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Galapagos Oil Spill: Another Day, Another Disaster

Galapagos Oil Spill_ Another DAy, Another Disaster

Galapagos Oil Spill: Another Day, Another Disaster

Heather Bradford 


A version of this article can be found at:

On Sunday December 22nd, a barge containing 600 gallons of diesel capsized in the Galapagos Islands. The Galapagos Islands, which are a UNESCO World Heritage site, are known for their endemism, with 80% of birds, 97% of reptiles, and 30% of the plants found only on the islands.   This unique wildlife includes several species of Galapagos tortoises, lava lizards, flightless cormorants, Galapagos penguins, and several species of Darwin’s finches. The specially adapted wildlife of the islands inspired Darwin’s thoughts on evolution. Because of its important place in the history of science, the fragility of its ecosystems, and exceptional biodiversity, even a relatively small oil spill warrants attention and concern.

The diesel spill occurred at the La Predial dock of San Cristobal Island.  San Cristobal is the easternmost of the Galapagos Islands and was the first island visited by Charles Darwin in 1835. During the Sunday incident, a crane that was loading a barge with cargo containing an electricity generator suddenly toppled over. In a dramatic video of the event, the crane fell into the water upon the barge, sending the cargo into the Pacific Ocean and capsizing the craft.  Several workers jumped into the water to escape the sinking barge. The barge, named Orca, was meant to transport the generator to Isabela Island, the largest island in the archipelago. Orca was used to ferry supplies and fuel from mainland Ecuador to the islands and was carrying 600 gallons of diesel when it overturned. Orca previously sank in February 2018 in the Guayas River due to a weight imbalance.

It is unknown how much of the 600 gallons of diesel escaped the vessel. The Ecuadorian Navy quickly moved to contain the spill by placing absorbent cloth and protective barriers in the water and President Lenin Moreno declared the situation under control via Twitter on Monday, December 23rd. The ecological impact is being assessed by the environmental ministry, but according to an article in Vice, oil can damage the salt glands of sea turtles, enlarge the livers of fish, and becomes ingested by birds as they preen. A local advocacy group, SOS Galapagos, warned that spilled fuel would reach nearby Mann Beach, a popular public beach in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the capital of the Galapagos and population center of San Cristobal. They also called for the illegal and dangerous operations to be moved elsewhere.

Dec. 2019 Galapagos 2 (Heather)

An image of San Cristobal Island

It is not the first time that an oil spill has occurred on the Galapagos. In 2001, an oil tanker named Jessica ran aground off of San Cristobal Island, sending over 150,000 gallons of fuel into the ocean. According to research conducted by Princeton biologist Martin Wikelski, within a year, over 15,000 Marine Iguanas, constituting 62% of nearby Santa Fe Island population, perished.  In a typical year, the mortality rate is 2 to 7%. Marine Iguanas are endemic to the Galapagos and sensitive to even small spills. This may be due to the fact that the previous spill killed the bacteria that aided in the iguanas in their digestion. Dead iguanas were found to have algae, their primary food source, in their stomachs, but starved because they could not digest it. Galapagos National Park sued PetroEcuador for $14 million in damages for the disaster.

Dec. 2019 Lizard 2

Marine Iguana

In another incident, a cargo ship carrying over 15,400 gallons of diesel became stranded off the coast of San Cristobal Island.  The Ecuadorian freighter, Galapaface I, had its 46 tanks of oil it was carrying unloaded and was drained of its fuel to avoid a disastrous leakage. The ship remained stranded for two months until it could be towed 20 miles away, then sunk in an area where it was deemed to have less ecological impact.  In 2015, a cargo ship named Floreana also ran aground near San Cristobal. Fuel and 300 tons cargo were unloaded, which prevented any major ecological impacts from occurring. Thankfully both incidents were not major disasters.

