There are tomatoes growing in Siberia. Not one or two, but tonnes. Cucumbers, lettuce, and tomatoes are spreading lush green walls inside polytunnels, in year-round temperate warmth of twenty degrees Celsius. Above these plants, there are three layers of clear plastic which allow precisely 94% of sunlight to enter. Below these plants, below ground, there is underlying permafrost. The tomatoes are fat and deep red, the kind that sit heavily in the hand. The first batch, which went on sale at a local supermarket, sold out in a few hours.
It’s hard to perceive this warm ripe soft flesh as the fruit of global, technical, capital, and environmental forces, but these tomatoes – grown locally and year-round for the Yakutian market – are a feat of technology. If the polytunnels’ heaters failed for even a short time, an entire year’s labour would wither. The plants are products of a collaboration between Russian and Japanese investors, pollinated by imported British bees. Each rootlet and stamen is coddled in the warmth of a Marelli generator which depends on a MWM TCG 2020 V20 engine which runs on natural gas via a processor constructed by Electrosystems Ltd, which is controlled by a company known as TEM/EVO. Everything is exquisitely calibrated. The growers produce readings of nitrate concentrations in the ripe fruit. Year on year, they are growing more and more fresh vegetables here. The growing itself is growing.
There’s something disturbing about these tomatoes that are grown on frozen land, so far from what is thought of as their natural habitat. I remember once, in a city in Sicily, I noticed a tomato plant which had sprouted like a weed from a crack in a paving stone, its fruits ripening against a warm wall. It was memorable because I’d never seen tomatoes growing like that before – without help. Even in Yorkshire in the north of England, where I live, in a much warmer climate, tomatoes need human care. We sprout them from seeds indoors, in compost, watered on a windowsill. The seedlings can be moved outside in late spring. We feed them with liquid nitrates and pinch them out and tie them in. To see tomatoes thriving in the permafrost is strange and new. Perhaps what is disturbing about it is the fact that it’s beautiful. Pictures of the polytunnels at Syrdakh, outside Yakutsk, show them lit up with soft yellow light in the blue dark, dappled leafy shapes sunk through moon and stars and snow. In this environment, the tomatoes float free of the accepted laws of seasons and environment – of time and space. They float free of what I know as natural laws. But in reality, inside the polytunnels, they’re not actually floating: these tomatoes germinate over ground ice. The conditions of this landscape make them possible. They sprout here, in this environment. Making sense of them means bending, stretching, or inverting the conventions of ordered, regulated time and space.
Svetlana Alexievitch, writing on the 1986 disaster at Chernobyl, has described it as a phenomenon which disturbs habitual human approaches to rationalised, linear space and time. She points out that fallout clouds from the reactor drifted across continents within days of the event. She says that the lifespan of the radioactive waste is, from the perspective of human life, eternal. It’s bewildering, and hard to establish or rationalise the scope or scale of these phenomena. ‘We’re still using the old concepts of ‘near and far’, ‘them and us’. But what do ‘near’ and ‘far’ actually mean after Chernobyl’? Alexievitch describes Chernobyl as a disaster that exists in excess of time and space: it swamps a person’s ability to make sense of it.
It was a cataclysm for our minds […] we’ve ended up living in one world, while our minds remain stuck in another. Reality slips away; our consciousness doesn’t have room for it. That’s right. We can’t catch up with reality.
Alexievitch is very clear that what she writes here is not specific to Chernobyl, but a description of ‘the world of Chernobyl’. This is not about radioactivity, but about the reality through which that radioactivity moves. Permafrost terrain, like Alexievitch’s irradiated landscape, exposes a reality that is challenging to thought because its scales and proportions are excessive, and often contradictory to regulated or linear organisation. Yedoma deposits – huge wedges of ice which have been trapped underground for millennia – are melting, in some parts of Siberia, rapidly. Cliffs of organic matter, layered down over thousands of years, have been exposed to the atmosphere. They throw up prehistoric treasures: mammoth ivory or cave lion cubs, preserved intact. They also expose to the air novel viruses. When permafrost collapses in this way, the ancient collides with the sudden. Bacteria and archaea set to work, hemorrhaging carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere; primordial organic matter is disseminated into the future. This is a phenomenon that messes with linear time.
Permafrost also creates disturbances in space. Something that is happening in rural Siberia can issue into the air and end up inside the lungs of a person breathing in Santiago or Antananarivo. In some parts of Siberia, permafrost degradation has created distinctive new features in the landscape: vast sinkholes where melting ice causes the ground to implode. Scientists are still researching these sinkholes to explain and understand them; these are inexplicable lapses in space.
These disturbances of time and space are not academic. They affect lives. When I spoke to people who live and work across Yakutia, I found that I was often listening to experiences of disruption – of near and far, now and then, them and us. All the people I spoke to had things to say about how these disruptions had shaped them, their work, and their relationships with the world and one another.
