Wormwood Forest: a natural history of Chernobyl By Mary Mycio

Radioactive safari

15 June 2006



Due to the lack of human activity in the region surrounding the Chernobyl station, plant and animal life has been allowed to thrive. ‘Wormwood Forest’ by Mary Mycio describes life in Europe’s largest wildlife sanctuary.


In the last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation prophesises that a star called Wormwood will fall to Earth and poison the waters. “And many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter,” it reads. While, strictly speaking, the Ukrainian word for the wormwood plant is polyn, it is often referred to by the name given to the related plant called mugwort or, in Ukrainian, Chornobyl.

However, though the world’s most infamous nuclear plant takes its name from the nearby 12th century Polissian town of Chornobyl (which itself is named after the plant) the consequences of the accident are far from apocalyptic – at least as far as the region’s wildlife is concerned. As Mary Mycio observes in her recently published book, Wormwood Forest: a natural history of Chernobyl, life in the exclusion zone around the destroyed reactor “was not only persevering, it was flourishing.”

At the time of the accident, Mycio had just begun a job with a Los Angeles law firm. The daughter of Ukrainian immigrants, she was drawn to uncovering the truth behind the accident, eventually giving up full-time law in 1988 to become a “Chernobyl junkie,” as she puts it. She later became the Kiev correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.

A graduate in biology, she has accumulated reams of material about the disaster’s environmental and health effects and filled numerous notebooks with details of her many journeys into the ‘zone of alienation’. Much of the material forms the subject matter of Wormwood Forest and an associated website (see link below).

ENTERING THE ZONE

In a recent interview for the IAEA Bulletin, Mycio said that it wasn’t until her first visit to the zone ten years ago that she realised how mistaken she was to think that the area was a lifeless dead zone. Rather than finding a barren, lifeless scene of utter desolation that is synonymous with the vision of a radioactive world, Mycio describes a wilderness teeming with wildlife. The flora and fauna has returned in abundance and there are now more wolves, foxes and otters than ever before. The number of boar has increased more than eight-fold, and a wealth of endangered species – such as lynx – has arrived to take refuge in the forests, fields and swamps.

BACK TO THE WILD

Since the accident, the area has largely been a safe haven from hunters and farmers, allowing the wildlife to live in an undisturbed environment. Against this backdrop, Wormwood Forest describes in detail a highly controversial programme that released an endangered species of horse into the zone. The natural habitat of Przewalski’s horses has been shrinking due to human activity and, by 1960, the species had declined to the point where there were only 59 horses in the world. Successful captive breeding programmes brought the numbers back to over 600 horses by the mid 1980s – enough to consider experimentally releasing some into the wild. A release programme had been developed by the Askania Nova reserve in south Ukraine, which has the world’s largest collection of Przewalski’s horses, but a suitable place could not be found – until Chernobyl provided the opportunity. Under the Fauna programme, 28 horses from Askania Nova and three from a Kharkiv stud farm were introduced to the zone in 1998 and 1999. Of these, 21 horses survived, and by the end 2003 the population in the zone had grown to 65.

However, it remains to be seen whether this programme has a happy end. Lack of funding for such programmes (one of the common themes in the book) makes it nearly impossible to administer the Fauna programme. By the spring of 2003, there should have been over 90 Przewalski’s horses based on past reproductive rates, but there were only 63. “But the horses aren’t suffering from radiation,” Mycio states on the website that complements Wormwood Forest. “They are being poached – massively, and recently.”

JOURNEY THROUGH A RADIOACTIVE WORLD

Wormwood Forest blends reportage, popular science and encounters with the zone’s few residents. The result is an account of a remarkable land, its people and animals seen through the eyes of the locals, the author and the zoologists, botanists and radiologists who travelled with her around the zone.

According to Mycio, it would be inaccurate to describe the accident as an ‘environmental disaster’ – though it certainly was a disaster. “Human activities are far more damaging to nature than radiation – at least the type and amounts of radiation released by Chernobyl,” she told the IAEA Bulletin.

The radiation is the book’s ever-present protagonist, as Mycio describes in detail how it works itself through the entire food chain and environment. “The artificial has become an integral part of the natural in the radioactive wormwood forests of Chernobyl,” she writes. None of the zone’s inhabitants – plants, animals and humans – can escape from the radiation, but it is only really the humans that seem to be particularly inconvenienced by its presence.

It is clear that Mycio is no staunch advocate of nuclear power (she describes herself as a “cautious supporter”), but along her journey through the affected regions of Belarus and Ukraine she debunks several myths surrounding

Chernobyl and the nuclear industry in general. For example, the popular website (www.kiddofspeed.com) featuring a woman named Elena Filatova who claimed that she rode around the zone on her Kawasaki motorcycle, was a hoax. And as for reports of giant Chernobyl catfish that live in the plant’s cooling ponds, Mycio points out that, though there are indeed large catfish in the cooling ponds, their size is normal for the species. In fact, while there have been a small number of cases of mutations observed in some species, these are not as dramatic as the Chernobyl mythology would have you believe. In any case, as Mycio notes in her book: “You are more likely to encounter a deformed toad or frog in the United States,” than in the zone.


Author Info:

‘Wormwood Forest: a natural history of Chernobyl’ by Mary Mycio (ISBN 0-309-09430-5) is published by Joseph Henry Press, Washington, DC, USA



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Wormwood Forest: a natural history of Chernobyl

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