It is fortunate that no workers on the Orca were seriously injured and perhaps the impact on wildlife can be mitigated by early efforts to contain the spill, but the fact that the barge previously sank calls into question the safety of the workers and the integrity of the vessel in the first place. According to the Maritime Herald, the Orca previously sank in February 2018 at the Caraguay dock in Guayaquil, when it was being loaded with asphalt to take to the Galapagos. Protective barriers were erected to prevent the spread of fuel into the Guayas River. A 25 year old worker named Juan Jose C. was trapped inside of the overturned barge. It is uncertain what transpired between the February 2018 incident and more recent capsizing of the Orca.

Almost 87% of the cargo sent to the Galapagos arrives by sea since it is the least expensive means of transporting goods. Since only two of the islands have airports, maritime transport is a structural and geographic necessity. A 2010 report by the Governing Council of Galapagos cited several problems with maritime transport. Problems relevant to incident include the small and aging fleet of cargo ships utilized by the islands and the fact that docks in the Galapagos are multi-use, serving fishing, fueling, and inter island transport. Of course, maritime shipping within capitalism has some inherent risks, such as the introduction of invasive species through ballast water, dumping of sewage and waste, air pollution of sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide, and accidental spills. These risks could be reduced, but the profit motive incentivizes externalities such as pollution, oil spills, and shoddy waste management. Nearly all cargo ships use diesel engines and diesel generators for electricity, though the industry itself accounts for 2-3% of annual CO2 emissions. While it may be possible that some shipping could switch to zero emissions technology, such as hydrogen fuel cells or electric batteries, as some small research vessels have, technology cannot solve the fundamental flaws of capitalism. In the case of hydrogen fuel cells, this could increase ozone depletion and electric batteries rely on conflict ridden rare earth minerals and cobalt. Alternative fuels also exist within capitalism, the existence of which is predicated upon war and the drive towards the lowest wages. The Galapagos Islands have more environmental regulations than most places, but they still exist within a capitalist framework which relies upon fossil fuels, hazardous working conditions, and a drive for less oversight and regulation. Because of this combination, the islands, as protected as they are, can never truly be sheltered from ecological disaster, because this is the inevitable outcome of capitalism.

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Each day brings news of the endless stream of horrors inflicted upon the planet by fossil fuel driven capitalism. From wildfires and scorching heat in Australia to this year’s ravaging high temperatures in the Arctic, there isn’t anywhere in the world untouched by the impact of capitalism’s catastrophic dependency on fossil fuels. The recent diesel spill in the Galapagos Islands is one of the myriad of daily reminders of the dire need to end capitalism and build a planned socialist economy based upon renewable resources.

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Why Moths Matter and How to Attract Them to Your Garden

Moths Matter

Why Moths Matter and How to Attract Them to Your Garden

H. Bradford


Last week I had the odd idea that I wanted to attract moths to my garden.  The idea is only odd because usually gardeners want to rid moths from the garden.  Even though it is actually a butterfly, the cabbage moth (cabbage white butterfly or small white (pieris rapae)) is the scourge of vegetable growers.  Cutworms generally grow into a variety of species of moths.  Tent caterpillars and gypsy moths defoliate trees. Moths get a bad wrap-taking blame for some of the damage done by their more colorful kin.  But, moths are useful in a number of ways. For one, they are important pollinators of the night shift. As a night shift worker myself, I can celebrate the work of these nocturnal comrades.  Moths create silky cocoons, unlike butterflies, which create chrysalis. Humans have benefited by turning the cocoons of silk moths into a textile. Finally, moths are also a source of food for humans, such as the mopane caterpillars which are farmed and eaten in parts of southern Africa.  Aside from human consumption, moths are food for bats, toads, small animals (Larum, 2018) as well as owls, flying squirrels, song birds, tree frogs (“The Xerces Society » Blog Archive » Gardening For Moths”, 2017).  While there are many reasons why moths are important, the main reasons why a gardener might want to attract moths to their garden is for pollination, food to other garden critters, and as a celebration of their nocturnal beauty.

