by Ilia Dolgov
A chapter from the book "Sciaponics: The Work of Shadows".
Story of lupins' disease, graceful causation, and the Sciacupid emergence.
More about the book.
Translated from Russian by Lisa Biletska.
Let us leave sounds for smells. There are two. One light, pale-pink, honey-floral; one cold, murmured, earthy-musty.
The pale honey greets you just as soon as the silly barn lock is unfastened and the patched wooden door of the flower workshop stands ajar. It fills the place hazily, omnipresently, its lilac levity in no way compatible with what is encountered beyond: metal shelving, plastic containers, tools, solid half-light. The smell festively tickles the nose and coaxes thoughts of sunstroked verges and glades. Sometimes, if it’s cold, the honeyed, mist-layered nebule contracts to tiny auroral fists, clutching a no-longer-tickling sweetness of iced chill.
The cool earthy smell must be roused. One needs to remove, one after another, various mantles and covers, needs to pour rain and dig in with the hands. Unlike the previous honeyed one, this essence is changeful and coiled. Its humor depends on things it absorbed yesterday, a week, or a month ago, on their established relations. Sometimes it brings maple-leaf rot, sometimes white mycelia, then cardboard packaging, or club-rush, or trailing red slime. A filtering mask is best practice—we are dealing with something both calm and contagious. The covers and mantles are put back in reverse order, and the essence noiselessly settles into its dark, digesting whisper. We don’t know what we’ll find here next time.
What could happen?
Predatory soil mites eat the container’s resident springtails and expend themselves.
One minute of watering is added; the roots of the sea mustard can’t breathe; the shoot is thirsty, yellows, loses leaves.
The humus-rich substrate, forgetting the trouble with mites, attracts tiny, tattered fungus gnats.
An evening exchange triggers stunned coils-impressions; at night they unfold and expand into bad dreams.
Seedlings slightly affected by Fusarium are transplanted into a new substrate and treated with potions. 30% die from the treatment, not the disease.
An awkward movement, and a delicate leaf breaks a fragile petiole, vessels tear.
A three-year-old plant prepares its blooming debut. The first flower lasts two days, as is typical of the species, then wilts. The second bud is just about ready to open, and wilts, remaining forever closed. A misjudgment of strength.
An equipment delivery: half was forgotten, half was mixed up. A second time, a third, a fourth. City traditions. Viscous cloud of sudden feeling. After a fifth attempt, something inside dies, something is born.
Where do indoor pests come from? From bouquets: thrips, aphids, mites, whatever. Where do diseases come from? From fruits and vegetables: rust, dry black rot. From the open window: everything borne by the earth.
The building’s overwintering voles eat Portulaca grandiflora down to the root.
A horticulturess suggests washing down the mites with a hot shower. This helps, but the effect is not as pronounced as was hoped. I use a steamer; the thyme is destroyed along with the mite.
The sea peavine is overladen with living green mass. Shoots wither, pale, lose resistance to others’ hunger. Then, from the root, rise new, bright stems. Then again, the peavine is overladen with green mass. Repetition. Repetition.
The twisting of roots, the self-suffocation of seedlings in nurseries. The self-combustion of grain in elevators.
A certain elegance.
A false choice: the very notion of complexity, I now think, lures with its haughty force, bends one’s attention to something excessively cohesive, makes it too heavy.
In the slow awakening of my connection with my new island habitat, the lupines too played their mediating role. Of course, I couldn't help but collect their seeds. And how could anyone indifferently pass by those velvety-woolly, pearl-dove pods? Not put a couple in a pocket, for later?
The seedlings came up easily, quickly, in chorus. Star-leaves appeared one after another, increasing in size. I learned that the petioles of lupine leaves, though pale unlike the pods, are likewise covered in delicate velvet. I learned that the petiole bases are adorned with two sharp, red stipules.
In spite of Theophrastus’ recommendation that lupines be considered of a wild disposition and averse to care, I had to repot them often in an effort to keep up with their freewheeling growth. I learned that the rhizomes of lupines are strong, juicy, and productive, ready to launch new, above-ground bodies next to the previous ones.
For a long while, I couldn’t understand what the lupines’ wild disposition amounted to—their leaf-palms, despite growing in containers under artificial light, pleased me with their shade, their pattern, their stature.
And so they fell ill. New leaves began appearing less frequently, with diminishing tonus and size. Old leaves began resting on the substrate, to pale, yellow, and rust. At their worst, from the pallid half-living clumps to which they were reduced, the lupines would send out a couple of young but already withered leaves. This worst moment allowed me to understand what exactly was going on with the plants—they turned out to be stricken by fungal infections, certain kinds of powdery mildew and rust. A barely perceptible whitish film on the strong, fresh leaves gradually exhausted them, made them tired and heavy; then they rusted.
My attempts to help involved variations in the plants’ feeding plan. It was assumed that an excess of certain elements or a lack of others leads to friability, softness in leaf tissues, making them especially vulnerable to infection. Enter the ash, horse manure, humates, and other potions which, it seemed, did not greatly ease the lupines’ suffering. Then too, having navigated the worst period, some things they achieved on their own: a sad but viable balance with their infections—a certain ratio between their rate of growth and parasitization—new leaves appeared and developed, though not quickly enough to push out the infection. For its part, the malignant population didn’t lay waste to the lupines so as to totally ruin them.
