The Half-life of Plants

When the Chernobyl nuclear power plant’s reactor number four blew up on April 26, 1986, six year-old Michael Marder was aboard a train from Moscow bound for Anapa, a town on the Black Sea. Outside the carriage he could see old women selling pies, fried chicken and pickles from a station platform, all of them unaware of the catastrophic nuclear event at that moment taking place. In a matter of days, the radioactive fallout would billow over Europe but for a brief time life went on as normal.

Thirty years later, Marder (now an environmental philosopher and regular contributor to everything from The New York Times, The Atlantic, Moscow Times and LA Review of Books) has written The Chernobyl Herbarium: Fragments of an Exploded Consciousness in collaboration with French artist Anaïs Tondeur (Open Humanities Press, 2016). Part autobiography, part philosophical conversation and work of art, the book is an attempt by the authors to grapple with the ongoing fallout from the Chernobyl event.

It is difficult to talk about Chernobyl” writes Marder, even after 30 years.

The herbarium of the title refers to a collection of photograms created by Tondeur over five years from the direct imprints of radioactive plant specimens, grown in the soils of the 30 kilometre exclusion zone around the former Chernobyl nuclear facility, on photosensitive paper. The works capture some of the violence of the nuclear disaster, “the traces of flowers, leaves, stems, and roots, along with the remnants of radiation trapped in them.” Marder was introduced to Tondeur’s work by a friend and within two days the philosopher and artist were in planning to produce their book.

The words and images the collaborators present in The Chernobyl Herbarium are both challenging, and wholly compatible. Thirty of Tondeur’s photograms are matched with thirty short reflections from Marder, one to mark each of the years since the nuclear catastrophe. “Whatever the reason,” says Marder, “the number “30” presides over the time and the space of Chernobyl.

It marks a grim anniversary, counts the years that had to pass for cesium-137 to release half of its radioactivity, measures the radius of the exclusion zone, weighs the tonnes of radioactive dust the sarcophagus (of cement encasing the reactor) contains.”

Each photogram by Tondeur is labelled with the name of the plant species, and the radiation levels emitted in the transfer process. Linum usitatissimum or linseed radiates at 1.7 microsieverts per hour under the lamp of nuclear disaster, as if a ghostly display model for long-lost agriculture in the exclusion zone. (The average Australian will be exposed to the same level of background radiation over the course of a year, not an hour, according to official figures.) Frail perimeters of geranium leaves fragment into the ground zero of Chernobyl, echoing “a trauma of European and planetary proportions that weakened the already waning faith in technological progress and the illusion of security cherished within the borders of affluent nation-states,” as Marder describes it.

Marder is a prolific writer, operating with a huge footprint. One day he’s writing opinion pieces for The New York Times and the next he’s published in obscure philosophy periodicals. He is the author of books with titles like Plant Thinking (Columbia University Press, 2013), The Philosopher’s Plant (Columbia University Press, 2014) and Grafts (Univocal Publishing, 2016). Natural then, that he was deeply affected by the Chernobyl disaster, which clouded his consciousness as a six-year old and has served as a trigger for his advocacy of the cessation of nuclear energy since. “What exploded in Chernobyl was more than a nuclear reactor,” he writes.

“The trail of radioactive particles stretched from Norway down to Turkey and from Russia to Italy and eastern France. It interfered with and invalidated our preconceived ideas about causality, responsibility, national sovereignty… The radioactive fallout from Chernobyl is the comet-end of the widespread fallout from the abuse of nature that no shelter and no sarcophagus will ever contain.”

Marder’s writing is profound, and an important contribution to our thinking about the future. He describes the vista that Chernobyl offers present-day tourists: “Here, pine trees turned reddish and perished shortly after the accident, their fallen trunks accumulating on the ground over the last thirty years. They are not decaying as they should, nor being digested into the earth nor transformed into compost.” He draws lines of reason and connection between humans and the environment: “On the path of radioactive debris, we were all plant- and soil-like, exposed physical extensions trapping some particles and letting others go through us, unwittingly.”

Plants throughout the exclusion zone break concrete apart and upturn it with the force of their roots. The dual violence and adaptability of plants bearing radioactivity is evident in The Chernobyl Herbarium and here, it is the plants that speak most strongly of the unspeakable atrocities we wage against our planet. “It is incredibly difficult to talk and write about Chernobyl,” says Marder. In place of words, he and Tondeur let plants do the talking.

The Chernobyl Herbarium: Fragments of an Exploded Consciousness is freely available from Open Humanities Press. All images used in this article appear in the book.

Michael Marder’s website is here and Anaïs Tondeur’s website is here.