On 24 February 2022, the Russian army invaded Ukraine, starting the first international land war in Europe since World War II. This in turn triggered a large movement of forced migrants across Ukraine and Europe. At the time of writing, 10 million people have fled their homes, 3.6 million of whom have left Ukraine.[i] Thousands have died in the conflict, and thousands more have been injured, both physically and psychologically.[ii]
Our research into stretching the boundaries of how we understand peace and conflict led me to discover peace as an act of care – which can occur amidst conflict, not just in more stable times. Looking beyond acts of care among humans, I decided to explore how care for non-humans might help us to visualise peace in new ways and also contribute to peace-building itself.
Part of my ‘Pockets of Peace in Ukraine, Spring 2022’ project, ‘Care for Nature’ is one of three macro trends I identified on Twitter that reflect a larger outpouring of acts of care and empathy during the war in Ukraine, both despite and because of the overarching context of violence. This trend foregrounds the efforts humans have made to protect and promote nature amid the war.
Nature is both an autonomous being, and something related to care. Nature is cared for, but it also cares for us (through sustenance, and also by contributing to our sense of wellbeing). Our relationship with nature is socio-culturally dependent. The way indigenous people relate to their environment, for instance, is radically different from the dominant Western view of it as an object of value for exploitation.[iii] Care through nature in Ukraine is therefore rooted in a specific cultural relationship to nature dependent on time and place; however, this does not mean that the connection between nature and care is not applicable beyond the current context.
Visualising Peace through Planting
Soon after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, social media became flooded with Ukrainian national symbols, particularly the flag. The Ukrainian flag is blue and yellow and many interpret this as representing the sky and a field of wheat, referencing both Ukraine’s natural beauty and its global agricultural importance. On 24 February, a video went viral on social media of a woman asking Russian soldiers to carry sunflower seeds in their pockets, ‘so that sunflowers grow here when you die.'[iv] The woman’s speech was part curse, part wishful thinking, evoking the power of nature to overcome and outlast the violence that humans might perpetrate. As the national flower of Ukraine, the imagery of a sunflower emerging from the decomposing bodies of Russian soldiers captured people’s imaginations and became a memorable way of visualising a Ukrainian victory and a time beyond the war.
While this particular interaction visualised death and destruction alongside seeds and post-conflict growth, other representations of nature (and especially sunflowers) on social media have subsequently evoked acts of care, empathy and solidarity. Both the Ukrainian flag and sunflowers have made their way into thousands of profile pictures and usernames, which could be interpreted as acts of solidarity through nature:
Ukraine is the largest sunflower oil producer in the world. The sunflower thus evokes Ukraine in peacetime, doing one of the things it does best: farming. Many Ukrainians are farmers, a people rooted to their land not just because of national sentiment but because of the physical rooting of the plants they tend. A people caring for their land, not just abstractly but physically. Agriculture is a double act of care: the nurturing of nature, and the nourishing of people. Despite ongoing war, defiant tweets have shown Ukrainian farmers planting sunflower seeds, fulfilling a duty to land, country and the wider world through nature.
While nowhere near as numerous as the well-known tractor memes, showing Ukrainian farmers towing away bits of Russian military kit, these sowing-of-sunflower tweets offer an interesting parallel. Rather than depicting farmers engaged in the ‘war effort’, they show farmers working outside the immediate confines of the conflict, for a world and a future beyond it. Similarly, when Kharkhiv was bombarded, Ukrainians still found time to plant a field of flowers on their street corner. They tend to fragile seedlings as lives are lost and buildings crumble, defying destruction by rooting new life in the ground. As part of their farming culture, care for nature was once a mundane, everyday act. Reproducing these everyday acts of care despite violence around them helps demonstrate that was once mundane is now an act of resistance to destruction, and potentially an act of peacebuilding – or at least a defiant visualisation of peace and an act of faith that future times of peace will come.
Eventually, the sunflowers will grow, reproducing the national flag as their yellow faces stand against the blue sky. While farming can be viewed as extractive and may not be considered an act of care toward the earth itself, the strong connection between people, land and nature found in a field of sunflowers can become a powerful tool of visualisation, reinforcing what people are fighting for and what they hope the future will bring.
Planting becomes an act of resistance by reiterating a national agricultural identity; an act of care for everyone impacted by the present conflict, near and far; and an act of hope that looks ahead to more peaceful times, when a field of sunflowers might once more sit beneath serene skies.
What do you think?
- How do you relate to nature?
- Is nature part of how you visualise peace?
- How does agriculture fit into your habits of visualising peace?
- How does the planting of sunflowers in Ukraine change how you understand the relationship between resistance and peace?
- Can our attitudes to nature limit – as well as stretch – our peace-building habits? E.g., might typically Western views of nature as a resource for exploitation influence how we connect nature and peace in our minds?
If you enjoyed this item in our museum…
You might also enjoy ‘Banner of Peace‘, ‘Green Mosul‘, ‘Pockets of Peace in Ukraine, Spring 2022: ‘A Reflection‘, ‘Care for Animals‘, ‘Care through Music‘, and items with the tag ‘Grassroots Peace-Making‘.
Grace Bitner, May 2022
[i] These statistics have been published by the UN, on the basis of research carried out by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) between 9 and 16 March. As this BBC article notes, the actual figures are likely to be even higher.
[ii] This podcast reflects on the long lead-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022: https://www.buzzsprout.com/1717787/10586724. Among other topics, it discusses the role played by social media in shaping how people have visualised the conflict, and also how people on the ground and far away have engaged with in and offered support.
[iii] See, for example, White 2018. It also reminds me of a verse in ‘Colors of the Wind’, a song from the Disney movie Pocahontas: ‘You think you own whatever land you land on / The earth is just a dead thing you can claim / But I know every rock and tree and creature / Has a life, has a spirit, has a name.’ The Western objectification of nature is not a universal belief; differing views on the human relationship to nature may impact how nature and peace can be understood together.
[iv] See the BBC’s video of the same event, which has subtitles.