((Edit Note: the heading image for this post features three moth stock images from canva.  I believe the top one may not be a moth since it is not holding its wings flat.  I did not catch this when I created the image))

Image result for moth in garden

(image from Butterfly

Both moths and butterflies belong to the order of insects called Lepidoptera, though moths tend to be characterized by such things as being nocturnal, holding their wings flat, and making silky cocoons.  Recent research suggests that moths and butterflies have been around for over 200 million years, appearing before the first flowering plants. Traditionally, pollinators were believed to have evolved with flowering plants.  However, the discovery of fossilized wing scales has pushed the existence of moths and butterflies back into history from 130 million years to over 200 million. They were first found in the Triassic Period, which is also when the first dinosaurs also appeared.  Early butterflies and moths are believed to have looked more like moths with drab colors. More colorful butterflies only evolved after the extinction of dinosaurs (Osterath, 2018). So, while moths may not get the same attention as butterflies, their characteristics reach deeper back into history.  Today, they out number butterflies 10 to 1. In the United States alone, there are 11,000 species of moths. They outnumber birds and mammal species of North America combined (Konkel, 2012). Image result for moth fossil

Planting for Pollinating Moths:

As I mentioned earlier, moths are overlooked pollinators.  Most studies regarding pollinators focus on diurnal pollinators like bees and butterflies.  Pollinating moths do so when visiting a plant for nectar, which is used for energy, but some pollinate when visiting a plant to lay eggs.  Many plants are pollinated by both diurnal and nocturnal pollinators. Research conducted on 289 species of plants which are pollinated exclusively or partially by moths, representing 75 taxa of plants found that moths are specifically helpful as pollinators because they travel further, have higher quality pollination, and greater interpopulation gene flow (Konkel, 2012). A study of moths in a Portuguese meadow showed that 76% of the moths that were captured carried pollen on them.  One third of the moths had pollen from five or more plant species (Banza, Belo, and Evans 2015). Moths lack jaws, so they only drink nectar. Because moths don’t groom away or eat the pollen, they move more pollen from plants than pollinators that do (Tartaglia, 2015). Thus, moths are useful pollinators because they visit many plants, travel long distances, and don’t eat pollen.

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White lined sphinx moth from

Most moths are generalists, meaning they don’t require a specific plant to feed their larvae or to draw nectar from.  However, there are a few plants such as Western prairie fringed orchid and senita cacti which depend exclusively on moths for pollination (Young, Auer, Ormes, Rapacciuolo, Schweitzer, and Sears, 2017).  Western prairie fringed orchid is a wildflower found in the Midwest, including Minnesota. The orchid is endangered in Minnesota and federally listed as threatened. According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, it is pollinated by “bedstraw hawk moth (Hyles gallii), the wild cherry sphinx (Sphinx drupiferarum), the Achemon sphinx (Eumorpha achemon), and the non-native spurge hawk moth (Hyles euphorbiae).” (   It would be impractical, difficult, and sometimes illegal (depending upon how the plant was obtained) to grow this particular orchid,  however a gardener could grow plants which support the pollinating moth populations. For instance, wild cherry sphinx moth larvae are hosted on wild cherry, plum, apple, lilac, and hackberry bushes.  Adults feed on the nectar of deep throated flowers such as Japanese honeysuckle (Wild cherry sphinx Sphinx drupiferarum, 2018). Achemon sphinx moth caterpillars enjoy grape plants and adults feed on the nectar of Japanese honeysuckle, petunias, and phlox (Achemon sphinx Eumorpha achemon, 2017).  Both species are said to like Japanese honeysuckle in particular, which is non-Native plant available at nurseries. Perhaps because the flowers are white, tubular, and fragrant it is a favorite for those moths. Image result for japanese honeysuckle