I liked this viable, but also sad, equilibrium. It seemed to be based on the calm, webbed, effortless work of micro-inbreaths-mini-outbreaths and was not at all counting on the charged, hard blows with scissors, poisons, and smoke that soothe the troubled horticultural mind.
I gratefully observed this effortless work but didn’t abandon opportunities for my own participation in the situation either. I transplanted the lupines into a much larger container, with more nourishing soil (which included a new addition: coffee). I directed a light technogenic stream of air onto the plants—to assist in transpiration and respiration. It was the lupines’ diplomatico-mathematic success in relation to their infection that reframed me; I stopped thinking of my actions as directed, as actions that know of their causes and thirst for results. I began sensing and conceiving of them as actions to soften and drape the place of talks between the plants and the microorganisms. A well-timed glass of water can become an occasion for a fruitful suspension in tense negotiations, and I want my role in sciaponic plots to be such—an occasion, not a driver.
Recently, the lupines have considerably improved in robustness, abundance, and movement. The mildew and rust haven’t gone anywhere, but they’ve receded to the edges of the lupines’ vegetal radiance, adorning leaves that are already worn and bowed.
This viable and less-sad balance, however, for shadowkeeping, is indispensable precisely as a balance, which does not transition into the purity of full recovery.
Outdoors: A late, Baltic May, cold and rainy. The ventilation shaft of the neighboring building steeps the flower workshop in a coarse, barely perceptible (somewhere-along-the-cardboard-of-the-skin) humming.
I prepare a hot drink and take out the cup-and-saucer pairs from my grandmother’s teaset. They’re covered in lustrous glaze, vignettes, galant scenes. In the USSR, for some reason, these scenes were piously called “Madonnas,” though my china (and this is typical) depicts a flirtatious exchange between two women in classical gowns, not without the involvement of a little cupid lurking in the bushes. The lush baroque gilding contrasts with the metal storage racks, the plastic containers, the strict miter saw, and the rest of the dacha-garage atmosphere of the shadowcultural room. I love this contrast but also admit to a narrative premeditation: without a cupid, sciaponics will not occur.
This is hardest of all. It is harder than driving out fungal infections or spidermites (you won’t). It is harder than noticing a fear brought on by a complete absence of insects. Since, if we are shadows, we cannot see. We can’t see the Cupid, the Sciacupid.
(Will I be punished, some day, for these neologisms?)
Let’s talk about shadowloops. Shadowloops are a key metabolic concept in sciaponics. It captures a specific mode of relations; and also a related technique, a technological operation; and also a related feeling, an experience.
We are used to thinking that there are things, and there are relationships between things. The stars and the ray-touches, ray-messages, ray-intrusions they send one another. The shadowloop works differently. It needs the two stars’ relations to become not like strong, threadlike arms, but to be like another, third star. Which, disembodied, turns into a shadow, shrouds others in shadow, makes possible that which earlier wasn’t. All of this happens without a firm plan or desire, often as a side effect. An example so simple that it is, perhaps, rather confusing too: bees, collecting flower nectar, repollinate them, becoming the plants’ shadowloop.
Human horticulture is full of shadowloops. Watering light-fed creatures on your windowsill, you are a shadowloop between them and the water, which, under these circumstances, will not come to the soil in ways familiar to open land. An important clarification: you become a shadowloop if you stop following your pleasure and plan, at least in the main. If, when watering, you lovingly caress your plants, you sing a soft lullaby, then you don’t disembody into a shadowloop. You enter relations.
Your action becomes sciaponic when, in performing it, you experience a certain mixture of technical and detached calm, a delicate, cool involvement, and gentle confusion. Once experienced, this state cannot be lost.
The feeling itself is not so much a catalyzer of the shadow, as it is a sign that you are now operating not as a solid body and not among solid bodies, but among other forces and creatures, whose properties and abilities are unknown to you, and whose participation in a living situation can lead—from a solid-body-point-of-view—to the most strange phenomena.
I do not necessarily mean something magical, in fact rather the opposite. Relations with machines, especially with their long assemblies, are very much shadowed for us. Interacting with a multicomponent techno-network, you will, sooner or later, feel deprived both of your focal point and of your point of intention. You can execute actions, but you cannot control, want, predict.
Or take humans. In Wilhelm Meister's Travels, the heroes and heroines involve themselves, with mutual grace, in a thick lace of shadowloops. Cognitive flirtation, libidinal science, aristocratic anarchy; in a cool, fragrant twilight, they unhurriedly compile each other into a neutron explosion. Once, this book really scared me.
Time, it seems, to return to the sciacupid and the gallant cups.
Outside: a late Baltic May, cold and rainy. Sometimes it’s dark winter, sometimes a quiet and sunny Saturday morning, sometimes the middle of a coarse, fussy day.
