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The Ukrainian steppe: more than geography  a life style

 

A recollection from my childhood  Im sitting in the tall grass and looking at the wild flowers that grow in abundance all around me; everything seems so big and full of magic; every stem, every flower, every leaf has something special in them; the fathomless sky is the home of homeless clouds; the thick dust on a dirt road feels so soft and soothing under my bare soles when I walk home; the thunderhead rolls across the sky and in a matter of minutes the day darkens and a thunderstorm breaks out; lightnings hit the ground, big drops of rain make tiny craters in the dust. I dont remember any talk about a rain being eagerly awaited for in my family but I know that people living in the steppe were always looking forward to a good rain. Ive discovered the following entry in my fathers diary, dated Late spring 1947. No rain for the fourth month in a row. Almighty God, help, send us rain No matter what biological theory says about it, I believe that this expectation of rain is genetically passed from generation to generation  whenever I witness a thunderstorm, my heart fills with overflowing joy and I experience a great spiritual uplift.

 

I remember the southern steppes dotted with twenty-five hundred years old Scythian barrows long robbed of their contents; a big salt lake, Syvash, with the marshy shores and crust of salt at the waterfront; we, kids, used to smear ourselves with the Syvash mud; I remember the warbling of a bird in the garden early in the morning as I drove our cow to the pasture; I remember a ride in a horse-drawn sleigh with high banks of snow on both sides of the road, with snowflakes sparkling in the sun from the top of snowdrifts like tiny diamonds; I remember my fathers hunting stories about rabbits and foxes dancing in the snow.

The childhood memory dearest to my heart is my grandmas peasant house in a village lost in the Ahaymanska valley. The house seemed to me to be so handsome both inside and outside. There were icons in the icon corner, with a small, ever-burning oil lamp hanging in front of them; decorative embroidered towels; spotless, white spreads on the beds; cushions with flowers embroidered on them in stain stitch; a white-washed heating stove; the floor neatly covered with a layer of black clay, as was the custom in peasant houses; blue windowsills; plates with very thin pancakes, so thin you could almost see through them; semi-liquid, red cherry jelly in jars; kholodets in the plates with a crust of whitish fat on them (kholodets is a jelly-like dish made by boiling pigs feet, bones and meat for a long time, broth cooled, with pieces of meat and carrots added before it jellies  tr.). In the backyard there was a large coop with chickens and geese and treacherous turkeys walking about; the turkeys used every chance they had to nip my legs whenever I happened to be passing by. Right next to the coop there grew vines, currant and other shrubs. Everything was in perfect order, very carefully taken care of. For some reason I thought things were done at my grandmas with the help of a magic wand. My Grandpa Yukhym was tall, well-built, heavyset man, sparing with speech, good at gardening and growing vegetables. Most of his time he spent at work. One of his concerns was watering that took a lot of time and effort. Grandma Polya was always doing something  I never saw her resting or idle. Even at night I saw her doing something, with an oil lamp burning at her side  sewing (she had an ancient Singer sewing machine); laundering the bed sheets in a trough; kneading the dough in a vat; weaving yarn at her loom, or knitting socks. Once she made a doll for me, using pieces of fabric and cotton wool to stuff it with. She is no longer with the living  she lived long enough to baby-sit great-grandchildren, and I still remember very vividly that doll, a gift straight from the heart.

My mother, when still very young, married an agronomist, a learned man by the village standards. In jest, he called himself and the likes of him bare-feet intelligentsia. My parents ancestors were originally from the village of Znamyanka on the bank of the Dnipro River, in the land of Zaporizhzhya, and they, and those who migrated with them, called the village they founded in the steppe Novoznamyanka, or New Znamyanka. The villagers were famous for being hard-working, conscientious, and energetic. In the arid steppe, they dug wells, sinking them very deep into the ground, they grew grain and corn, fruits and grapes. They grew sweet melons of great size and sweetness, and in the fall, they cooked what they called bekmes  a gooey honey-like food  in huge cauldrons.

