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    persimmons glowing in the sun

    The War and the Fruit Trees

    Ecovillages in western Ukraine are finding creative ways to support their country without picking up weapons.

    By Ben Cribbin

    November 26, 2022
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    • Karen Cowell

      What a lovely story and so hopeful in a place that is going through such hard times. It truly shows the resilience, stamina and courage of people in times of uncertainty.

    • Reba

      Of course it's very good to offer a nonviolent response to the war in Ukraine, however, if the fellow in the article is only responding nonviolently until he is called to fight, the point must be made that his response is not about finding a nonviolent way to respond, it's about offering humanitarian aid. Humanitarian aid is necessary and by nature nonviolent, but to use the term nonviolence in this way is misleading and dishonest to the long history of those committed to nonviolence as a way of life.

    Mark speaks to me from a house he built with his own hands. The walls are an earthy brown, made from clay, stones, reeds, and grass he has gathered. Nearby are the primeval beech forests of the Carpathian Mountains that he has worked to protect from illegal logging. The house makes me think of a hermit’s hut, but anyone familiar with Mark knows he’s unlikely to spend the day alone or in contemplation. He’s always making or growing something, always enthused about the community he has been dreaming of building for eight years. And now he’s channeling this same enthusiasm toward finding ways to serve his country without picking up arms.

    It’s not that Mark is an avowed pacifist. An uncertainty comes into his eyes as he answers my question about joining the Ukrainian Army. “At any moment I could get a letter,” he tells me. “It will be sad if I die and my parents are left all alone. But anyway, I am here and not hiding.”

    Mark in front of the house he built

    Mark in front of the house he built. Photographs from My Ukrainian Dream on Instagram.

    He turns the screen around to show me the view from his window. If I didn’t know better, I would just see a patch of unkempt land, straggly trees, and rocky ledges. Yet I am aware that surrounding Mark’s house are dozens of peach and persimmon trees and even kiwi vines that he has been growing for the last three years. Somewhere down there are the grapevines that, he says, didn’t turn out as well as he wanted this year. He’ll try again next year. The fruit he can spare he takes to the local hospital, which is filled with wounded soldiers. “Last time I went, the hospital already had enough fruit,” he says, smiling ruefully. “Everyone else who had extra fruit had donated it all.”

    Listening to Mark, I hear someone who pursues wholeheartedly what he sees is good for the world, someone willing to leave behind an ordinary life in pursuit of his vision. This has led him to create a modest but life-giving project: his house of clay and fields of fruit trees are a place to welcome volunteers from across Ukraine interested in taking part in his “Ukrainian Dream.”

    These volunteers find the work hard but rewarding. Ulya Yatsenko, a young Ukrainian artist, first visited Mark’s project after dropping out of university. She was attracted to his unconventional lifestyle. “I was trying to find a way to live outside the expected social frame of ‘university, then career,’” she says. “I believe that people living this way can have a powerful impact on the development of environmental consciousness in Ukraine.”

    Mark is just one of many Ukrainians finding ways to serve their country nonviolently. Officially, all Ukrainian men aged eighteen to sixty are eligible for the military draft, though media reports suggest that in practice conscription has been somewhat haphazard, and many eligible men have not yet been called up to fight. Meanwhile, across Ukraine, networks of communities and ecovillages are taking in refugees, growing extra food, and offering fellow Ukrainians a place to heal away from the alarms and rocket attacks.

    persimmons glowing in the sun

    Persimmons on Mark's property.

    One network of ecovillages nicknamed “the Green Road” has been particularly active. Early in the war they opened their doors to refugees fleeing from the east, providing bedding, warm clothes, fuel, and medicine, routing donations from ecovillage networks abroad.

    Once it became clear that the war would not end soon, these ecovillages started to think long-term, welcoming refugees to live as part of their communities. Since the war began, they have provided a home for at least fourteen hundred refugees, renovating more than sixty abandoned houses to provide accommodation for the new arrivals. Many of the refugees have already become productive members of the community. Sasha, a carpenter from Kharkiv, builds furniture for the new residents in one ecovillage. Others help gather wheat, restore old wells, and install greenhouses.

    With the bombs still flying and no end in sight, these communities are already finding ways to heal and restore their nation. Max Zalevski, a writer and prominent member of the Green Road network, believes that this kind of work is essential for Ukraine’s spiritual survival. “Emotionally, you can also kill yourself even in sufficient safety,” he says. “And there are people who do it quite often. You can decompose, and devalue yourself several times a day. It becomes a habit, over time.”

    At his home in the west of Ukraine, Mark is looking to the future. “Life and war will continue,” he says, “and we need to find a way to live with that.” He has dreams of turning his orchards into a fully-fledged business and hopes that when the war ends many Ukrainians will buy saplings from him to start their own orchards. He also hopes that when the war is over its veterans will volunteer at his place and get a chance to heal in the quiet mountains. For the moment, at least until a letter from the Ukrainian Army arrives, he is able to tend his orchards, welcome volunteers, and serve his country in the way he has chosen.

    Contributed By placeholder Ben Cribbin

    Ben Cribbin, originally from Guildford in the United Kingdom, is a writer living in an eco-community in northern Germany.

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