July 26, 2020

The Comet above the Cherry Tree

One of my earliest memories is looking at the comet. My father told us there was a comet in the sky and we should definitely look at it. As I know now, it was Comet Hale–Bopp, the great comet of 1997, which was visible to the naked eye. But then I was only four years old and all I remember is how my parents, my grandmother and I were standing under the cherry tree in our backyard and staring at something called the comet in the dark night sky. I do not remember the comet itself but I was sure that thing was very important.

Last week I came to my father’s house, the place where I was born and spent the first years of my life. On the last evening there was a clear sky, so my father and I went to the backyard to look at the comet. Same as it was twenty three years ago except now it was only two of us. My mother now lives in a different region because of the divorce and my grandmother is sick and cannot be up in the middle of the night.

This comet is called NEOWISE and it is also visible to the naked eye. Of course, looking at the comet with only the naked eye is far not so exciting as you may picture it after having a look at the photos of comets made by professional astrophotographers. But the significance of that is the understanding that you are able to look into the distant deep space with your own eyes and to see the striking miracle of nature. Next time this comet will be visible in 6800 years.

You should definitely try to look at the comet while it is still visible. It is very easy to find but it requires a clean sky with minimal light pollution. It looks like a very pale long cloud.

My father is a person who taught me to love the starry skies and books. And they still remain the greatest passions of my life. When I was nine I was sure I would become an astronomer when I grew up. I could name any planet of the Solar System along with its characteristics and its satellites, any constellation in the sky, lots of stars with their spectral type and many more of other things about comets and asteroids, black holes and supernovas. And I got so annoyed when other kids said things like, “An astronomer? Do you want to make zodiac forecasts?” or “Cool! I am a Capricorn and what’s your sign?” Now I hear that from the adults which is even more annoying.

My father grows the grapes and they wreath around the metal framework in front of the house making a henge fence roof. The framework was initially used for the wedding tent for my parents’ wedding and it still stands all covered with the grape sprouts. My father can talk for hours about grape varieties he grows. And also he makes wine out of it. When I was a kid I made labels for his wine bottles and gave them the names of the red giant stars: Betelgeuse, Arcturus, Antares, Aldebaran...

The grapes (2020)

There is a small library in the house that was collected by my father. Most of the books are science fiction, something about life in galaxies far, far away or about some theories of nature sciences in action. That is how I actually discovered “Jurassic Park”. My father gave this novel to me. So for me it is first of all, a novel, not a movie. I really enjoyed reading it in middle school. Also, the famous sci-fi “Starship Troopers” about the war with the giant alien bugs is a novel for me that I found in my father’s book collection as well.

I believe my father has the soul of a scientist. He studied geophysics at the university and my mom was his groupmate. They were supposed to work as scientists in geological exploration works. But the year of their graduation coincided with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. And it turned out that our new country does not need either geophysicists, or scientists in general. My parents survived by selling the vegetables they grew and my father also worked as a watchman at the railway station. My mother got her first job only in seven years after her graduation and that was the lowest wage office job. My earliest years were the time of empty shelves in the local stores. There is one detail that stands out in my mind about that. My mom told me that she’s got a bowl to feed me being a baby not in a market or a store, but in a sand-pit.


So the greatest treasure of our poor house was a bookcase. Even though my parents would definitely say it was TV or a fridge. Every night my mom read me a fairy tale. I refused to sleep without one. And there were so many of them that they almost never repeat. Lots of them were in verse and after a few readings I could learn them completely by heart and then recite them. And that is how I learned the language of poetry which is “the native language of humanity”, as it was said by Johann Herder, the German philosopher. And since my parents spoke Ukrainian in their daily life, but almost all the books we had were in Russian, I became bilingual. My mother often was so tired in the evening that she fell asleep before she read the end of a tale, that is why I learned how to read two years before school just to be able to read whenever I want.

My father’s house is located in the small settlement in Central Ukraine which is half an hour drive away from the Dnipro river. I remember we had a long walk along the shore a few years ago. My father stepped on a large stone and asked, “Do you know what this is?” — “What?” — “This is the edge of the Ukrainian Crystalline Shield, the earliest layer of the ground”.

A photo I took at that moment (2012)

Also we had a walk in a trough valley which is not far away from our house. It is something similar to a ravine but with gentle slopes. And there are two streets at both sides of it. My father says the valleys like this one were formed during the Ice Age. They are the places where the ancient glaciers were located. Central Ukrainian landscapes are endless fields but they are not plain. There are lots of huge downhills that appeared here because these lands once were an edge of the ever frozen ground.


The village was built in the 60's. That was a time when the Middle Dnipro Hydroelectric station was constructed, so the village where my grandparents lived before was drowned and they got a piece of land in the new village. My grandfather built a house where we live now. And lots of things there are exactly the same as they were decades ago, when he died. Same furniture, same backyard, same plates on the kitchen, same tools in the garage. And it is not because we keep things for the memories, but because it is too expensive to buy the new ones. The time has stopped in this place. And the same is for the entire village. Each family should grow vegetables and meat themselves as it was in the old times, otherwise, it is impossible to survive. That is why I was surprised to find out that it is possible to grow potatoes for fun. Here we are taught to work in the field from childhood and every village kid knows what it means to weed out the potato field in the unbearable heat. There are still no asphalt roads, no wastewater disposal, not enough goods in stores, no kindergartens, no good mobile connection in my father's village. On average, water is available only for a few hours per day. Lots of services including healthcare are only available in closest towns, but the number of transportation routes reduces each year. Many people are unemployed or are paid with minimum wage. Lots of families, including our family, have strong issues with the alcohol. Our closest neighbours are thieves and convicts.


And poverty changes people's personalities. They become suspicious of each other and also extremely superstitious. They have rough manners without any sense of personal boundaries. Your personal life is not a territory where one kindly asks permission to enter but it is broken into with a door kicked in. Inside the family they do not ask, but they demand or even make orders. And that also means there are punishments. They are constantly irritated with each other, that is why they always talk sarcastically and abusively to each other.

Young masters, if you only knew How people weep there all life through, You’d not compose your rhapsodies, And God for nothing you’d not praise, Nor mock our tears by twisting truth. That tranquil cottage in the grove You call a paradise — I know. In such a cottage once I dwelt, It was there my first hot tears were spilt, My early tears! I know no vice, No wrong or ill, however rare, That’s not found in that cottage fair…

Taras Shevchenko (1850)

This poem is required to learn by heart at any Ukrainian school. And I can understand its meaning only now. Every time I come to the village because of missing the family, it reminds me why I ran away from there and why I will never come back. My cousin ran away to Germany and by her thought, to be humiliated by the Germans for being a person from an undeveloped country is lesser evil than to live in the Ukrainian village.

I'm writing this story on the train Dnipro — Kyiv. The land has already fallen into the evening darkness. The thin crescent moon hangs low on the horizon. Countless villages sweep past me shining with lights like stars in the night sky. And I am like a comet which only passes by and there is no place for it here.


Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

Blue lakes in nearly 50 km away from our village
Grandma’s flowers
One of grandma’s cats
Dnirpo city
It is one of the largest industrial centers of the country