What Squirrels Make Me Remember


A very busy squirrel left this shredded walnut shell on the path today. It’s a natural piece of trash, very commonly found as summer turns to fall.

8 years ago this September, I was in Mykolayiv, Ukraine, visiting an orphanage. I had been to Ukraine before, as an archaeologist, but this was a more personal, less academic trip. Whenever I come upon shredded walnut shells this time of year, I remember a particular day at the orphanage, when the children, all four or younger, delighted in bringing me these tough, green softballs to open. In my journal, I wrote:

We walked around the grounds until we came upon a walnut tree ready for harvesting. Iv. [a 3 year-old boy] instantly began picking walnuts off the tree and begging me, “Akoi! Akoi!”  I stepped on them until their green rinds fell away and then broke them open, sometimes with a rock, sometimes with my foot, and shelled out the meat with my fingernails. Iv. ate every tiny bit. When another groupa walked by with their nanny, he had me open walnuts for them. It was like a little party. 

By the end of the day, my fingertips were stained green and my nailbeds were sore, but the simple happiness of that episode is still vivid in my memory.

Earlier in my blog, I wrote a little about Ukraine’s troubles (see The Worst Kind of Trash). Despite the lack of media coverage, Ukraine is still struggling, particularly in the east (for an exceptional story on Ukraine’s current political struggles, see the September 5, 2016 article by Joshua Yaffa: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/09/05/reforming-ukraine-after-maidan).  It’s easy to get bogged down in the murk of geopolitical struggles, but there’s nothing murky about a smile and a hard-won walnut.

The Worst Kind of Trash




I referred in an earlier post to my past identity as a Classical Archaeologist, but I failed to mention my favorite subject and place.  Researching my master’s thesis, which focused on ancient cultural perspectives on drinking, brought me to Ukraine, where Greeks settled on the Black Sea and came into contact with the native nomadic Scythians, who ruled the steppes from the 7th to 3rd centuries B.C.  The Scythians, and the gorgeous golden loot they left behind in their graves (burial mounds called kurhany or kurgans), have been the subject of many exhibitions, including “Sycthian Gold” at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, Maryland in 2000. Ukraine’s history is fascinating, but its countryside, cut through by the Dniepr River, is equally so.

The issues that the country currently faces are far beyond the scope and focus of this blog, but there is one glaring overlap of concern.  On April 28, 1986, almost exactly 30 years ago, an accident occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, in what was then Soviet Ukraine, that spewed contaminated radioactive waste over a large swath of the surrounding region. The people that lived in the region (which includes part of modern Belarus) were eventually evacuated, and the subsequent “exclusion zone” has existed without humans ever since.  Other, wilder animals have since returned and multiplied to fill the void.  It is an amazing place to see now, but we still don’t know what it will really mean for these animals to live in a place that we have, so literally, trashed.

I feel as if I’ve strayed far from the Monocacy, but looking for beauty in disaster, questioning our human influence on nature, those are some reasons why I write.  And when someone shared with me this story from Reuters, although it focuses on the zone in Belarus, I felt that I should pass it on.  The pictures and video are, like Ukraine, heartbreakingly complicated and beautiful.