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Art - Issue #3

Nuclear plants

Words by Anna Souter
Artworks by Anaïs Tondeur

Plants have an extraordinary ability to grow and adapt in even the most hostile environments. Anna Souter explores how plants have survived the worst manmade disasters - and considers how vegetal beings can offer an alternative model for living in the face of the environmental crisis.

Thesium humifusum. All images: Exclusion Zone, Chernobyl, Radiation level: 1.7 Microsieverts/h.

‘‘What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow out of this stony rubbish?’’

— TS Eliot, The Waste Land, The Criterion (October 1922)

On April 26, 1986, the world witnessed one of the worst manmade disasters of all time, when a reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine exploded and caused a fire that raged for nine days, spewing radioactive con­taminants over the surrounding area. An exclu­sion zone was quickly established, and residents were evacuated in a hurry, probably unaware that they would never return to their homes.

The detrimental effects on people’s health are still being felt and the extraordinary destruc­tion wreaked by the tragic event has been enor­mous. However, the 207,000-hectare exclusion zone has also created one of the largest areas in the world devoid of human inhabitants, resulting in unexpected successes for plants and wildlife. In the Belarus section in particular, where scien­tists established the Polesie State Radio-ecological Reserve, the disaster has produced an unin­tentional rewilding project on a vast scale.

Studies suggest that many animal populations, and overall wildlife numbers, have grown since the explosion, with particular successes for wild Przewalski’s horses and wolves. This is not to say that radiation is not harmful to animals, but rather that ongoing human activity in a place is signifi­cantly more destructive to non­human popula­tions than a nuclear explosion and its subsequent fallout. This is perhaps not surprising – but it is quite extraordinary once you stop to think about it.

Linum usitatissimum. All images: Exclusion Zone, Chernobyl, Radiation level: 1.7 Microsieverts/h.

LIFE FINDS A WAY

The initial destruction caused by the Chernobyl explosion quickly became visible in the pine trees growing nearest the reactor. Exposed to extremely high levels of radiation, their trunks turned a ginger brown colour, giving the area the name ‘the red forest’. Most of these trees were cut down and buried, causing the soil to become contaminated; radiation continues to leak into the ground today as the trees decay.

Unexpectedly, however, many plants and trees have seen a resurgence of growth, proving them­ selves to be both highly resilient and extraordi­narily adaptable to the most inauspicious circumstances. This is in part due to plants’ dispersed physiology; unlike animals ­ whose life functions are localised in organs such as heart, lungs or brain ­ the tools plants need to live are spread across their structures. Key functions such as respiration, photosynthesis or the circulation of nutrients are carried out in multiple different parts of the plant simultaneously. This means that if one part of a plant is damaged, the rest of it can generally function as normal, and it can grow and adapt according to circumstances. This makes them particularly resistant to nuclear disaster ­ if a tree gets cancer, then it can usually grow around the diseased area. Life finds a way.

Geranium chinum. All images: Exclusion Zone, Chernobyl, Radiation level: 1.7 Microsieverts/h.

Plants offer a completely different model of being ­ one that could be a useful inspiration for human societies. With their dispersed physiology, plants undermine the brain/body divide of Carte­sian philosophy (‘I think, therefore I am’), and sub­ vert the binaries that have come to define Western culture: male/female, culture/nature, self/other.

For example, the sexuality and gendering of plants and their constitutive parts varies depend­ing on species; hermaphroditism is common and self fertilisation a perfectly ordinary process. Plants can change their physical form according to environmental factors, whether cultivation by human beings or the weather conditions in their place of growth. It is often hard to tell precisely where one plant ends and another begins; think, for instance, of the recent discovery of the ‘Wood Wide Web’, where trees and fungi have learned to be entirely dependent on one another. Moreover, trees have been shown to share resources with each other, even across species boundaries, col­lectively maintaining the health of the forest as a community. To think through plants is to think be­yond classical divisions, and to think on a times­cale of centuries rather than decades.

‘‘Although they follow and are dependent on human activities, their... refusal to play by our rules makes them subversive, and the very essence of wildness.’’

— Richard Mabey writes in his book Weeds: The Story of Outlaw Plants

GROWTH IN THE RUINS

Plants that grow in disturbed land rubble, bomb sites, shingle - are called ruderal species. These opportunistic vegetal beings bring life to places made apparently inhospitable by human actions. We usually call them ‘weeds’.

As Richard Mabey writes in his book Weeds: The Story of Outlaw Plants: “Their willingness to grow in the most hostile environments - a bombed city, a crack in a wall - means that they insinuate the idea of wild nature into places otherwise quite shorn of it. They are, in this sense, paradoxical. Although they follow and are dependent on human activities, their ... refusal to play by our rules makes them subversive, and the very essence of wildness.”

We tend to demonise the wild plants that are our ecological partners and to consider them interlopers or invaders. However, places like Chernobyl force us to reassess our dismissal of weeds and to recognise that they may have the power to save us from ourselves. By growing where little else can survive, they become a locus of new life, acting as keystone species in a newly reformulated ecosystem - an ecosystem in which humans have initially played a destructive role and then retreated almost entirely.