Japanese Honeysuckle image from Colombia University

Senita cactus and yucca plants are also pollinated exclusively by moths.  If a gardener happens to live in an area which supports yucca or cacti, growing these to attract moths might be a novel idea.  However, Minnesota is not within the range of the yucca moth. There are some yucca varieties which may be cold hardy to zone five, but since the plant is only pollinated by yucca moths it doesn’t make much sense to plant them outside the range of the moth.  Since most moths are generalists, there are plenty of other plants that can attract them to the garden. It is often suggested that gardeners plant pale colored flowers so that moths can see them at night. Though I am not sure if this is scientifically proven, and may be more useful in helping humans see both the moths and flowers in the dark.  It is also often advised that moth attracting flowers should be fragrant at night. Moth attracting flowers include dianthus, red valerian, campion, soapwort, wild honeysuckle, Sweet William, evening primrose, clematis, and flowering tobacco (Carlton, 2015) Heather, lavender, jasmine, mandevilla, madonna lily, phlox, heliotrope, gardenian, butterfly bush, and spider flower are also popular with moths (Miller, 2009)  In Minnesota, four-o-clocks, petunia, fireweed, dwarf blue gentian, dame’s rocket, madonna lily, scarlet bergamot, common bergamot, and weigelia can be grown to attract adult moths and were rated as excellent by Carol Henderson for attracting wildlife (Krischik, 2013).

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Tobacco hornworm moth from

Although it may seem unconventional, reserving some vegetables for moths or larvae, also would draw moths to the garden.  For instance, tomato hornworms grown into attractive, Five spotted hawk moths (Moth Pollination, n.d.). Hawk moths pollinate tubular plants like honeysuckle, datura, brugmansias. (Thompson, 2015).  They belong to the family Sphingidae, which also includes include sphinx moths. Larger species of these moths, such as the white lined sphinx moth, are sometimes mistaken for hummingbirds, and like hummingbirds they are active in the day (or at least some are) and like large, nectar filled blooms.  As a general rule, flowers that butterflies like tend to also be liked by moths. Light colored, tubular, fragrant, night blooming flowers are also attractive to moths and make for a nice night garden.

Beautiful Moths:

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Luna moth from

In addition to attracting adult moths, gardeners can consider attracting moth caterpillars to their garden.  For instance, one of the most stunning moths of Minnesota is the pistachio green Luna moth.  However, Luna moths are among the moths that lack functioning mouths.  Thus, a gardener must consider the needs of caterpillars, which eat the leaves of American beech, willow, White oak, Black cherry, black walnut, red maple, sumac, and other nut and fruit bearing trees (Medina, 2012).  The Polyphemus moth is another stunning moth, and like the Luna moth, it is the Saturnidae family.  This family consists of some of the largest moths in the world, including the Atlas moth of Asia, with a wingspan of up to almost 12 inches across.  One of the largest North American moth is the Royal Walnut moth, which has a wingspan of 4.5 inches and is once again, a member of the Saturniidae family (Konkel, 2012).  These moths are more commonly found in the Southern United States, and as the name suggests, the caterpillars feed on walnut and hickory foliage. Since these non-feeding moths live short lives as adults and do not visit flowers, they are not major pollinators.  However, they are large, beautiful moths often with patterned markings including eye spots. Their caterpillars can also be quite large and remarkable. Planting with these moths in mind is more for beauty than function. Rather than planting vegetables or flowers, planting trees or shrubs would attract these moths.  For instance, in Minnesota, the four inch Cercropia moth caterpillar feeds on cherry, linden, maple, boxelder, elm, oak, birch, willow, hawthorn, and poplar leaves. The moth can have a wingspan of up to six inches or more and it has a bright white and red stripe and eyespot (Cercopia Moth, n.d.). The smaller but also striking three and a half inch, polyphemus moth caterpillar eats the leaves of “ash, birch, maple, oak, and willow. It has also been known to eat grape leaves”  (Hahn, 2005). For those who live in warmer regions and feel like trying an interesting hobby or agricultural endeavor, a gardener could attempt to raise silkworms, which once again, are part of the Saturnidae family.  Silkworm larvae feed exclusively on mulberry leaves.  Minnesota is at the edge of the range of red mulberries, but perhaps due to climate change the tree will expand its range.  Mulberries themselves are attractive trees with bountiful, edible berries. Recently, some red mulberry trees were found growing in Southern Minnesota, but they had otherwise not been documented in the state since 1920 (Thayer, 2017).   In short, a “moth garden” might include trees or shrubs that are attractive to the bold and beautiful Saturnidae family.

