Kyiv’s Magnolias

The Botanical Garden in Kyiv has beautiful magnolias. They would be in bloom about this time of year, unfolding to face the threatening sky overhead in bright, bold defiance.


You took me to see them last year. We walked among the tourists and families and fotosessiyas; children weaving limbs through stooping branches, women reaching up, gently guiding flowers down to meet carefully composed expressions, leaning noses into open petals in exaggerated acts of inhalation. Each pose, each background, each movement calculated to create the perfect shot. A symphony of smiles and scents in this weekend ritual of documenting the good life. We perched on the sloping grass, dusted with flecks of white and soft pink. Petals that have not yet fallen fold and fit together like origami leaves.


Your words stir the memory and I hold it in mind as you recount your day:


‘Fine, thank you. Only one siren this afternoon. But we’ve run out of craft paper, so I’m not sure how we’ll keep the kids amused if we have to go back down tonight. How are you?’


How am I? I didn’t spend any time contemplating childcare strategies in a bomb shelter, surrounded by fatigued parents praying for loved ones, or for some miracle of signal that might render the iPad a viable underground entertainment option.


‘I’m fine.’


I am watching the magnolia tree in my garden. It is young, but very strong. My father planted it before he died.


I remember reading once about why magnolia flowers are so strong. The ancient Magnolia genus appeared long before bees, so its flowers evolved to encourage pollination by other insects. To avoid damage from the weight of pollinating beetles – less delicate than the breezy, bumbling bee – the carpels of magnolia flowers evolved to be extremely tough.


I return to your voice, though my gaze remains fixed on the tree, swaying vigorously in the bitter wind. Petals ripple and flap, somehow withstanding the strength of the gusts. I think about our friends, bearing the weight of events in their own turbulent lives – forced from their homes, their towns, their families; some displaced internally, others scattered across various European cities. Held together by the strength of common, unwavering resolve.


Tomorrow, you say, you are going back to Kyiv. I do not argue. When we hang up, I refrain from checking for updates on the latest strike in the capital. It has taken me four weeks to learn that being more ‘informed’ does mean worrying less. If anything, the correlation is inverse.


Searching for distraction, I begin reading about the primary pollinators of magnolia trees today. I go down a research rabbit hole – papers published in scientific journals, latest releases from the best-known horticultural societies. It is more friendly than Twitter, this online burrow. I’m linked from one site to another, stumbling through a maze of overly long technical terms, Latin names and complex classification systems. I understand maybe one out of every five words.


Now, I am reading about the distribution of Magnolia genera across the globe. Because the species is ancient and has survived many geological events – ice ages, mountain formation, continental drifts – its distribution has become scattered.


Diaspeirō, ‘to scatter’ – the Ancient Greek from which ‘diaspora’ is formed. Various lecture topics crowd my mind: great migrations, battles for the Steppe, the breakup and reformation of empires, nations, and states; cultures and people spread across disparate lands, across man-made and-remade borders, continually shifting...


I read the following:


[Some groups of species have been isolated for a long time, while others stay in close contact. To create divisions within the genus Magnolia, solely based upon morphological characters, has proven to be a nearly impossible task.]


‘A nearly impossible task’. I’ve heard that phrase uttered more than once in recent weeks.


I learn that taxonomists, like cultural historians, are fascinated by origins and relationships between groups. The natural range of the Magnolia species is a ‘disjunct distribution’. This means it has two or more groups that are related but separated from each other geographically. Taxonomists, apparently, ‘have often used the differences, or perceived differences, in Magnolia fruit characters to justify systems for classification’.


I keep reading, eyes scanning left to right, but nothing is going in anymore. Instead, excerpts from vindictive press conferences force their way into my thoughts. Historical ‘truths’ to justify the elision of difference. Using perceived ‘unities’ to justify systems for classification. To justify systems for oppression.


My online quest for distraction no longer feels quite so diverting. Instead of diversion, it has brought me back to coercion and other forms of information subversion and, frankly, I may as well reopen Twitter for reminders of those eternally contemporary delights. I close my laptop. A gust hurtles through the open window, sending my half-drawn curtain billowing out like a trapped sail. Sheets fly off my desk. Outside, their fluttering descent is matched by the corkscrew whorl of dozens of smaller white leaves torn from star-shaped configurations, arching back and forth before landing, confetti-like, on the uncultivated borders. It is still only March.


It is still so early on.


A haptic buzz brings me back to the room, the light from my homescreen drawing me once again into the unrelenting news cycle. The latest notification: ‘Klitschko announces 35-hour curfew for Kyiv.’


So you won’t be heading back to the capital. Not for another two nights, at least. That buys me a little more time – a little more time of this low-level anxiety; not feeling the need to check in every hour, breathing more or less freely each time the two ticks take longer than normal to materialise – a little more time before something more pervasive takes root….


Even then, central Kyiv is hardly the most dangerous place to be. My nerves pale in comparison to the dread that countless parents, children, spouses and lovers have endured over the past twenty-six days, feeling simultaneously chained to and let down by our imperfect systems of accessing information.


‘Maybe it’s a signal blackout…’


‘Maybe their phone’s out of charge...’


Maybe one day the operators will invent a way of telling the difference, of determining the reason for each undelivered message. Maybe we will not want to know.


In the meantime, I will continue to watch the magnolia tree outside my window. I hope you get to see it this year. I hope the petals hold on until you arrive. I hope for a lot of things.


I console myself: even if the too-strong springtime wind scatters every petal before you make it here, they will return, equally brilliant, next year.


I have no doubt in the evolutionary toughness of magnolia flowers. Already, they have done a remarkable job of proving their strength. They deserve the respect of the entire botanical world.