Friday, June 10, 2011

Forests, Myth and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

Abandoned Buildings in Pripyat/Chernobyl by Daniel
I've been listening to a lot of podcasts lately and American Public Media's The Story had a fascinating piece last month on forests inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Like the DMZ between the two Koreas, the Exclusion Zone has become a strange, de facto nature preserve. Comprising over 1600 square miles, the area has been called Europe's largest nature preserve. Henry Shukman, the author interviewed for the story describes an abundance of birch trees rising up through ghost towns, howling wolves and wild boar, a place both "fecund" and "scary", primeval and postmodern:
It's weirdly distressing to be here. As a human, it's like staring down the barrel of our likely fate. We may wipe ourselves out with a nuclear holocaust, or with carbon and methane, or some other way we can't yet conceive of. Or nature may do it for us. When it happens, trees may or may not mind. Cyano­bacteria poisoned their own atmosphere two and a half billion years ago by releasing vast quantities of a gas that was poisonous to them—oxygen—and in the process created an atmosphere suited to higher forms of land life. Who knows what creatures may adapt to a high-carbon, high-methane atmosphere if we keep going the way we are? They may include us, or not.
Though nature flourishes on the surface, evidence points to instability on the cellular level: birds with asymmetric wings, a new "breed" of birch tree that grows like a bush. This persistent, human poison coupled with the mysterious forests of European fairy tales reminded me of the Sendak illustrations in a book that scared the bejesus out of me as a kid, Grimm's Dear Mili:

The monochromatic, foreboding fires and sunsets smolder at the thick treeline. The forest protects us but also heightens the terror of the unseen. Perhaps the essence of our future can be found in such stories. The same species that created myths has also harnessed nuclear energy, after all.


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