoria Donovan noted in her fieldnote on my drawings: ‘in the process of her excavation work she [Darya Tsymbalyuk] has also made unexpected discoveries (hitting dinosaur bones while mining, as it were)’. The processes of unburying I engage in here reflect our deeply entangled histories, in which when studying displacement, you discover a story about an apple tree, and when studying paleobotanic sources, you learn about a tragic fate of an artist and many others repressed by the Soviet regime. 

Рис. 47. Pecopteris (Dactylotheca) plumosa (Artis). Ст. Рудничная, б. Франц. комп., шахта №30, свита С3/2. 1:1

Ill.47. Pecopteris (Dactylotheca) plumosa (Artis). Rudnichnaya station, ex French company, mine 30, suit C 3/2. 1:1

Рис. 105 Calamophyllites Goepperti (Ettingshausen). Горловка, бывш. шахта №8, кровля пласта угля 7-8 (k1/2), свита С5/2. 1:1.

Ill. 105 Calamophyllites Goepperti (Ettingshausen). Gorlovka, ex-mine №8, roof of coal seam 7-8 (k1/2), suit C5/2. 1:1.

Вот сколько здесь деревьев этих! Мои друзья сейчас пишут и звонят, и говорят, что вот жалко аллею… Понимаешь? Как жалко аллею!... Что мы туда не можем приезжать…



How many trees are here! Friends call me and write to me now, and tell me that they feel sad about the alley… Do you understand? We feel so sad about the alley!... That we no longer can go there…


У меня до сих пор душа кровью обливается, потому что мама говорит она (яблоня) начала усыхать… Её посадили где-то в конце 50х, то есть сколько ей лет? То есть она уже старенькая… Мы её каждый год поливали со шланга, поливали сам ствол… Там же ж лето очень жаркое на востоке… Не так, как здесь… Там до 40 градусов может стоять месяц… (…) И так, как мама то здесь, она ж там непостоянно находится, поэтому поливать её некому… И она начала немного усыхать…


Until now my heart hurts, because my mom says it (the apple tree) started to dry out… It was planted in the end of 50s, so how old it is? So it is already old… Every year we watered it from a hosepipe, watered the trunk itself… The summer is very hot there in the East… Not like here… It can stay up to 40 degrees for a month… (…) And because mom is sometimes here, she is not there all the time, so there is nobody to water it… And it started to dry out a bit…


Conclusion: what emerges between the threads

Haraway’s sf are non-linear constructs that require flexibility in making connections and shifting between contexts, as well as imagination of envisioning directions that the process can take us. The nature of drawing as a medium allows me to include a multiplicity of temporalities and narratives that coexist at the same time in the same space of a page, and therefore provides a fruitful ground for engaging in sf thinking and making. The very practice of mapping a paleobotanic description, a quote by a displaced person and a plant inscription next to each other on a page creates an encounter between these different modes of expression, as well as reflects on the authority of being able to speak and represent themselves, and the hierarchies we ascribe to different languages (scientific, spoken, Latin, Ukrainian, English, nonverbal) and inscriptions (plant fossils, scientific notes, oral history transcriptions). Moreover, ruptured, fragmentary modes of visual representation reflect both the fragmentary nature of remembering and of research, which whether in cultural memory or in paleobotany, construct narratives and imaginaries out of at first seemingly separate elements. As Zalessky and Tchirkova note: ‘these records are based on few examples, so the precision is not very high’.


The story exists in-between vegetal images, human figures and textual elements where words and shapes act as nodes that shoot off new threads through the drawing to create new connections. The space of drawing allows me to place these fragments in conversation with each other without totalising the final idea into a fixed and definite narrative.

Donbas has long been defined by grand narratives of industrialisation and war, which led to the current disintegration of the region, ruined by military fighting and environmental destruction. It is time to step away from (re)telling these narratives and look for ways to tell different stories about and from Donbas and to tell these stories differently. It is important not only with regard to the history of the region, but also for allowing us to envision different futures and map new imaginaries that consist of unpredictable connections. Artistic research allows us to make these connections because of its existence in-between research and creative practice, where histories, testimonies, archives and speculations can be moulded into a space of verbal and non-verbal storytelling. This way of storytelling allows me to engage vegetal imaginaries for the exploration of histories and memories of the region. These imaginaries do not only expose the failure of anthropocentric thinking, which resulted in ideologies of exhaustion and exploitation of human and nonhuman resources, but also offer us new ways of engaging with environments we are part of. Practicing multispecies sf storytelling through images and words, I hope that new visions of Donbas inclusive of a diversity of human and nonhuman subjectivities will emerge in-between different threads and fragments.