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Polyphemus moth from


Lighting the Way:

Some online resources for attracting moths to a garden or yard suggest turning on a yard light.  Anyone who has left a porch light on, knows that this draws moths in. However, I am not sure if this is the best way to attract moths to a garden.  Light pollution may actually contribute to the decline of moths. Moths are attracted to shorter wavelength light, with variation across species and between sexes.  For example, male moths are more attracted to light traps than females. Lights that produce heat can kill or harm moths. Artificial lights impact how females lay eggs, sometimes suppressing egg layings, altering where eggs are laid, or resulting in hyper egg laying.  Lights can also confuse moth’s navigation, their eyesight, and delay nocturnal activity. Artificial lights can give advantages to some moth predators and can hinder a moth’s ability to evade bats (Macgregor, Pocock, Fox, and Evans, 2014). For instance, the tiger moth uses clicking noises to evade the sonar of bats (Konkel, 2012).  One theory is that moths are confused by the light, so they behave as if it is day and bats are not around. Light also disrupts the reproduction of moths, as light disrupts female production of pheromones and male moths become distracted from following pheromone trails. When moths reproduce, artificial light impacts the size of caterpillars, causing them to be smaller (Macgregor, 2017). Image result for moths and light

image from

Because moths evolved to be active in the dark, they do not require much light to find their way.  Moths actually have evolved a keen sense of smell and can follow the scent of a flower several kilometers (Tartaglia, 2015).  A male giant silkworm moths can smell a female from up to seven miles away (Konkel, 2012). Moths do not smell with nostrils, but with their antennae (Tartaglia, 2015).  While scientists often use light to attract moths for studies and perhaps turning the lights on from time to time to get a better peek at moths is probably alright, using lights, or at least short wavelength lights is probably not very helpful to moths.   If a gardener wants to create a night garden for human enjoyment rather than moths, perhaps dim solar lights or glow in the dark garden art would be less disruptive. An even safer idea is to observe moths using red filtered light or to attract moths using smells rather than light.  If a person does choose to have yard lights, avoiding blue light (which is more attractive to moths) and turning out lights or putting them on a timer can reduce the negative impact of light pollution. Finally, some moths can be attracted to the yard with smells rather than light and there are several recipes of how to create moth solutions (Macgregor, 2017).  One recipe calls for 454 grams of black treacle, 1 kg of brown sugar, 500 ml of brown ale, and a paintbrush. After simmering the ale for five minutes, add the brown sugar and treacle, stirring and dissolving, then letting simmer for two more minutes. Once the mixture has cooled, it can be painted onto trees or fence posts, avoiding moss and lichen. Another recipe calls for mixing a bottle of wine with 1 kg of sugar, dissolving the sugar into the wine over heat.  This mixture can be applied to cloth or ropes, which can be hung from trees or posts to attract moths (Butterfly Conservation, 2015). Recipes for moth sugaring or wine ropes can be flexible, using whatever is on hand, including old fruit such as bananas, various sorts of alcohol, sugar, molasses, maple syrup, etc. The mixture should be thick and paste like and can be applied to trees or rope (Moskowitz, 2011).

Image result for moth wine rope

image from UNC Charlotte Urban Institute


Moth Conservation:

All pollinating insects have been in decline over recent decades, and with them, the plants that they pollinate.  In Britain, ⅔ of the species of larger moths have declined over the last 40 years. Like diurnal pollinators, nocturnal pollinators like moths are challenged by climate change, use of agro chemicals, and habitat fragmentation (Konkel, 2012).  In the United States, the decline of some moths can also be attributed to the introduction of the parasitoid fly between 1906–1986 to control gypsy moths. Compsilura concinnata did little to control gypsy moth populations and attacks 200 other species of moths and butterflies.  Hawk moths are on of them. IIn a study by Young, Auer, Ormes, Rapacciuolo , Schweitzer , Sears (2017)  one third of the species of hawk moth’s studied had declined between 1900-2012, while four species increased.  Control of two of the moths as pests may have contributed to some decline in addition to the introduction of the parasitic fly.

