It is one of the disaster's paradoxes, but the Zone's evacuation put a stop to industrialization, deforestation, cultivation and other human intrusions, making it one of Ukraine's environmentally cleanest regions - except for the radioactivity - Mary Mycio in Wormwood Forest
Reading Mary Mycio's Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl may be likened to spending several hours listening to the Talking Heads' hit song "Nothing But Flowers" over and over again, but that would be selling the experience a bit short.
I had no idea, before reading this book, that so many people had equated the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant with the biblical Book of Revelations. I was 16 at the time it happened, eyeball deep in Michael Moorcock and Piers Anthony and Jack L. Chalker and research for Lincoln-Douglas debates on the topic of: "Resolved: that the United States is morally bound to promote democracy in other countries." So I felt badly about the disaster, worried about the fallout, but didn't have time for the wingnuts.
I still don't, but I do find interesting the biblical/botanical coincidence that led to so many people, including, apparently, Ronald Reagan, to equate the accident with a Sign of the Apocalypse. The Russian name "Chernobyl" (actually "Chornobyl") is widely translated to mean "Wormwood" which is the colloquial English name for a plant common to that part of the Ukraine/Belorus/Russia, and also for the star that will shine like a torch at the beginning of the bibical apocalypse. But the plant we know as Wormwood is one they call Pollyn, Artemsia absinthium (so named because it is the source of the thujone that supposedly makes absinthe more than just another green liqueur), is not the plant they know as Chernobyl. That's Artemisia vulgaris, a related but less noxious plant that we know as Mugwort. Ain't the devil just in the details?
Wormwood Forest is full of interesting little nuggets like that as it describes how the natural world has overtaken and overgrown former towns like Pripyat, which town first came to my attention last year when I saw the film Land of Oblivion, set there 25 years after the disaster as stubborn former residents start coming home despite government warnings not to. And there are similarities to that film; the author's guide is a woman who lived there before the disaster, her memories haunting the account of Mycio's visit with a botanist at her side (Land of Oblivion's main character was a woman whose wedding day was the day of the accident, and whose bridegroom died in the first wave of emergency response efforts, and who comes to work, decades later, as a guide for foreign disaster tourists). Since that film affected me deeply, this book, which I believe was a primary inspiration for the film if I am remembering the director's Q&A after the screening I saw, too, bestowed chills along with its fascination and surprises.
Wormwood Forest explores not only Pripyat (actually it doesn't spend that much time there) but the town of Chornobyl, where some 2500 people, tour guides, maintenance workers (it takes a lot of minute and patient work to, for instance, keep pine saplings from growing on top of landfills full of radioactive debris and equipment sealed in clay to prevent leaks; tree roots would crack the clay and release the radiation back into the world) live on a rotating temporary basis; the Red Forest, where winds brought some of the most intense radiation and killed the trees, turning them red, now home to plenty of green "radiomorphic" ones that show bizarre growth patterns (the name Red Forest has stuck, though, and denotes one of the most radioactive places on the planet); villages where lawless squatters live in defiance of the government ban on permanent human habitation, who might take a fancy to attacking explorers like Mycio and her companions; the hidden cemetery of the small village of Novoshepelyechi, where oak trees show a higher incidence of Crown Gall disease than anyplace else and Mycio contemplates the hyphae of fungi thriving there, and how far those hyphae might carry radionucleotides because fungi can be pretty big, under the soil... and that's just in the Ukraine. And it was Belarus, now home to a thriving and diverse population of aquatic birds, that got the most radiation, possibly due to cloud seeding sending particles down in rainfall before they could reach Moscow.
Nor is it just plants and fungi that are now calling the Exclusion Zone (or the somewhat more poetically translated "Zone of Alienation") home. Moose and red deer (that North Americans call elk) and roe deer and wild boars are plentiful, and two endangered species, the European bison and the Przewalski's horse, have both been introduced there and are thriving, largely because human activity has all but ceased there.
And there are more surprises, like the news that actually, as far as insects that could survive after nuclear disaster go, cockroaches are pretty wimpy. And that you don't find a lot of mutant animals like the famous eight-legged pony that appeared on the cover of Time magazine, because in the wild, mutated animals mostly don't survive; a bunch of partially albino swallows, for example, aren't doing too well in the Darwinian sweepstakes because they can't attract mates.
Some people are doubtless going to find this book rough going. There is a lot of science, of almost every kind - nuclear physics, chemistry, classical physics, biology, biochemistry, geology, hydrology, anthropology, botany, mycology, soil science, heck, even astronomy if you want to count the odd mention of the biblical Wormwood star. And it's densely presented, this science; where other authors might (as I kind of wish Mycio had done) choose to define radiological and other terms in a handy glossary, Mycio informs the lay reader via digressions in the middle of her anecdotal narratives, a tic I occasionally found intrusive when she was in the middle of describing, e.g., weirdly growing pines in the Red Forest. I would urge those readers who do find the science daunting to stick with it, though; around and through the rads and curies and Grays and becquerels is a realm of strange beauty, wonder, tragedy and terror, a glimpse of another world existing within our own that stands as a warning to us all while still showing a small glimmer of hope.
Though not so much hope that we should continue ripping atoms apart willy nilly just to power our hair dryers and server farms. I was never a big nuclear power fan before (having grown up in the age of Three Mile Island, glimpsed smugly from afar in a way that only a hydroelectric power customer can) reading this, and I watched Fukushima** with as much horror as anybody, but now, now that I know, for instance, that particles of radioactive isotopes as cesium and strontium mimic nutrients that pretty much all life uses to build and maintain itself (cesium mimics potassium and strontium, calcium), there to sit inside of plant and animal and fungal bodies for years emitting alpha and beta and gamma rays that tear bodies apart slowly from the inside, and that they just keep circulating through the food chain for, in some cases, unimaginably long spans of time, well, I'm really not a fan of nuclear power now.
*I remember being shocked at all the houses and public buildings Land of Oblivion depicted, with large and healthy birch trees growing right in the middle of former living rooms and offices and storefronts. It didn't seem like 25 years was long enough for that kind of growth. Shows what I know about botany. Which is a severe failing on my part, especially given how much I know about and love insects and fungi!
**Which wasn't as bad, we're told, as Chernobyl was, but still plenty bad, thank you very much.