Walking-with children on blasted landscapes

Walking-with is a time-travel-hopping (Barad 2017) in the embodied material labour of cutting through/undoing colonialist thinking in an attempt to come to terms with the unfathomable violence of repeated colonialization, genocide and destruction.  The trumpet plays the masculine Anthropocentric salute, while a host of onlookers have their troubling chatter silenced.  They will not talk of the radiation, the nuclear bombs, the polygon, the teachers and UNICEF staff tell me. Yet in these openings of walking-with pedagogies the child-earth bodies walking with me share, haunting stories of fear, fascination and body radiation occupation.

It is 2014, I am travelling to Semipalatinsk a city on the outskirts of the Polygon nuclear test site on the ‘Steppes’ in eastern Kazakhstan. After flying to Ust Kamenogorsk I am now traveling the 400 kilometres to the city via an old Russian taxi. Half way along our journey the driver pulls over to a dusty gas station. I decide to wander inside the small station shack to purchase some water.  Once inside I encounter a mother with a small child, a number of old men standing behind the counter all are looking towards the back of the room. In the corner of my eye I see a man dressed in a white onsie suit and face mask. He holds an apparatus, I realise it is a Geiger counter.  He motions me to come forward. I stand nervously, sweat beads start to accumulate on my lip as the beep, beep, beep runs across my body. I close my eyes and imagine laser beams flashing on radioactive particles that are currently crashing colliding violently and destroying delicately balanced cells. Laying silent hiding themselves deeply, dormant– the machine stops. I open my eyes; the man waves me on. I am done – I move to the door  – the water can wait – a set of fear stricken eyes are following my body, it is the young child held closely by her mother, waiting to be scanned – as I open the door dust sweeps across my face, particles settle deeply in my nostrils. I blow my nose.

Walking-with children on blasted landscapes, means walking-with to notice, attune with sensorial knowing as bodies sweaty, heavy lifting with/through the unknowing. Monsters walk with us – helping us to notice landscapes of entanglement, bodies with other bodies, time with other times (Tsing et. al., 2017). Children take me walking with on toxic blasted radiated landscapes.  Afterwards I write children recognize the fragility and porosity of human and non-human life and its link to the contaminated earth. Kazakh indigenous and settler children walking on landscapes speak of dust, dirt, thick uneasy air, toxic radiation. Walking with children allows for deep relational knowing, we talk through with and being in place; place walking becomes our shared rhythm; the children bring me into their place. We take some photographs, I allow some words to resonate, turning over and over I re-turn to them and write then down when I am alone some time later. I concentrate on being present, a co-presences of beings-in-common; children worlding with the ignorant unknowing stranger, Donna Haraways ‘modest witness’.

Historically, the territory of Kazakhstan was mostly inhabited by nomads. The imaginary of the nomadic body is one of being unlocatable, always moving with and entangled in the weathering landscape (Wuthnow, 2002). Until the sixteenth century, the nomadic Kazakhs had evolved as three jüz or territories. But repeated colonization, genocide and apartheid as shared with similar storying of indigeneity around the world, the Kazakh nomad was capturing by external powers whom were set to colonize the ‘empty’ spaces.  By the mid-eighteenth century, in order to fend off the threatening Kokand Khanate and facing encroachment from Tsarist Russia to the north and advancing Chinese armies in the east, the Kazakhs accepted Russian ‘protection’ in 1822. By the mid-nineteenth century, all of Kazakhstan were consumed within the Russian Empire. Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, and subsequent civil war, the territory of Kazakhstan was reorganized several times before becoming the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic in 1936. During the 1930s and 1940s Kazakhstan experienced population inflows of millions of exiled humans from the Soviet Union, deportees were interned in large labour camps, many of these were in the region of Ust Kamenogorsk and Semipalatinsk. In 1947, two years after the Second World War ended, the USSR’s main nuclear weapon test site the Semipalatinsk Test Site was founded near the city of Semey.  Over 460 atomic bombs were detonated at this site over a 40-year time frame. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan declared independence on the 16th December 1991. At the time of the Soviet Union collapse only 40% of the population was indigenous Kazakh, the Kazakh language had all but been abandoned and most Kazakhs were living in adjunct poverty and desperation in regional towns that were due to the expansive Russian industries and mining that scarred the landscape and the atmosphere were highly polluted from toxic chemicals.  Independence also meant Kazakhstan inherited 1410 nuclear warheads and the highly contentious Semipalatinsk nuclear weapon testing site. By April 1995, Kazakhstan had repatriated its nuclear warhead inventory back to Russia and, by July 2000, had destroyed the nuclear testing infrastructure at Semipalatinsk. During a 50-year period millions of adults, children, animals and birds had been exposed to high levels of nuclear radiation and radioactive pollution.

