Scorched earth? (52 books / 52 weeks)

Review – Wormwood Forest,
a natural history of Chernobyl,
by Mary Mycio

A keeper? Oddly, I don’t think so

If you’re over 35, you probably remember. The first vague news stories about high radiation detected in Sweden; the realization that something had gone horribly wrong somewhere in the Soviet Union; eventually, the terrifying story of how a nuclear reactor not far from the Ukrainian city of Kiev had exploded, showering the surrounding area with killer radiation. Among other aftereffects, the disaster at Chernobyl helped to bring down the Soviet system, quickly followed by the fall of Communist governments all over eastern Europe.

That was over twenty-five years ago, back in 1986. What sort of wasteland surrounds the evacuated, still-radioactive section of Ukraine and Belarus by this time? Is it a moonscape of crumbling buildings and skeletal dead trees, where no living thing walks except the handful of people who keep tabs on the sealed reactor core?

Well, no. It’s radioactive, yes. Not a safe place to raise a family (though apparently some aging Belorussians have refused to abandon their homes, and still live there). Full of towns slowly falling into ruin. But far from dead.

Instead, human withdrawal has turned the area around the Chernobyl nuclear plant into an unintended wildlife refuge, green and teeming with animals of all sorts. Mary Mycio tells us how local experts showed her around the abandoned flourishing new forests (an unnerving experience punctuated by dosimeter checks; but without radiation detectors, only the strangely misshapen pine trees would show that something’s very wrong.)

Wormwood Forest has a surprising story to tell, one that’s well worth reading. I’m glad I read it; if I didn’t have a space problem, I would keep it; but I don’t think I’ll need to come back to it. Out it goes – but if you come across a copy, this little book is worth your time.

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