I prepare a hot drink, take out the cups and saucers from my grandmother’s teaset, prepare for guests. Whose guests? I don’t think they’re intended for me. I don’t risk to think, even, that they’re here for the shade-living plants. For what and for whom are were gathered here then?
Something is definitely happening. If only stories about specific sciaponic individualities, collected and clear or evasive and cursory. Or the croissant scatters in scales across the tiled floor. Or it’s become quiet, and you can hear the LED drivers at work—recall that tiny beacon. Or the sciarid-gnats are drowning in tea. Or the conversation won’t gel. Or you can smell the scent of searocket. Or make content for social media. Or the aphid on someone’s coat might become a new actress upon the sciascene.
Though, after all, don’t I act in my own best interests? Don’t we all? The sea peavine, throwing its arms on the sea lyme grass, acts in its interests. Phytophagous mites, drinking spiraled scribbles out of lyme grass leaves, act in their interests. The mice, rustling mid-teaparty, act in their interests.
We can be satisfied or disappointed, depleted or flourishing; we, the spiderkind, stashing caches of shadowloops.
Maybe it’s the cupid rustling in the walls, not the mice. Somebody silently watches as I water the peavine. Semi-translucent but black-masked, gnat larvae writhe in the soil below the lupines. Outdoors, rain pours.
There is an opportunity to visit.
It’s a warm June evening, the sea peavine has recently shed her leaves, the angelica is besieged by mites, the sundew is destined for trophic pairing with the sciarid-gnats, and Ivan is here for a visit. An idea emerges in our conversation that allows me to perceive the multitude of strange, paraartistic, quasiscientific, sub-institutional activities that have recently appeared (shadowwork among them) as the first growth of fireweed on a burn site, the first restless spots in the flawless cleanness of charcoal.
We are speaking of multilayered, not-quite-inhabited barrens, that embrace both the lifeworlds of meanings and values as well as the lifeworlds of organic creatures and their communities, including nonhuman ones. The latter—(that’s us)—consider themselves responsible for what is happening, but we’ll leave that opinion outside the scope of the given text.
Consider that resiliently populated, deeply self-successive, internally tensely balanced worlds are not so hospitable to the new, unless it consists of adding nuance to responsible, mobile self-regulation.
Note, too, that it is precisely such worlds (be it of values or creatures, or a world of both at the same time, such as a tropical forest) that we consider as having complexity.
Ah, that inescapable complexity!
Complexity is the antifoundation of sciaponics. It is a firm and underlying idea that offers handy support in any case of doubt—and we are forced, time and again, to work to refuse this support and foundation. So, too, now:
Recall Patagonia and the attempt to capture her complexity. This scheme wasn’t born of nothing. For a certain period of time, I believed that art in general and sciaponics in particular can “save” natural complexity through imitation and transference. To save it from those same spilled barrens. This no doubt exceedingly presumptuous mission I soon, having come to my senses, reduced to an attempt at facilitating (assisting) a migration of complexities from one area to another; from the dying to the as-yet-still-breathing. Then again, this too is rather insolent, and also, as I now think, complexity isn’t transferable. And what is it about complexity anyway? Is it complexity that makes the heart flutter, wish to live a little longer?
Once, as a teen, wearied by the factory outskirts of a provincial, depressive town, I found sensual salvation in nature photography; consciously or not, I emphasized within it the images I encountered in Soviet photo albums or melancholic landscape paintings: a forest pond grown over with duckweed, sedge tussock and red pine against the sky.
Upon first finding myself in countries that formed Western tastes in park arts and natural imagery, and upon there discovering romantic landscape gardens, I was awestruck by the triple-flowing intercontiguity of the model, the ideal, and the copy. Such parks became my favorites for a long while. They seemed more complex, more profound. More complex!
Now, many years later, they tire me with their fruitless weight. I find neither natural nor personal complexity in them. On the contrary, it is a modestly planned, flat parterre garden in the Dutch style, with a lonely white Artemis or Adonis in its unwelcoming center that makes me anxiously happy. This natural-aesthetic construction has come a long way (and one not worthy of unconditional sympathy), and long since deadened, lost its vital world of meanings; it became barren—like forests familiar from childhood, now burnt, and small rivers, now poisoned—but barren in a different way, with some kind of mysterious little worm inside of its black soul. To the modern mind, this seems incredible: the shadow of a secret life inside symmetrical speculative inertial contours, and not among picturesque groves and awe-striking rocks. And yet, here it is, the worm:
This worm is very important for sciaponics.
It seems the attempt to capture Patagonia contained the same error as the idea of landscape parks: a desire to arrange the beginning of one’s movement from the place where another’s distinct, natural movement had ended and slowed. Complexity is a mature finale. It is impossible to imitate the deeply established; the living particular will no longer relocate to new, strange lands.
But the worm—the quiet, shadowy worm of empty encasings—in what kinds of worlds can he live? In what kinds of worlds might he appear? What kind of cocoon will suit his fancy?
Shadowwork can find this out—yes, through imitation—but what is to be imitated is not complexity at all.
 — This move was discussed at length in the previous chapter of The Work of Shadows.
 — dacha is a modest summerhouse available to most citizens of the former USSR.
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