To attend to, and be affected by the uneasy childearth encounters through walking in the streets of Semipalatinsk, is to recognise the porosity of matter, past radiation, pesticides, and heavy metal in our waters, dust, air, bodies –  playgrounds of unknown possibilities,  as everyday catastrophic encounters that have been, and continue to be, the monsters walking with us.

Walking-with our shared bodies on flat dirty dusty earthy street Anna remarks:  “I love mountains because there are no mountains in our city. I love nature and animals. I would like to walk in the mountains, which would be interesting. And I would want to dance because of being happy to be walking and breathing fresh air and away from the radiation of the polygon”. 

The theoretical frame informing this walking emerges from the unravelling of an ontology of human exceptionalism, the ‘western capitalist human story” of mastery and manipulation of particles that now lay scattered across the thin skin of the landscape, re-turning in temporal diffractive reconstructions. Single particles coexist in different space time. As a troubling relational ontology, the notion of the posthuman disrupts a persistent ‘humanist’ paradigm by allowing new conversations to emerge. Where were we you might ask, while military, corporations and machines metastasized into monstrous creatures of capitalism, and at what point did we ignore/become deaf to the clarion call of the Anthropocene? There has been critique from many in regard to the naming of the Anthropocene because of its universalist nature. Universalism produces an assumption that we (humans/nonhumans) are all in this equally together. This universalizing of the human predicament neglects to acknowledge the ways in which wealth, nationality, ethnicity, gender, class, age, location and so on mediate our relationships with the planet. As a disrupting, diffractive ontological tool posthumanism  has the potential to reveal there is no homogenous/universal species and the scale and impact of ecological damage is always unequal, unethical and unjust; indigenous  colonialised peoples, woman, children, and the other-than-human species we share this planet with are in it more than those entrenched in dominant western white masculine cultures.

As a diffractive theoretical thread this walking with children brings the past, the present and the future together walking as encounters with the ruinations of a precarious monstrous planet (Barad 2017b, Tsing et. al 2017).  This walking is far from the leafy green streets of Melbourne where I live. Where backpacks and children chatter and walk swiftly, kicking Autumn leaves.  Seductive simplifications of industrial production have rendered most blind to monstrosity in all its forms by covering over both lively and destructive connections. They bury once-vibrant rivers under urban concrete; radiation particles settle nurtured flourishing in the warmth of growing bodies.  It obscures increasing inequalities beneath discourses of freedom and personal response-ability. Somehow, in the midst of these ruins, the children and I walk with earthly assemblages, rocks, dust, radiation, water and porous bodies maintaining curiosity, noticing the strange and wonderful as well as the terrible and terrifying. The geo-storying of assemblages with ethnographic attentiveness – products of the modernist, capitalist projects -offer starting points for such curiosity, along with vernacular and indigenous knowledge practices and approaches. Such curiosity means working against singular notions of modernity. As we walk, I memorise the many question that situate themselves in my body – I want to revisit these later. As we are walking, I ask one of the children to explain to me what the large steel piping is that I see weaving its way through the streets we walk.

‘That is the hot water’ Yuliya tells me, ‘inside the pipe is very hot steaming water that warms out houses. Once the pipe burst and people were burnt badly. I have seen hot steaming water flood down the street, and I had to jump out of the way. It melted holes in the snow’. 

How can we repurpose the tools of modernity against the terrors of progress to make visible the other worlds it has ignored and damaged? Living in a time of planetary catastrophe thus begins with practices of humility and difficulties: noticing the worlds around us. Our monsters and ghosts help us notice landscapes of entanglement, bodies with other bodies, time with other times (Tsing et. al 2017). The Kazakh government struggles to balance its desire to be seen as a country that is anti-nuclear, yet it has some of the largest uranium mining sites in the world. The pull and desires of economic security while worlding with others as victims of colonial exploitation. A UNICEF colleague tells me,

“The reason the government wants to erase this issue of the past radiation is because Kazakhstan wants to sell more uranium to the global marketplace. We have plenty of uranium here. We are not allowed to sell much, there are certain limits.”

But what is the scale of time, time scales in radiated worlds?

“When the cascading energies of the nuclei that were split in an atomic bomb explosion live on in the interior and exterior of collective and individual bodies resetting decay times of cellular clocks, how can anything like a fixed, singular, and external notion of time retain its relevance or even its meaning?”  (Barad, 2017  p. 63).

Walking with children seduces me into these temporal diffractive possibilities Plutonium-239, has a 25,000 year half-life.

In a flash, past bodies living in the immediate vicinity of the Polygon the site of over 450 atomic bomb detonations ingest radioactive isotopes that indefinitely rework body molecules, all the while manufacturing future cancers, like little time bombs (Barad 2017a) walking with children is to be waiting with bombs to go off.  What constitutes the event of an atomic bomb that explodes at one moment then over time continues to go off in bodies of kin?