I met Alëna over Zoom – I was at home in the north of England and she was in Utrecht, Netherlands, though she’s mostly based in Moscow now. Alëna is an artist. She grew up in a small township in eastern Yakutia. Our connection wasn’t great that day. In the background of her room in Utrecht a strange shape kept appearing and vanishing. It was blurred and white, partly transparent and floating above ground. It looked like a phantom – I couldn’t see it, but I could. I’ve never been to Siberia. I asked Alëna to tell me about her daily life there in childhood and she told me about how she had travelled to school on a sled, and the smell of coal in the air.
Recently, she’s been making work that relates to that time in her life. Last year she returned, for the first time in many years, to the town where she grew up. The homecoming was weird to her – not because of the ways in which the community had changed, but because it hadn’t. The roads were still unpaved. There were dogs – some domestic, some feral – running in packs in the streets, just as there had been so many years earlier. When she went to the village store, the shopkeepers were still stocking green bananas from China and Korean noodles. There were no local fruits or vegetables. The greatest visible change was that there were satellite dishes on the side of every home. Those weren’t there when she was growing up. The area still had no internet connection or mobile phone reception.
Travelling back to Yakutia was an experience that interrupted the flow of time. Alëna had the feeling that time was moving in reverse. And the landscape itself defied its national affiliation: her village store is closer to Beijing and Seoul than to Moscow – that’s why the noodles and the green bananas find their way there before central or southern Russian produce. Alëna went down to the river that runs through her town and took some stones from its bed. She braided them into her hair, making a striking, heavy ornament which recalled the ceremonial headwear traditionally worn by Yakut women. She described this to me: intricate silver headdresses with long trailing chains that clink as the wearer moves, making each bodily movement a physical wave, moving through the environment. ‘There is an understanding that this sound can bring a kind of synchronicity with the land’, she told me. And she was thinking: how do we usually interact with stones? ‘Paving stones’. She mimed walking, with her hands. ‘We step on them’. She inverted this, put the ground on her head. It was a playfully serious interaction, the relationship upended. The ground in the hair. The earth in the sky. Near is far away. What’s far is here. The stones that she braided into her hair were quite large. They made a clack-clack sound when she moved her head. After removing them she could still feel the weight of them like a shadow on her scalp. She had the sensation that the past was physically pressing on the present.
I could feel that too, though I’ve never braided heavy stones into my hair. I thought about how particular sensations can linger in the body. The way, after a long drive on the motorway, I see painted white lines behind my eyes as I fall asleep. Or, as a child lying on a bodyboard in the sea for hours at a time, in the evening, lying in bed, the mattress would swell and dip below me. These particular experiences hold on in the body after the physical reality is over. In certain circumstances, the body takes in an impression of its environment. It made sense to me – putting the stones in the hair. It was a way to take on the environment, to allow it to speak in untranslatable clacks and to listen to that. After wearing the stones in her hair, Alëna told me, she had a dream in which many people were scrabbling to steal stones from her local river. When she woke up, she realised that it wasn’t the right thing to have done – to have taken the stones. She returned them to where they had come from. Something had been explained to her. It only became apparent – she made it apparent – by turning her own way of relating to the world on its head.
The white shape bobbed up again, on screen behind Alëna’s shoulders, and I asked her what it was. She laughed and called him into the frame: a pale dog. A Laika, she told me. A Siberian dog, living in her flat in Utrecht. It was his tail I’d seen, moving to and fro behind her. ‘He wants to go out’, she told me, and she let him out.
A few days later I was at home on Zoom again, but this time I was looking into a dark screen, listening to the voice of Nikita, a hydrologist who was speaking from his flat in central Yakutsk. Nikita’s connection was poor, his camera off. Half seriously, he described the absent visuals: he used to have blue hair, and then it was orange…now he was considering a new colour. We discussed options. I endorsed green.
Nikita and I were speaking across a nine-hour time difference. It was morning for me, but evening over there. Even after a long day at work, he was animated and humorous and engaging, responding thoughtfully to my questions about his work and life in Yakutia. Around twenty years ago, he relocated 8000km from Moscow to Yakutsk, he began…and I suggested that this must have been a big move – but he contradicted me. In fact, it takes less time for him to cross that distance by flying back to Moscow than it takes his mother to drive 200km from central Moscow to her dacha outside the city on a Friday afternoon. Weekend traffic – a banal relativity. You know how it is.
Nikita described how his work as a hydrologist fostered odd experiences of time and space. In that, he was similar to Alëna, who had come to the landscape with a very different professional perspective. Nikita and I discussed a paper he had recently published on microbial communities and other biotracers in ground ice. An abundance of chloroflexia bacteria in certain active ice cores is a marker of permafrost carbon feedback. Illuminated on microscope slides, chloroflexia look like strands of kelp – translucent strings, plant-like more than animal. The presence of a high volume of this species in a mud sample, taken from a place where permafrost is melting, reveals that the mud is being translated, in this context to atmospheric methane or carbon dioxide. Their activity skips scales: the bacteria are too small to be seen. And yet, Nikita told me, these minute beings, working away on micromillletres of mud, ‘somewhere in the lost Arctic landscape, will have global influence’. It’s hard to get your head around it.
