Abandoned and beautiful: A sketch of pre-war visits to an old rural house in Ukraine

It was in the late 2000s that my son bought an old abandoned house in rural Ukraine, some 150 km from Kyiv. Unfortunately, we could not afford to buy something closer to the city; and we were seeking something “wild”.

The old house stood on a hill, bordering the woods, at the edge of a village called Sotniki. We fell at once for the spot. We were not bothered at all with the cracks in the wall, or by the entrance door that would not open. We were delighted by an old well, old apple trees, an impassable thicket of Leonurus and elder bushes. The place seemed to be enchanted. And it was.

Plant life around the old house

Despite the fact that the house was abandoned for years, it magically preserved its resilience. Possibly, this was on account of its wood-and-clay design, which is typically Ukrainian. It was a beautiful chance for us, city-dwellers, to get to know wildness, or what has remained of it. Or simply to get out of the bustling city as far as we could.

The hills of the Cherkassy region (Midland Ukraine)

The first night we spent in the house was marked by an encounter with a couple of dormice who were quite surprised by our appearance (we were no less surprised). The dormice showed no fear at all and behaved like the place was their own. Dormice were the first “wild” creatures we met in the vicinity. I rushed to learn everything I could about dormice. They were lovely innocent creatures that fed largely on fallen fruit.

A dormouse on a wall

Then we learned about other wild creatures that inhabited the place.

Of course, there were mice. But they came after the dormice disappeared. Apparently, the two species could not exist concurrently. The mice also happened to be harmless, except for their hunger for cereals, which we had to hang to the ceiling, and some noise. However, I suspect those were field mice, who are used to finding more food outside. Soon they left the house. I wondered why.

It was in the month of May that we first encountered the snakes. Already, the sun began to be felt, and it was lovely outside, especially on the sunny side of the house. Once, passing a window in the morning, I looked inside and shuddered. There, cosily bathing in the sun, was a large snake; as I later found out, this was an adder. I was both intrigued and scared. And, just as I had with the dormice, I rushed to learn everything about this new neighbour. The snake disappeared for a while. Next day I saw her near the wall. Stupidly, I tried to hit her with a stick and she made a reverse and hid in the wall.

The stories of adders in the vicinity were circulating for some time among neighbours, but we didn’t pay much attention, until that moment. I knew that not far away there was a swampy lake, we had an old well near the house, we were surrounded by woods, so no wonder that was good ground for snakes. However, I was not ready to meet them in my house. Reading about this type of snake, I gradually figured that they would better prefer mice than us, and overall they are more scared of people than we are of them. Also, I learned that their bite is almost never fatal and that they do not attack first. That somehow quietened us. But we became more attentive, and had to look more carefully under our feet. On the hottest days, I would meet snakes on the road; they were apparently searching for water, and were exhausted. I put a bowl with water down on the road.

A nearby swamp

I had never been so delighted to hear birds before. In the early hours before dawn and in the evening dusk we were invited to a complete symphonic orchestra. A perfect euphoria, a celebration of life.

In the afternoons, lying on a hammock (a bliss hardly known to a city dweller!), I would watch the soaring hawks over the valley and the trees, and it seemed that my mind would soar with them.

In the evenings, we’d hear the cuckoo’s long-forgotten sound. And the hooting of an owl had a special haunting effect.

Wild poppies

In the fields we encountered foxes, ferrets, and weasels; in the woods elk and roe deer were sometimes visible at a distance.

Watching butterflies was a special delight. I’ve never seen that many before, at least since my youth, and I thought some were extinct. Their exquisite beauty only highlighted human harshness. They seem to have come from another planet. In fact, they did. Their native one has been destroyed.

I’ve seen small tortoiseshell, red admiral, peacock butterfly and many other species whose names I don’t know. One time, it seems I saw a mourning cloak, a very rare and beautiful species.

Ticks are, of course, a nuisance. Equally, I don’t remember I had problems with them in my youth. We suffered from them, mostly in summer months. But, just as with the snakes, they taught us one precious thing: to be attentive.

If taken philosophically, there is much resemblance between humans and ticks. Different kinds of humans inhabit the village. Old women, in my observation, are the main remaining settlers, while younger people have moved to the nearby town. Others come only for a summer season with children. We befriended an aged married couple that sometimes would invite us and offer their gifts – grown potatoes, tomatoes, etc. – that we, to our shame, had not been able to grow and would take with gratitude. All that we tried to grow would not come in time, as we could garden only for a couple of summer months.

Another person that visited us to chat was habitually drunk, but friendly, and we’d offer him a chat and a cup of coffee. We had sympathy for that lost soul who was living on picking mushrooms or stealing fruits or temporary work in the apiary. There were several other lost souls in the vicinity. They definitely contrasted with the newly arrived businessmen and invoked more sympathy and pity. Of course, the nights are also full of mysterious creatures. And not only on Earth; they dwell in the starry sky too. In the evenings, we’d love to get onto the nearest hill and start a campfire. The night sky, not spoiled by the city lights, fascinates the eye of a city-dweller.

“Sitting on our beloved hill”

The war unleashed by Russia has put an end to our summer retreats “into the wild”. We’ve had to leave our rural house without much hope of preserving it for the future.

Let it stay abandoned.

Read ‘Abandoned and beautiful: A sketch of pre-war visits to an old rural house in Ukraine’, by Victor Postnikov, on the #EarthTongues blog