Gardeners can support moth populations by planting trees, vegetables, and flowers that host their larvae or provide nectar to adults.  Being mindful of light pollution is another way to help moths. Gardeners can also avoid pesticides. Even natural pesticides can be harmful to moths.  Bacillus thuringiensis is toxic to larvae of both butterflies and moths (Miller, 2009). Gardeners can also get involved with National Moth Week, which is held the last week of July.  During the week, participants can join citizen science projects to identify and count local moth populations. Participants can also host events and submit their findings to the National Moth Week website (National Moth Week, n.d.).  Of course, these are mostly small scale, individual, feel good activities. To really protect moths, and all of the life on the planet, individuals must move away from backyard solutions to building social movements against climate change, the profit driven waste and destruction of industrial agriculture within capitalism, and the exploitative relationship to nature that the profit system both encourages and cannot escape.  Environmental movements that mobilize all segments of society towards the overhaul of our economic system and which are given weight by the power of workers and the connections to other mass movements are the only way to challenge the large scale destruction of capitalism.  Thus, while planting white flowers and learning more about moths can be a wonderful hobby, it is no substitute for the structural changes necessary for protecting habitats, changing agricultural practices while ensuring an end to poverty and hunger, and thwarting climate change.  Historically, the example of the Peppered moth illustrated the impact of industrialization on the environment.  I think then that aside from being a night pollinator, moths are a symbol of capitalism.

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Peppered moth image from



Moths are really fascinating.  I have already begun planting with moths in mind and will be on the lookout for these overlooked garden visitors.  Perhaps I’ll even try to participate in National Moth Week this July. Moths are important pollinators, far more plentiful than butterflies, some of the largest insects, misunderstood and under studied, and both economically destructive and important.  At the same time, there are imperiled by habitat loss, light pollution, pesticides, and climate change. I am convinced that moths matter and are worth learning more about it. One of the tragedies of life is that most of the life around us remains anonymous, unknown and unseen.  I lack the time and discipline to uncover the nature of the hidden world around me. In the night, there is a world of moths (among many other creatures). Some lack mouths and live a short time. My senses are muted by capitalism and my own life is too short to learn and do all that I wish to.   Life is truncated by labor and confined by the resources of class. I like moths though. They are night workers like me.


Achemon sphinx Eumorpha achemon (Drury, 1773). (2017, July 30). Retrieved June 15, 2018, from


Banza, P., Belo, A. D., & Evans, D. M. (2015). The structure and robustness of nocturnal Lepidopteran pollen‐transfer networks in a Biodiversity Hotspot. Insect Conservation and Diversity, 8(6), 538-546.


Butterfly Conservation. (2015, September 15). Retrieved June 15, 2018, from–wine-roping.html


Carlton, M. (2015, September). Flowers for Moths [PDF].


Cecropia moth. (n.d.). Retrieved June 15, 2018, from


Hahn, J. (2000, August 15). It’s a hummingbird, it’s a moth, it’s a what? Retrieved June 15, 2018, from


Hahn, J. (2005, August 15). Giant silk moth caterpillars. Retrieved June 15, 2018, from


Konkel, L. (2012, July 27). 7 Things You Don’t Know About Moths, But Should. Retrieved June 15, 2018, from


Krischik, V. (2013). Butterfly and moth garden plants. Retrieved June 15, 2018, from

Larum, D. (2018, April 04). Moth Gardening Information ? What Plants Attract Moths To The Garden. Retrieved June 15, 2018, from

Macgregor, C. J., Pocock, M. J., Fox, R., & Evans, D. M. (2014). Pollination by nocturnal Lepidoptera, and the effects of light pollution: A review. Ecological Entomology, 40(3), 187-198. doi:10.1111/een.12174


Macgregor, C. J., Evans, D. M., Fox, R., & Pocock, M. J. (2017). The dark side of street lighting: impacts on moths and evidence for the disruption of nocturnal pollen transport. Global change biology, 23(2), 697-707.