Nikita’s field research in Yakutia takes place across large regions in which different indigenous populations have sustained traditional lifeways for many years. Hyper-localised practices of sustaining and being sustained by the landscape have endured in some of these places, he told me. From the perspective of a distant, urbanized place – the kind of place I was in, sitting at my laptop looking out the window at brick houses, parked cars, a traffic warden typing something into his smart handset – it would make sense to say that these Yakutian landscapes are places with a profound connection to the past. And yet. These same Yakutian landscapes and their peoples are also experiencing phenomena that seem, to the English imagination, futuristic. Ice melt and warming climates expose these ‘remote’ landscapes to an experience of climate change which is the stuff of speculative fiction, or scientific forecast, here. And yet. In parts of Yakutia, temperatures have risen by several degrees. Ecosystems are repatterning. Nikita found himself explaining these changes to local communities – people who know a particular landscape and its habits much better than he did, but whose reality had melted away beneath their feet. ‘I start with saying that the life practices that perfectly fit into previous reality, they do not fit this new reality’. These are people who know the detail of a place: how to look after birch and spruce forests, to travel safely across the ice in spring, where to find mushrooms in late autumn, how to protect a fire in a winter gale, and where, precisely, to cut a hole in the ice to drop the line for fish. And then, in a single generation, none of this is accessible. Traditional expertise no longer has purchase when the terrain itself mutates. A scientist, sent from Moscow via Yakutsk, might see a context for these changes, when the locality becomes unreadable to those who inhabit it. The contemporary planet shifts and defers the experience of place.
But knowledge and understanding also flow in the other direction, moving from distant provinces to the centralised institutions of science and international governance. Nikita’s current research project, exploring adaptive practices for forestry management, will draw on located indigenous knowledge. The scientists will invite local authorities to show them how they tend the landscape, and will learn about how these practices work for humans and other species. Scientific communities, slowly, are beginning to apprehend a necessity to develop strategies for adaptation to climate change, and understanding that indigenous people have the greatest authority here.
So Nikita’s hydrological work with melting permafrost has an unconventional relationship with time and space. The bacteria here work with skip scales: miniscule beings that cover enormous distances. When he explains shifting climates to provincial Siberian localities, he collapses the distance between near and far, local and global, conceptual and immediate. When he brings Yakut insights to peer-reviewed papers published in English, French, or Russian, he reverses conventional relationships between margin and centre. The margin becomes the authority, minority experience becomes a gold standard for general knowledge. Nikita translates between these things, though the translation is always imperfect. A bacterium’s emissions, the active layer of subsoil where water meets ground ice, a mushroom patch – they all affect one another, but they don’t inhabit the same language. There are things that are thrown up by the permafrost, and things that collide in permafrost landscapes, that are conventionally assigned to different forms of knowledge and imagination: embodied, indigenous, artistic, or scientific. Nikita and Alëna work, in their different ways, across these relationships. What they do is a form of interpretation, following encounters, entanglements, or collisions across differences.
People need to make sense of time and space – to hold some understanding in common. A scientist needs to be able to regulate and measure data so that she can comprehend the changing composition of the atmosphere. A son needs a flight timetable if he is planning to travel from Yakutsk to Moscow to visit his mum. But the realities of life with the permafrost – for a tomato, hydrologist, mammoth tusk, stone, artist, or bacterium – makes weird sinkholes in these rationalised and regulated approaches to time and space. The spaces and timescales over which things are changing are inhuman: too vast and too tiny, all bendy and irregular. Contemporary permafrost contains contradictions. Its permanence is temporary. Its frost is heated. Taking these contradictions and disturbances as a literal and metaphorical ground for all these beings, it’s easier, perhaps, to catch up with the reality in which they all exist – not by trying to rationalise all relationships through one common standard by labelling and categorising in the abstract, but by following how things articulate one another in the active world. They all make sense of one another by the way they make use of one another, like a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. The artist who grew up without fresh fruits and vegetables can tell us why the polytunnel tomato is desirable. The stones showed her, in a dream, what the landscape needed her to do. The hydrologist explains the global phenomenon of climate change to the local community. Indigenous communities pass their caretaking practices to the scientific academy. Mud samples provide a set of numbers that help researchers read, explain, and adapt to a planetary emergency. Bacterium turns organic matter into methane, earth into sky, the ground’s deep past into the air of the future. In England, a trace of methane which comes from the other side of the world drifts above the traffic warden’s head. In Siberia, an iota of carbon dioxide is drawn out of the atmosphere and in through the underside of a tomato leaf, and stored away for the time being.
Daisy Hildyard is an author based in the north of England. Her most recent book, The Second Body (2017), is an essay on how the porous boundaries of the Anthropocene are shaping human experiences. Her first novel, Hunters in the Snow (2014), won a Somerset Maugham Award at the Society of Authors (UK), and a ‘5 Under 35’ honorarium at the National Book Awards (USA). Her new novel, Emergency (2022), tells stories of global connections and human-nonhuman relationships within a small rural area.