Watering the planet: My garden, climate crisis and what love’s got to do with it

The news can be a little overwhelming these days. Did I say “a little”? “A lot” is what I meant. Last week, after only a few minutes of scrolling through my newsfeed, I got a sudden urge to throw away my phone. Instead, I turned it off and said to my son: “I need a break. I’ll go and water the planet.”

“The planet?” he raised his eyebrows. “That’s ambitious.”

What I meant, of course, was “the plants.” But as I was watering tomatoes and peppers in my balcony garden, I started thinking about California, Oregon and Washington and the amount of watering our planet requires to fight recurring wildfires all across the world, which are becoming more extensive and destructive as a result of climate crisis.

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Close-up magic or my search for a fern flower

July 7th is Ivana Kupala, a traditional holiday celebrated in some Eastern European countries. That is according to the old Julian calendar, which is still used for holidays (that’s why Christmas is on January 7th and there is such thing as old New Year where I come from). According to the Gregorian calendar, the one we use today, that would correspond to June 24th making Ivana Kupala a summer solstice celebration. So no surprise that most of the activities happen on the night from July 6th to 7th, one of the shortest of the year.

Ivana Kupala (roughly translates as John the Bather) is a pre-Christian holiday associated with fertility and purification. Many of the rituals involve water and fire, which have sacral qualities on this night. Once Christianity was introduced, the day was renamed St. John the Baptist (I guess both have John and bathing in common). The old traditions, however, never fully disappeared. The holiday is still often referred to as Ivana Kupala fest and many of the rituals, like making flower wreaths and letting them float down the water or jumping through a bonfire, are featured at celebrations in Ukraine and other places in Eastern Europe.

Ivana Kupala festivities aside, many Ukrainian religious celebrations incorporate pre-Christian traditions. On this day, for instance, my grandparents decorated their house and gates with flowers. Pentecost is called the Green Fest and involves bringing branches of linden into the house. The centrepiece at Christmas Eve dinner is a wheat sheaf called Diduch symbolizing the spirit of our ancestors. Some of it could be explained by a relatively young age of Christianity in Ukraine. Most probably, it’s because our connection to nature is impossible to eradicate since we are part of it. My childhood visits with my grandparents involved many trips to church but religion, somehow, never really took root. Instead, forests and meadows became my cathedral and I learned to look for God in nature and see miracles between blades of grass and flower petals.

One of the activities on Ivana Kupala features a search for a fern flower. It is rumoured to blossom on this night only and will bring luck and happiness to the one who finds it. And while it’s not scientifically possible, it is a beautiful metaphor for our quest for magic, which is all around us if only we look close enough.


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The Nature of Freedom

Nature has always been a big part of my life. Even though I grew up in the city, I used to spend most of my summers at my grandparents’. They lived in a small village encircled by deep woods. Their house backed onto a large garden plot cut off by the narrow ribbon of a crystal-clear, ice-cold stream. On the other side of it was an orchard with apple and pear trees. I loved to spend my Sunday afternoons lying in the tall grass, munching on apples and pears I’d just found on the ground, weaving flower wreaths and watching the clouds floating above.


The orchard gradually melted into the forest. That’s where we roamed with my friends (long before we turned ten), foraging for mushrooms, wild strawberries and hazel nuts. The forest was not scary and unknown. I was a magical place full of life, beauty and tasty surprises. I still remember the sound of twigs  crunching under our feet, the joy of finding mushrooms under last year’s leaves, the sweet taste of wild strawberries and raspberries melting in my mouth, the smell of spearmint that I liked to pick along the stream and rub between my palms.

Some days we would scale cherry trees that grew in a communal orchard, saddle one of the highest branches and spend hours eating cherries and spitting out pits. Or we would find a mulberry tree, pick it clean and come back home all stained and full of juicy goodness.

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In the afternoon, most of the kids in the village would take cows to pasture. We would take turns watching each other’s cattle, start fire and roast apples and corn. We would stay in the meadow late into the evening, sometimes coming back as it was already getting dark, met by our grandparents and parents’ reproachful “Do you know what time it is? We still need to milk the cows.”

That was the thing, though. We never knew the time. Those summer days weren’t measured in minutes and hours. They were fluid, slow, and unhurried. When I think of those summers I spent at my grandparents’, the things that usually come to mind are the warm smell of the earth, the cooling breeze in the woods, not having to wear shoes for weeks in a row, and the feeling of freedom.


Now as I watch my kids grow, I want them to experience the same connection to nature and feeling of freedom I was lucky to have when I was little. I want them to know that it’s not us versus nature and that we don’t need to protect ourselves from it. That nothing they will see on a screen comes close to the fascinating sights, smells and sounds of forests, lakes, mountains and oceans. That mosquito bites and getting soaked in the rain are a small price to pay for all the benefits we receive when we spend time outdoors (plus getting caught in the rain can be quite fun).

I can see it working when they don’t want to go home at the end of each camping trip. When my 17-year-old son keeps asking where we are going next. When our 10-year-old refuses to wear shoes. When they stop to study a flower or listen to a bird. When they pick up berries in the woods and say those taste like nothing we could ever get in a store. When my younger son wants to wake up early and go canoeing with me. When my older son brings pictures of a sunrise from his, now independent of us, travels.

I hope this feeling of fascination and freedom stays with them when they grow up.

P.S. I took the pictures during my trip back home a few years ago. Unfortunately, the beautiful forest of my childhood looked much thinner due to excessive logging. As in other parts of the world, economic development is taking priority over environmental protection.

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