Byrsonima lucida. All images: Exclusion Zone, Chernobyl, Radiation level: 1.7 Microsieverts/h.

In her project Power Plants, multimedia artist Hito Steyerl explores the idea of making a garden of ruderal species. Exhibited at London’s Serpentine Galleries in 2019, Power Plants consists of a series of video sculptures imagining plants that might exist in the future, springing up in digital form from lands disturbed by destructive human activities. These plants, Steyerl suggests, might have power as medicines, environmental stabilisers and even political tools, but she also indicates that the technology with which we are likely to exploit these plants will also be detrimental to the ecosystems on which we all collectively rely - human and plant alike.

Steyerl also draws attention to a long-term cultural preoccupation with plants that grow in the ruins of human civilisation. She notes, for instance, that as early as 1643 the herbalist Domenico Panaroli compiled a book about the flora of the Colosseum in Rome - that great symbol of power and decline. The ruin had become home to many exotic species, the seeds of which had been carried in on the coats and straw of the exotic animals imported to fight in the arena, or even in the bodies and clothing of slaves captured from the far corners of the empire.

Espèce inconnue. All images: Exclusion Zone, Chernobyl, Radiation level: 1.7 Microsieverts/h.

Later, in the 1850s, botanist Richard Deakin made a further study of the Colosseum, which by that time had become a symbol of picturesque decay. Charles Dickens once described “its walls and arches overgrown with green; its corridors open to the day; the long grass growing in its porches; young trees of yesterday, springing upon its ragged parapets, and bearing fruit: chance produce of the seeds dropped there by the birds who build their nests within its chink and crannies”. Deakin found 420 different species of plants growing there in the building’s unique microclimate.

The rise to power and subsequent collapse of the Roman Empire contributed to the Colosseum’s transformation into a garden of ruderal plants. The arena in which violence and death were enacted as spectacles gained a new - and underappreciated - form of power through the inclusion of vegetal life. As in Chernobyl centuries later, violent actions followed by the exclusion of people (albeit for very different reasons) created a space in which wildlife was allowed to thrive, with plants adapting to an entirely new environment.

Linum usitatissimum. All images: Exclusion Zone, Chernobyl, Radiation level: 1.7 Microsieverts/h.

A NEW WAY OF LIVING

Just as we might cultivate a ruderal garden by giving up control, so we might cultivate a more environmental way of living by giving up our belief in the false sense of control that the old western binaries offer us. Taking plants as our models would encourage us to share resources, think about the long-term impacts of our actions, recognise our interdependence with other species, and help us to challenge individualism.

The sites of manmade disasters, and even the sites of former seats of human power, prove that growth is always possible in the ruins, and that plants can lead the way. Vegetal life offers an alternative model for human societies that is radically different from our current cultural trajectory - a trajectory that threatens to cause the biggest manmade disaster of all time in the form of total ecological collapse and climate breakdown.

“What branches grow out of this stony rubbish?” asks TS Eliot in The Waste Land. If we allow plants to be our teachers, they might just be the fragments we’re looking for to shore up our future ruins, the branches that bring new life in the desert - adapting, surviving, finding a way for everyone.

Linum usitatissimum. All images: Exclusion Zone, Chernobyl, Radiation level: 1.7 Microsieverts/h.

A CHERNOBYL HERBARIUM

The power of plants is beautifully explored in Anaïs Tondeur’s Chernobyl Herbarium (2011-2016), a project made in collaboration with geneticist Martin Hajduch and philosopher Michael Marder (whose 2013 book Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life is at the heart of a plant-inspired theoretical turn towards the vegetal in recent eco-philosophy).

For the Chernobyl Herbarium, Tondeur made photograms of plants from the exclusion zone, using a technique that links back to the earliest forms of photography. Tondeur placed specimens onto photosensitive paper, creating reverse impressions of the vegetation. Many of the images have an exploded look, like the glowing components of a campfire at night, or like weeds growing in the aurora borealis: a vegetal-astral constellation. The plant specimens are all faintly radioactive, and the glow of contamination is visualised through the play of light on photosensitive paper.

In this project, Tondeur and her collaborators use the unique biology of plants to imagine a form of ‘exploded consciousness’ - a consciousness that is entangled with its environment and that, perhaps, offers a way of dealing with the trauma caused across species and cultures by the Chernobyl disaster. Michael Marder writes: ‘Unthinkable and unrepresentable as [the disaster] is, we insist on the need to reflect upon, signify and symbolise it, taking stock of the consciousness it fragmented and, perhaps, cultivating another, more environmentally attuned way of living.’

Inspired by plants, Marder, Tondeur and Hajduch suggest that we have the ability to choose an alternative way of living and to cultivate it like a garden - a garden in which we hand over agency to the plants themselves and allow ourselves to be guided by what can grow in the ruins we have created.

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