Рис. 35 Mariopteris nervosa Brongniart. Горловка, б. шахта №8, кровля пласта 7-8, свита С 5/2. 1:1

Ill. 35. Mariopteris nervosa Brongniart. Gorlovka, ex-mine 8, roof of coal seam 7-8,

suit C 5/2. 1:1

Кропива… Тут її дуже багато, якщо ходиш десь не в центрі міста… Я приїхав, на першу роботу пішов… (…) Я щось обпікся, а мені місцеві кажуть: «Чого ти лізеш? Ти що не бачиш?» Я кажу: «Я не знаю, вона у нас не так виглядає…» 


Nettle… There is so much of it here, if you are somewhere not in the centre of the city… When I arrived and went to my first job… (…) I got stung, and the locals told me: “Where are you going? Don’t you see?” I said: “I don’t know, it does not look the same where I am from…”


Рис. 29 Mariopteris acuta Brongniart. Ст. «Антрацит», балка Яйчак, кровля пласта h5. Свита C 3/2.

Рис. 130 Cordaianthus superbus Zalessky. Ст. Мушкетово, шахта №5. б. Прохоровской копи, свита C 3/2. 1:1

Рис. 34. Mariopteris Dernoncourti Zeiller. С. Ровеньки, прав. бер. речки Ровеньки, свита С4/2. 1:1

Рис. 69 Neuropteris gigantea Sternberg. Ст. Мушкетово, шахта №9, бывш. Прохоровской копи, свита C 3/2. 1:1

Рис. 28 Mariopteris latifolia Brongniart. Горловка, б. шахта №8, свита С5/2. 1:1


Ill. 29 Mariopteris acuta Brongniart. “Antratsit” station, Yaychak beam, roof of coal seam h5. suit C3/2.

Ill. 130 Cordaianthus superbus Zalessky. Mushketovo station, mine 5 ex Prokhorovska mine, suit C3/2. 1:1

Ill. 34 Mariopteris Dernoncourti Zeiller. Roven’ki village, the right bank of the Roven’ki river, suit C4/2. 1:1

Ill. 69 Neuropteris gigantea Sternberg. Mushketovo station mine 9, ex Prokhorovska mine, suit C3/2. 1:1

Ill. 28 Mariopteris latifolia Brongniart. Gorlovka, ex-mine №8, suit C5/2. 1:1

Для меня растения - это еще как какая-то история… Вот каждый сортэтот сорт, когда смотришь на него, ты знаешь, что его привезли с Никитского ботанического сада…  Подошёл к можжевельнику…. я в Луганске черенковал в таком-то парке… то есть каждое растение ассоциируется еще с каким-то местом, каким-то временем…


For me plants -are also a kind of story… Each variety… this variety, when I look at it, you know, that it was brought from the Nikitsky botanical garden… You come close to the juniper… I took the cuttings of it in Lugansk in a park somewhere… So each plant is associated with a place, with a particular time…



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Рис. 129 Artisia approximata Brongniart. С. Ровеньки, правый берег речки Ровеньки. Свита С 4/2 1:1.

Ill. 129. Artisia approximata Brongniart. Roven’ki village, right bank of the river Roven’ki. suit C 4/2. 1:1

В 2014м году, перед совсем активными… весной… на Донецк было нашествие гусениц, невероятное… У нас во дворе возле дома… росли каштаны, ольха, ясень… Гусеницы съели всё, вот всё… Я выходила, у нас гараж во дворе был, я выходила с подъезда, я слышала хруст… Хруст, серьёзно… Вот когда вечером тишина в городе, я слышала хруст, как гусеницы поедают… Стояли голые деревья, полностью объеденные ясень, ольха, не было ни одного листика…


In 2014, just before the active (fighting)… in spring… Donetsk had an invasion of caterpillars, an incredible one… Near our house in the yard… chestnut trees, an alder, an ash used to grow there… The caterpillars devoured everything, absolutely everything… I used to go out, we had a garage in the yard, I would go out of the apartment building and hear the crackling sound, the caterpillars were eating… The trees were bare, completely devoured, the ash, the alder, not a single leaf on them…