Our neighbour, named Olena, had an icon, The Mother of God (The Virgin Mary) that was used during church weddings. At least four generations of women in her hereditary line were wed with this icon providing wedlock with proper sanctity I remember that once, right at the time of harvest in summer, a grain field caught fire. Even now, so many years later, I seem to hear the tolling and pealing of the bells that came from the churchs belfry alerting people. The whole village rushed to the burning field to help put down the fire. Neighbour Olena joined the rest, but if others carried buckets of water, shovels, spades and whatever else might be useful in fighting fire, she held the icon in front of her, praying as she ran for the Virgin Marys intercession. The fire was put out with no loss of life and not too much damage done to the fields.

I think the Southern Ukrainian steppes have three distinct features that make them a somewhat mysterious phenomenon. The first feature is the seemingly boundless space. The second feature is the sea of grain stretching into infinity. And the third feature is the soul of people who live in the steppe, open-hearted, magnanimous, guileless. They seem to have absorbed the boundlessness of the steppe with their mothers milk. Those who were born in peasant houses or in the field at the haystack, have hearts that know not any bounds or restrictions, and eyes that always peer into the distance.

My other Grandma, Nadiya, spites her age and continues to work in her vegetable garden and in the orchard. This hundred-year old woman, bent with age and years of hard work, pulls weeds out of the ground with her hands, black with dirt that doesnt get washed off; digs, hoes, waters and does so many other things that need to be done, day in and day out. Talking to her is a joy which she freely gives you through her blue eyes, her smile on the wrinkled face. Whenever I talk to her, I feel serenity and tranquillity descend upon me as though Ive said a prayer.

In the garden of my parents house there are many bushes of roses and dahlias; in the basements, there stand barrels filled with pickled cucumbers, apples, pears, and sweet melons. These melons are a special treat for me. And bread that my mom makes at home. It is amazingly soft, fluffy, fragrant and scrumptious, particularly when it has been freshly pulled out of the oven. My mothers bread and pastry tasted better than any Ive ever tried. When asked, whether there was any secret recipe or a special way of making bread, she simply said, No, no secret, nothing special except, may be, for this  when youre kneading dough, you have to do it so vigorously that several times your brow is to be richly covered in beads of sweat before it is ready to go to the oven to be baked.

I liked to watch my father working in his apiary  the smoker to quell the bees while he was removing the completed super; a veil to protect the face; the comb frames which father pulled out and gave them to us, my brother and I, to be taken to the extractor, in which centrifugal force removed honey from the cells without damaging them. We turned the handle of the extractor, feeling calluses form on our palms, and watched the fragrant, amber-coloured honey pouring into a container for it. The droning of bees, the slow oozing of honey are so much alive in my memory. And what a great delight is a piece of freshly baked bread, with honey thick on it and a glass of milk, still warm from the cow!

Once, a peasant, walking across the field, stopped by a haystack, and feeling suddenly tired, sat down, and leaning against the hay, smoked a cigarette. The cigarette butt he threw away, was not quite extinguished, and when the man walked away, a tiny spark sprang from one straw to another, and soon the haystack was ablaze. The fire spread across the field and when the villagers rushed to prevent it from spreading any further, the man who actually started the fire, was ahead of everyone else, running and shouting, Oh my God, Im to blame for it! Take me to court! Punish me! And he fought the fire at the most dangerous places. But nobody seemed to listen to him then, and later no one ever mentioned the incident again.

 

A huge sun is slowly sinking towards the horizon. Its so hot it seems that the moment the sun touches the skyline, the steppe will go up in flames. As the sun disappears, the steppe changes colour and begins to look like a lilac-coloured ocean. Time passes but the steppe does not seem to change. In my memory, in the photographs of my parents and grandparents, in the fragrances of the grasses, in the golden sunflowers, and in the endless grain fields the steppe remains the same. In my mind I keep coming back to it.

 

More photos

 

By Nika Kryzhanivska

 

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