Macgregor, C. (2017, July 17). Like moths to a flame: National Moth Week, and how you can help our nighttime wildlife. Retrieved from


Medina, M. (2012, May 20). The Gardener’s Eden. Retrieved June 15, 2018, from


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Moskowitz, D. (2011, December 28). Sugar Baits for Moths: Winter Fun. Retrieved from


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Osterath, B. (2018, January 11). Rethinking evolution: Butterflies came first, flowers came second | DW | 11.01.2018. Retrieved from


The Xerces Society » Blog Archive » Gardening For Moths. (2017, July 21). Retrieved from


Tartaglia, E. (2015, June 25). The Year of the Sphingidae – Pollination. Retrieved June 15, 2018, from


Thayer, S. (2017, May/June). The Rarest Tree | Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Retrieved June 15, 2018, from


Thompson, K. (2015, July 21). Forget butterflies – it’s moths you need to entice to the garden. Retrieved June 15, 2018, from


Wild cherry sphinx Sphinx drupiferarum J.E. Smith, 1797. (2018). Retrieved June 15, 2018, from


Young B, Auer S, Ormes M, Rapacciuolo G, Schweitzer D, Sears N (2017) Are pollinating hawk moths declining in the Northeastern United States? An analysis of collection records. PLoS ONE 12(10): e0185683.

Book Review: Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster


Book Review: Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster

By Svetlana Alexeivich

This past April was the thirtieth anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. Last August, I traveled to Chernobyl as part of a larger trip to Belarus, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, and Sweden. While I don’t remember Chernobyl when it happened, I remember learning about it in elementary school and high school. Even at that young age, it captured my imagination. Really, it is hard to imagine it. As a child, I imagined some glittery cloud of poison spreading across Europe. As an adult, having been there, my imagination is even more stilted. It is warped by adventure, bragging rights, and voyeurism. With that said, Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, was a necessary dose of lived experience. The book is a collection of interviews from survivors of Chernobyl. It is awesome in the traditional sense of the word. I am in awe of the immensity of the human suffering caused by this event.

The problem with being a tourist is that it experienced as an outsider and consumer. Experiences are packaged and devoured. While I certainly felt the gravity and horror of the Chernobyl disaster as an outsider and drew some lessons from the experience, I could only experience Chernobyl safely (relatively), for a short time, years later, and with the freedom and privilege of a traveler. Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster provided me with more material for deeper reflection and understanding. To the people who contributed to the book’s narrative, Chernobyl was hellish. It deformed their babies. It ruined their relationships. It killed loved ones. It poisoned food. It killed painfully, often slowly and gruesomely. It destroyed beloved pets and livestock. It vacated villages and emptied lives. I knew all of this, but I really didn’t FEEL all of this. The book helped me to feel the suffering and desolation of the hundreds of thousands of people impacted by the disaster.




(Years later, it doesn't seem real.  It is a decaying world of lost things.)

There are a few themes that struck me or made me think a little more deeply. One very common theme was the sense that Chernobyl felt like war. This was because of the military’s role in evacuating villages, the use of military material, a sense of duty in cleaning or fighting the disaster, the mass dislocation of people, a lack of personal choice, leaving things behind, the and destruction of forests, animals, and villages. This made me think about how military or authoritative responses to disasters impact the psyche of a people. Even when natural disasters happen in the United States, it is not uncommon that the National Guard would be dispatched. But, this pairing of disasters with the military must have some psychological impact on people. Perhaps we like to think of this as a benign role for the military, but it is still a display of military power, imagery, and authority. What does it mean to be at war with a disaster? At war with nature? Can governments muster a less militant response? To what degree is authority necessary for public safety?

