Exploring an unfamiliar trail, I saw plastic sunflowers tucked into cracks in every park bench. Sunflowers adorn murals, sidewalks, billboards, T-shirts, and social media profile pictures. Since Russia invaded on Feb. 24, images of Ukraine’s national flower surround us as a sign of our support. Not till summer will the real blooms turn fields as yellow as the lower half of the Ukrainian flag, beneath a clear blue sky.
Big, bright sunflowers have deep roots in Ukrainian art and folklore. Grown for their seeds in Mexico, New Mexico, and Arizona for thousands of years, they were introduced to Europe in the early 1500s. They flourished in Ukraine’s hot, dry climate and rich soil. Sunflower seed oil was especially welcome during Lent, when the Orthodox Church forbade eating foods made with animal products such as butter or lard.
Ukraine is the largest exporter of sunflower oil, accounting for nearly half the global supply. Russia comes second, with nearly a quarter. Disruptions to production and trade are having ripple effects on vegetable oil availability and prices worldwide, similar to what’s happening with a different kind of oil at the gas pump. The war touches us all, but most of all the suffering people of Ukraine.
Spring! The song of robins and the throaty call of sandhill cranes lift our spirits with the bounty, beauty, and beneficence of nature. Mother Earth sustains and nourishes us. Barring human interference, she fills our every need.
Last month I mentioned a course on ancient Mesopotamia in connection with marshes. For the Sumerians and their successors, nature was how the gods expressed their anger. Having created humans to dig irrigation canals, gods punished or tried to destroy their irksome creation with storms, plagues, famines, and floods—not for moral failings but for making too much noise. Far from wanting a closer relationship with the deities, people brought prayers and votive offerings to try to fend off their wrath.
Who got it right? Are the wonders of nature the gifts of a loving planet, which needs our tender stewardship? Or mighty, capricious dangers from powers we wish would leave us alone? Both and neither. We have sunshine and showers, blizzards and tornadoes. Earth doesn’t care. How we treat it matters not to the planet but to humans now and for generations to come.
Image: Akkadian cylinder seal depicts the deities Inanna, Utu, Enki, and Isimud, 2300 BC. British Museum.
I was a child when Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest in November 1956. I only noticed because our parents helped host Hungarian refugees who fled to Pittsburgh, seventy miles north of our home. A student protest had grown into a Hungary-wide uprising against Russian control. Brutal repression by the USSR left thousands dead.
Twelve years later, troops and tanks invaded Czechoslovakia, another Soviet satellite. I had fallen in love with Prague while researching a term paper on medieval Bohemia. A visit deepened my affection. Czech culture flourished in the “Prague Spring” of 1968, with an end to censorship and travel restrictions. I grieved at the Russian-led invasion that August and the clampdown that followed.
This year in Ukraine, it’s déjà vu all over again. Did we misread the Cold War so badly that we thought its end meant an end to Russian aggression? Did we imagine the biggest Russian fault lay in its economic system, abandoned after 1991? Russia’s main threat to the rest of us was an authoritarian, totalitarian regime that used blatant violence to repress dissent and to impose its power over supposedly independent countries. Little of that has changed.
Image: Soviet tank in Prague's Wenceslas Square, August 21, 1968. (AP Photo/Peter Winterbach)
Japan had its samurai. Western Europe, its knights in shining armor. North America, its cowboys of the Wild West. Ukraine, its Cossacks toward the western end of the great Eurasian Steppe. All different, each distinctive to its country or region, these figures of history and legend still shine through their respective cultures.
Cossacks (Turkic for “free man” or “adventurer”) moved from many directions into the sparsely populated grasslands north of the Black Sea, starting in the 1500s or earlier. Some were fleeing serfdom. Some were criminal fugitives. All were welcomed as equals without reference to personal history. Living as a democracy, bound by resistance to authority, they became known as fierce warriors and brilliant horsemen. Legend said a Cossack could catch an approaching bullet with his bare hand.
I’ve read that to tell a child to be brave, Ukrainian parents may say, “Be a Cossack.” If that’s true, recent events suggest Ukrainians have taken that saying to heart.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.