Barads paper Troubling Time/s and ecologies of nothingness engages with my thoughts her words resonate over and over in my thinking; she walks with us.  “The temporality of radiation exposure is not one of immediacy; or rather, it reworks this notion” which must then “rework calculations of how to understand what comes before and after, while thinking generationally” (Barad 2017a, p. 63). Barad’s thinking sings in my thoughts as I re-turn to her paper running it over and over, attending to the liveliness of radiation and how it disrupts all concepts of time and temporality: “…radioactivity inhabits time-beings and resynchronises and reconfigures temporalities/ spacetimematterings” (Barad 2017a, p. 63). Walking with children on/through radiated landscapes, time is this messy entangled space is unstable, “Radioactive decay elongates, disperses, and exponentially frays time’s coherence” time in this walking-with children is always in the process of “leaking away from itself” (Barad 2017a, p 63).

Plutonium, a heavy metal, emits alpha radiation, and the material is most harmful when inhaled or ingested. There are ‘hot sites’ where residual radiation is still present in the earth. On the testing site scientists find high levels of plutonium in horse bones – Kazakh shepherds use these bones to make soup. Horse soup and horse milk flows warmly on cold nights through small bodies. Aytem stops walking to introduce me to his neighbour. A kindly older woman who works at the local fruit shop.

‘She is my friend, she is old, but she often makes me Kumis (fermented horse milk) to help me sleep’. Aytem lives in the 10th floor of an apartment block. In later workshops he brings a photograph looking form his apartment window, He never leaves the apartment when his parents aren’t there to play alone, he worries about the dirt and dust in the playground. He said it scares him he might become sick. He arrives to the workshops and when we walk today in a neatly pressed formal suit. He tells me his parents have told him it is important to use this opportunity to give his point of view because we are important government people. He speaks often and with confidence. 

Karin Murris (2013) nudges me to consider these injustices, epistemic injustices are not just social, but also within this ontoepistemic are quiet moments.  Children are not listened to because of their very being (onto); as child unable to make claims to knowledge, because it is,  “assumed that they are (still) developing, (still) innocent, (still) fragile, (still) immature, (still) irrational (still) becoming” (Murris, 2018, p.2) – (still) monsters. Did I say children are monsters?  No, it is the mutated radiated microbiomes that inhabit the deep corners of their porous beings I am afraid of. Who are these entangled monstrous beings?

Walking-with children those who are deemed unworthy of recognition and are invisible in the anthro-obscene manifestations of western capitalism. Here is to walk into the past with ghosts and to share the horrors of a dystopian future. Hide it, don’t show the world, this never happened. Queering with diffractive theorising as speculative fabulations the practice of walking-with the past, present and the future is to recognise the complexity of spacetimemattering. An entangled set of possibilities are revealed through the invoking of an alternative set of stories conjured up with children through being-in-place with a host of other re-configuring relations. Are you still walking with me? Who are your adult researcher body from across the oceans claiming to know how it feels to be an earth-child body, to be a container for generations of radiation trauma?

As with the sufferings of residents of the former plutonium-manufacturing districts of Russia, Australia and the USA – where radioactive traces still course through soil and water bodies, the porous bodies of the children I am walking with in Semipalatinsk are suffused with illness and unease. Childbodies medicalised, labelled, scanned, cleared of traces relating to illnesses from the past plutonium exposure.  But deep between the surface chronic doses of radiation are stimulating bacterial mutations. It seems many children suffer from the ills of their monstrous sympoietic relations with disrupted microbial companions (Haraway 2017, McFall-Ngai, 2017). Monsters are the wonders of sympoiesis, threats of ecological disruption, virulent new pathogens to out-of-control chemical processes.

Children walking with “symbiotic relations must be constantly renewed and negotiated within life’s entanglements. When conditions suddenly shift, once life-sustaining relations sometimes turn deadly” (Tsing et. al 2017, M5). Donna whispers to me ‘To be one is always to become with many’ (Haraway 2016).  “Symbioses are vulnerable; the fate of one species changes a whole ecosystem” (Tsing et. al 2017, M5).

