Following a brief delay due to the Soviet cover-up, Chernobyl has become —overnight and the world over—a symbol of tragedy, a disaster all the more fearsome because of its imperceptible and yet inscrutable effects. It has evoked everything from the chimeras of genetic mutations to “glowing” plants, animals, and humans. And, regardless of the time that has passed, it still functions as a cipher for a trauma, for the irremediable dearth of understanding, a barbed-wire limit to interpretation, which does not allow us to draw on past experience so as to imbue the disaster with meaning.
I have never been to Chernobyl, but its nuclear fallout reached me in the seaside town of Anapa, where I spent nearly two months right after Reactor 4 of the infamous atomic power station had exploded. Prior to that night of April 26, 1986, Chernobyl was just a small town in northern Ukraine, situated less than two hundred kilometers from Berdychiv, where my maternal grandfather hailed from. Like other settlements in the area (Jitomir and Vinnitsa stand out for me, because some of my more distant relatives come from there), it was home to significant numbers of Ashkenazi Jews, who accounted for sixty percent of its inhabitants at the turn of the twentieth century. Since the end of the eighteenth century, Chernobyl was the center of an important Hasidic dynasty founded by an itinerant preacher Nahum.
On a darker side, and similar to other neighboring towns (or, in Yiddish, the shtetls), it was the site of horrific pogroms that decimated the Jewish population. During the civil war, many of Chernobyl’s Jews were burnt alive by Cossacks in a local synagogue. Under the German occupation that began in 1941, the surviving Jewish residents of Chernobyl were shot en masse right at the cemetery, where their ancestors were buried and where, on the site of their collective grave, a nondescript tombstone commemorating the atrocities was erected after the war.
Symbolically, therefore, Chernobyl names a catastrophe before catastrophe, the one overlaying and overwriting the other. That “other Chernobyl” is, to this day, hidden, buried, forgotten, now also under piles of radioactive debris.
The literal meaning of the word itself sends us back to plants: chyornyi byllia is “blackgrass,” or mugwort, the botanical species Artemisia vulgaris. Dedicated to the Greek goddess Artemis, it was supposed to be a plant that imparted strength and endurance, offered protection, and facilitated healing. The magical powers of Artemisia vulgaris have, alas, floundered and heartbreak upon heartbreak are unhealed!
The Chernobyl disaster is a mugwort disaster—not, to be sure, of the mugwort itself, but of our relation to it and, through it, to vegetal nature as, at once, a part and a condensed representation of nature as a whole. What exploded in Chernobyl was more than a nuclear reactor. Its ultimate casualty was the future of human dwelling in what we succinctly term our natural environment: in the midst of the elements of air and water, the earth and solar fire; with plants and animals; in proximity to forests and rivers, such as Pripyat’. It was symptomatic of the loss of a world where one could still breathe, live, and just be, the loss which could be sudden, triggered by an explosion, or gradual as in the case of global climate change.
If practical consciousness lets us move quite effortlessly in our physical milieu, then the collapse of our immediate environment necessarily results in the detonation of consciousness. That is when thinking really begins. And if we are willing to start thinking, then we will reconsider our ways of producing energy, as well as the very notion of energy, so that the disaster of Chernobyl is not repeated ever again.
Adapted from The Chernobyl Herbarium: Fragments of an Exploded Consciousness (with Anaïs Tondeur). Open Humanities Press, 2016.