Another theme from the book was the reproductive consequences of radiation. One woman was told it was a sin to reproduce. Another had a child who was born with no vaginal, anal, urethral opening and other health issues. This required enormous care, endless surgeries, frustration, and hopelessness. I believe I read that Chernobyl resulted in 200,000 abortions in Belarus. Many women had children with severe disabilities. Some women had miscarriages as their fetus took on radiation. All of this amounts to tremendous suffering. Those who chose to have children often had enormous challenges, disappointments, and death. Many women could not have children. Others chose not to. But these are all choiceless choices wherein no one has the agency to make the “right” choice. There is no right choice. There is endless, demoralizing, sickness and suffering. Men were also impacted by the disaster, as they were mobilized as soldiers, pilots, liquidators, and firefighters. I learned in the book that one of the effects of radiation is erectile dysfunction. Discussing this was highly stigmatized, but impacted the relationship prospects of these men. Finally, children who survived or were born after grew up in an environment of death and sickness.


Another theme was gender roles themselves. The men who were interviewed were stoic and dutiful, if not somewhat fatalistic and nihilistic. Men played an important role in containing the disaster and evacuating villages. If men were not bound by duty and suppressed emotions, they would not be so easily mobilized into self-sacrificing heroics. The men saw themselves as robots. They were like robots, as they literally replaced the malfunctioning robots who failed to remove graphite rods from the roof of the reactor.   Certainly this was an important task, but it was a sentence to a painful, miserable, grotesque death. We make men into robots so they can fight wars, shoot “criminals,” guard prisons, break strikes, and do all of the other violent dirty work that society requires. Sometimes these robots malfunction and strike the women, children, and animals that society deems that they should not. Yet, society does not care of this violence is unleashed against foreigners and “bad guys” (often Muslims and African Americans).

Animals were often discussed. After the disaster, soldiers killed every animal in the exclusion zone, from cows to cats to foxes. Those who were evacuated and some who remained told stories of beloved cats and dogs that they left behind. The soldiers who killed the animals viewed it as a job, but unpleasant none the less. The animals were feared to be radioactive and thus capable of spreading radiation. So, they were killed. In a way, killing pets and livestock represented killing the remnants of civilization. Some animals escaped and became feral, but even the feral animals represented the human life and activity that once was. It was a connection to the former humanity the land. In the absence of humans, wild animals returned. To those who stayed behind, the wild animals seemed a bit fiercer. This might be imagined, but in this vision, the violence and destruction of nature made the animals mean.

Hopelessness was another theme. There is no justice. There is no one to blame. The Soviet Union is gone. The Soviet Union could be blamed for responding slowly, for secrecy, for lying to people, for building less safe reactors, and for instilling in people faith in nuclear energy. But, what happened cannot be undone. People live with the consequences. The magnitude of the problem would have been daunting to any country. Any country would have had to sacrifice human beings in the heroics of stopping the disaster. Again, the wiggle room for choices is small. The faith in nuclear energy and the naivety of people is the most tragic. In the first day after the disaster, children played and people marveled at a nuclear fire! Fisherman experienced an atomic tan, none the wiser that they were killing themselves. The juggernaut of ignorance resulted in a lot of cancer. Then, I think of the greatest disaster we face today: CLIMATE CHANGE! Like radiation, it is hard to see climate change. At ground zero of melting ice caps, not so much. But for most of us, we don’t see it or don’t want to see it. So, there is this disaster of global proportions. A disaster greater than Chernobyl. Yet, governments are just as slow to respond. Worse, society propagates the naïve belief that it can be stopped by green consumerism and within the framework of capitalism. In the face of grand human suffering, the destruction of nations, the extinction of life…we are fisherman with a nuclear tan. This is not to blame people themselves. But, I think that the same mechanisms that resulted in a slow response to Chernobyl operate quite well in the face of many disasters. Why? Responses are hard. They are scary. They require resources and restructuring. They require vulnerability. They require informed people. They require things that undermine the power of those in power. It is easier to ignore, minimize, hope for the best, or hope no one notices. At least that it what I thought when considering this aspect of the Soviet response.

A good book is a book that makes me think.   It is rare for a nonfiction book to make me both think and feel. With that said, Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, was a great read. It adds to my understanding of Chernobyl and has given me a lot to consider.

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