Darya Tsymbalyuk is a Ukrainian researcher and artist. She received her PhD in 2021 from the University of St Andrews in Scotland with a dissertation titled “Multispecies ruptures: stories of displacement and human-plant relations from Donbas, Ukraine”. Her research work and artistic projects encompass different forms of writing (academic dissertation, screenplay, storytelling, docufiction), as well as drawings and participatory works – so many leads for the reshaping of flows of knowledge. Tsymbalyuk proposes an alternative narrative of the displacement of persons sparked by the war in Donbas since 2014. She has in particular collected oral histories of these internal migrations, in which new “human–plant relations” are formed, a recurring theme in her work. We are deeply grateful to her for sharing her grave, poetic letters to her parents with us. Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez & PALM

ma, tato, from our family only a poplar tree stays in our home in the south, looking into our kitchen window_tall and lean, a young soldier_how many have been killed already_and what are numbers when each one is a moon ripped, a forest burnt, a heart eaten with tears_and every day the city is under attack

the city has no water_the rivers braided into its streets can’t stop the thirst of its dry chapped lips_the city stands_and every time we hear news about another attack, we call neighbours, we search for photos_every house is my house_every house is buh river thick with blood_ma, you say: i don’t care about the house, i just want everyone to be alive_me too, ma, me too_and every house is the people and the poplars and the cats that live in the basement_everyone lives in the basement_sleeping next to the pipes without water in them

ma, tato, let the tears we cry for my city swell into clouds_let them make the anger of the poplars grow_let the steppe winds rage and bite through the ribcages of our enemies to pieces

then the farmers will return to the fields_the fields will grow a hundred suns for every landmine_water will return to the city, and we too will return to the city

but it will never be the same_it will never be the same_it will never be the same_we will never return to the city we left

Darya Tsymbalyuk, Disruptions Series, oil on canvas, 2015-2017 © Darya Tsymbalyuk

ma, I became like you_i also want to believe that when flowers bloom, something good is going to happen_since february 24th one of my cacti had blossoms swelling_i was waiting for them to open and thinking_when the cactus blooms the war will be over_when it blooms, we will stop russia_when it blooms, my land will bloom again

and then it bloomed_but russians keep killing us

ma, i think of you in kyiv alone_i think of you crying the first night you slept under a blanket and not on the cold floor of the metro station_i have a blanket and i am so happy – you said and cried_i think of you alone crying to a concert on tv_this is the first time i hear music in a month – you said_and i too cried_i think of you alone, without me, without my father_how can i leave my plants? – you say_and i know that you can’t, i know that your life runs beyond your body_ a garden in the middle of kyiv wrapped in wires and air defence_running sap bringing life to distant branches_your roots trace your walks_your cats know your footsteps_your dogs know when you come to the supermarket_you say: don’t pay for my internet next month, who knows if the house is standing_and you buy enough food to keep feeding the dog you befriended_when we speak, tears and rage are the salty lump, but the only photos you send me are of plants_of your heart storing light

in the past years i have been collecting stories of many such gardens_their homes overgrown with life in all its shapes, leaves, and tails_fleeing to a different place is bleeding across all limbs, all branches_i collected those stories from people displaced from their homes in 2014 and after, displaced from our lands in the east, our lands under attack for eight lifelong years_people took me into their gardens, showed me forests they grew from a single leaf, an apricot memory they carried in a pocket of the only jacket they took with them_now the land cries with thousand trees burnt_houseplants wilted_steppes poisoned_dogs left at the train station_lives, loves under the rubble_under the blossoming trees_under our own skies_raped, tortured, murdered

ma, i hear you crying for every life, for every dream, for every horse, for every child that loved that horse

and i am crying with you, ma_the whole land is crying with you, ma_and our tears feed the roots sending sap to the buds

Darya Tsymbalyuk, Disruptions Series, oil on canvas, 2015-2017 © Darya Tsymbalyuk

*tato, these days i wait for your brief updates once every 12 hours_i am ok_i am ok_updates that bring air and warmth into the body of the day

and as i wait, i hold on to the old candy wrappers i folded and kept in my pocket_that memory caramel in my mouth, standing still to fully taste it for a second

like that time we went to meet relict pine trees in 2019_august in donetsk oblast_you only brought a pair of shorts_and wild grasses cut your legs with sharp teeth_and the skin around their cuts got red and inflamed_those grasses did not like people_they remembered people in boots_in 2014_people digging pits_people slashing roots_people burning people_burning relict pines_burning grass_grasses were angry

the light shone through your transparent skin and i noticed a splinter deep inside your body

you kept commenting on the traces you saw_identifying trenches_guessing weapons_remembering your own 2014_the relict pines were witnessing_they stood there since the cretaceous_for more than 66 million years they held on to the salted taste of the ocean and refused to leave those lands of chalk_we too refuse to ever leave those lands_the pines drink blood_the pines witness_the invaders want us all dead, you, me, ma, our steppes, our forests, the chalk in their roots_but your uniform is pinegreen

Darya Tsymbalyuk, Disruptions Series, oil on canvas, 2015-2017 © Darya Tsymbalyuk

as we came back from the pines to a house abandoned not because of the war_or maybe because of it?_as we came back there to stay for the night_i was scared of mice and could not sleep_but you could_and i was thinking of all the times you had to sleep on the ground, in the trenches_and all the mice you shared the land with_or they shared their land with you_and how everything was trembling with explosions then

and today the city from which we took our train back home is trembling from the russian missiles_again_i remember it in 2019 as a sleepy embrace_a bridge over the railways_eating pyrizhky with potatoes

some days ago they hit the hospital there in a missile attack

and your uniform is pinegreen

where are you now, tato? where do you sleep, tato? do you have a blanket there, tato? you don’t say

i’m ok – you say_i’m ok

Darya Tsymbalyuk

*This note is a memory of my trip with my father to a nature reserve ‘Chalk Flora’, which is currently at the epicentre of fighting. Last week the house of the director of the reserve, Serhii Limanskyi, was destroyed by a tank. If you would like to help Serhii, please get in touch with me: dt43@st-andrews.ac.uk