Jars of deformed dead bodies are contained in a local museum. The children of our study tell me they have seen these ‘bodies’ penetrated by monstrous matter. Like the tumorous dogs we see while walking, these silenced bodies floating in fluid over time “provoke fear but also fascination as their ghostly presence, same but not quite threatens to reposition or dissolve the boundaries of normality”. (Goodley et al., 2015, p. 3)

“The killing of ‘monstrous’ babies born with ‘deformities’ has been traced back as far as the time of Aristotle’ and ‘In more recent times, monstrosity was the justification for the “euthanasia programmes” that systematically killed hundreds of thousands of disabled children”. (Goodley et al. 2015, p. 2)

In these precarious times it continues to be important to consider an approach that seeks to de-centre the human; to be attentive to the re-doing of material configurations and spacetimemattering. The past, the present and the future are always being reworked.  This is ethical work. (Barad interviewed by Dolphijn, and van der Tuin, 2009). According to van der Tuin (2014) Feminist new relational materialist models, like the ones described by Barad “scramble conventional notions of subjectivity that separate the rational human from an external environment” (pp.232-3).  Theorizing using Barad’s agential realism means moving beyond posthumanism which can be seen lacking in matters of ethics:

“… questions of ethics and of justice are always already threaded through the very fabric of the world. They are not an additional concern that gets added on or placed in our field of vision now and again by particular kinds of concern. Being is threaded through with mattering. Epistemology, ontology, and ethics are inseparable. Matters of fact, matters of concern, and matters of care are shot through with one another. Or to put it in yet another way: matter and meaning cannot be severed. In my agential realist account, matter is a dynamic expression/articulation of the world in its intra-active becoming” (Barad interviewed by Dolphijn and van der Tuin, 2009, p. 69).

As I am walking-with children they comment:

 ‘We are afraid of the street dogs. Dead dogs stink’. Deformed babies deformed dogs; Dead dogs’ dead babies.  ‘Do you know about the nuclear tests?’ they ask as we walk. ‘Yes, I say I did know’. ‘It is inside us’, one child remarks, ‘it is probably in you now’.

I blow my nose, we walk on. 


Barad, K. (2017a) Troubling time/s and ecologies of nothingness: re-turning, re-membering, and facing the incalculable, New Formations, 92, (Special issue  Posthuman Temporalities), 10.3898/NEWF:92.05.2017

Barad, K. (2017b), No Small Matter: Mushroom Clouds Ecologies of Nothingness and Strange Topologies of Spacetimemattering, in Tsing, A., Swanson, H., Gans, E., and Bubandt, N. (eds) Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, University of Minnesota Press, USA. pp. G103-M120.

Haraway, D. (2016). Staying with the Trouble, Duke University Press.

Haraway, D. (2017), Symbiogenesis, Sympoiesis, and Art Science Activisms for Staying with the Trouble, in Tsing, A., Swanson, H., Gans, E., and Bubandt, N. (eds) Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, University of Minnesota Press, USA. pp. M25-M50.

Dolphijn, R., & van der Tuin, I. (2009). Matter Feels, Converses, Suffers, Desires, Yearns and Remembers: Interview with Karen Barad. Viewed 2 June 2016. http://quod.lib.umich.edu/o/ohp/11515701.0001.001

Goodley, D., Runswick-Cole, K., & Liddiard, K. (2015). The DisHuman Child. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/01596306.2015.1075731.

McFall-Ngai, M.,(2017), Noticing Microbial Worlds: The Postmodern Synthesis in Biology,, in Tsing, A., Swanson, H., Gans, E., and Bubandt, N. (eds) Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, University of Minnesota Press, USA. pp. M51-M70.

Murris, K. (2013) The Epistemic Challenge of Hearing Children’s Voices, Studies in Philosophy and Education, 32(3), pp. 245-259.

Murris, K. (2018). Posthuman Child and Diffractive Teacher: Decolonizing the Nature/Culture Binary, in Cutter-Mackenzie A., Malone K., Barratt Hacking E. (eds) Research Handbook on Childhoodnature. Springer International Handbooks of Education. Springer, Cham.

Tsing, A., Swanson, H., Gans, E., and Bubandt, N. (2017) Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, University of Minnesota Press, USA.

Van der Tuin, I. (2014). Diffraction as Methodology as Feminist Onto-epistemology: On encountering Chantal and Chawaf and Posthuman Interpellation. Parallax, 20(3), 231–244.

Wuthnow, J. (2002) Deleuze in the postcolonial: On nomads and indigenous politics, Feminist Theory, 3 (2), p. 183-200.


This blog post has been reproduced from a panel paper presented at AERA , Toronto, Canada, 2019 and emerges form studies of the Bodies on Damaged Landscapes a theme of the Children in the Anthropocene Project. 

Panel Title: Storying land, consent, and radical relationality as practices of walking-with.

The 4 papers convened for this session foreground the ways that story and walking are intimately connected to critical place-making. The papers activate place as vital and relational through a practice of walking-with. Walking-with is a deliberate strategy of unlearning and unsettling as place-making. Walking-with is responsive to stories of land, and different ethical modes of participation that are situated and relational. Drawing from queer theory, Indigenous knowledges, critical place inquiry, critical race theory, papers on the panel discuss 4 separate walking projects that understand place as intimate, sentient, and vital.

The Panel Session Submission was for Division B and Chaired by Stephanie Springgay.

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