Through a largely collaborative practice, Angelica Bollettinari’s work spans curatorial, educational and artistic projects, which often have a socially engaged and participatory aspect. Since 2017 she has co-run resina, a platform for research based between London and Ferrara. resina’s work is invested in developing feminist, environmentally sustainable and non-human-centric practices through slow-paced alternative education experiments and residencies.



22 Feb, 28 Feb 2022: Foraging Walks
8 May: Poplar Salve Making Workshops

Curing Time
Text, April 2022

In early spring, together with a small group of people, I went to collect poplar buds in Ferrara. Just before they blossom, the buds of black poplars are full of a sticky resinous substance which is secreted by the plant to protect it from insects and pathogens, and that has anti-inflammatory and pain relieving properties, as well as a delightful smell. They are rich in salicylic acid, which our body transforms into pain relief, and the salve you can obtain from it helps with muscle aches, can be put on bruises and other inflammatory conditions, and is great for the skin. Bees seem to especially appreciate poplar buds’ resin amongst all trees to make propolis. They collect the resin and mix it with the enzymes of their saliva to create a bee-glue that seals and protects their hive: neither a vegetable nor an animal product, but rather a collaborative endeavor. 

This tree, poplar, is very common in the area of the Po Valley; it is perhaps for this reason that it became one of the protagonists of a Greek myth set along the Po river, that of Phaeton and his seven sisters, the nymphs Heliades. The myth tells of how Phaeton loses control of the chariot of this father Helios, the sun-god, causing fires and droughts of an unprecedented scale. Just as Pheaton is about to subvert the natural order of things forever, Zeus stops him, striking him dead with lightning. One version of this story narrates that Phaeton drops dead in the river where later on Turin would be born; other versions place it further east, towards the Po Delta. As the drama unfolds, Phaeton’s seven sisters witness the scene from the riverbanks, devastated. As they mourn, they start to feel their feet stiffening, their hair turns into leaves and, before they know it, ‘bark is wrapping around their belly, chest, shoulders, hands, until it suffocates their last words’. Zeus transformed the Heliades into poplar trees, destined to forever cry the death of their brother.

This myth is linked to the presence of amber stones in the area of the Po Delta since the time of the Etruscans, who traded the precious fossilized resin. They thought it to be the tears of the nymphs and would sculpt it into amulets and necklaces to be worn for their magical and healing properties. The themes of mourning and healing in the myth evoke a reflection on this land today, its ecologies, and on what Phaeton might look like now.

As the myth goes, after Phaeton’s death, the Argonauts sailed by, finding a river steaming with nauseating gasses of rotting fish and dead animals, so strong that they asphyxiated the birds that flew by. About 8 Km away from the Po river, in Ferrara, the LyondellBasell petrochemical plant has produced plastic compounds and resins since the 1950s. In fact, it is where the process of plastic polymerisation was invented by Giulio Natta and Karl Ziegletr in 1953. This Nobel Prize winning invention was revolutionary in its creation of a modern, flexible and cheap type of plastic, polypropylene, which quickly spread across the market to replace glass and metal packaging. Since then, toxic discharges have been poured into the water, air and soil, damaging its ecosystems.  Contraposed to the healing properties of resin and amber, here we encounter the synthetic and plastic resins of which multinational chemical company LyondellBasell is now one of the world’s largest producers.

Following this line of research, we are invited to zoom in on a particular relationship which binds poplars and plastic together. Since 2015, at the Institute of Life Sciences in Pisa, researchers are studying how poplar’s roots, with the help of microbes and fungi, are able to absorb, digest and eliminate from the environment particular toxic agents used in the production of plastic, the ‘phthalates’, which are disseminated and inhaled as microplastics in the environment. These findings are contributing to the growing field of phytoreparation, or the use of plants and associated soil microbes to decontaminate toxic environments. Poplars have already been widely implemented because of their proven ability to eliminate heavy metals from polluted soils. Taranto, Caserta, Porto Marghera are only few of the places where poplar plantations are being grown to make up for humans’ mistakes.

We can attempt to imagine what poplars would say about humans using trees as toxic miners, or as carbon sinks, planted to off-set man-made ecological degradation, as part of green programmes and technologies which are difficult to argue against but that are often developed in order for humans to continue to pollute. The nymphs, in traditional readings, are often described as suffocated, silent, only able to speak through the rustling of leaves - readings which are perhaps aligned with seeing nature as a thing, silent “other” than us, which can be used and monetised. But this metamorphosis is the opposite of ‘becoming silent’. Through it, the nymphs start speaking the language of nitrogen, and phosphorus, and water, and defense signals; and exchange of nutrients, hormones and chemicals, underground paths of exchange and information, the language of collaboration. A becoming undone, enmeshed in a network, which inspires a different way of relating to the more-than-human world.

This research aims to reflect on different survival strategies in contaminated territories, between multi-species collaborations and toxic and extractive relationships.

At the moment, I’m learning how to make a therapeutic salve out of poplar buds, by mixing it with beeswax and essential oils. I’ve called this project ‘Curing Time’, which is the time it takes for the chemical transformation from a liquid to solid state. In the case of organic resin, the process of fossilizing into amber took between 2 and 10 million years. With synthetic resins, like Epoxy Resin, it takes 72 hours. Or the salve I am making, 20 minutes. ‘Curing’ comes from the verb ‘to cure’, from the Latin ‘cura’, care, and it means both healing, restoring health, and also drying up, hardening, which, in a certain way, seem to be contrasting meanings. Between soft and hard, slow and fast, organic and chemical, ancient and new. Curing Time pulls together different levels, connected with ideas of care and toxicity, and underpinned by the idea that something that provides a cure can also become a poison, or be bound in a toxic or poisonous relationship.