Last Season’s Fruit

“…Last season’s fruit is eaten
And the fullfed beast shall kick the empty pail.
For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.” –
T.S. Eliot,Little Gidding

Suburban greenhouse.

Pripyat town square, now overgrown with briar-roses, wild plums, and the wormwood, chornobyl, that gives the region its name.

Sapling growing through the floor of the Pripyat “Palace of Culture”.

Downtown apartment complex.

Suburban intersection.

The photographs above (courtesy of were taken in and around the city of Pripyat, located on the Ukrainian-Belarussian border and currently within the Zone of Alienation.  This international area of restricted travel and residence was hastily drawn around the areas of highest radioactive contamination following the 1986 calamity at the Chernobyl nuclear plant.  Twenty-four years after the meltdown of the plant’s fourth reactor and subsequent evacuation of the cities and countryside falling within the Zone, the forest is returning.  Wolves, extirpated from much of Europe, roam in  packs through overgrown villages and down the vine-struck canyons of Pripyat’s apartment complexes.  Their prey, roe deer, wild boar, European moose, red deer and recently introduced and critically endangered wisent and Przewalski’s horses, abound in herds unseen in such numbers for centuries.  Brown bears and lynx leave their unmistakable spoor along boar runs, absent for generations and returned from some hidden bolt-hole in a Ukrainian countryside largely given over to agriculture.  Birds, too, have flocked to the Zone of Alienation, both migrants passing through on their routes between the African tropics and the Siberian wastes and permanent residents, rearing uneven clutches of eggs in the eaves of untenanted houses.  Endangered black storks abound in the wetlands, much more so than their roof-nesting white stork cousins.  Over time, white storks have entered into commensal relationships with civilized humans in the region, sharing the shelter of their urban buildings and the bounty of their plowed fields- and suffering when either fall fallow.  Some areas, like the infamous Red Forest, are still so thoroughly radioactive as to stunt and contort the growth of the pine trees and paint nesting swallows with the white-feathered stigmata of mutation.  While many ‘hot’ patches remain, much of the radioactive material has enmeshed itself in the soil and within the bodies of the Zone’s diverse flora and fauna.  Though voles in the area rear smaller litters and seem to die younger, and the eggs of blue tits evince certain peculiarities of size, the interior woodlands and meadows do seem to be, as a whole, healthier than the less-irradiated but continually cultivated lands outside the Zone of Alienation.  “Pripyat began returning to nature as soon as the people left, and there was no one to trim and prune and weed,” remarks botanist Svitlana Bidna in Mary Mycio’s book ‘Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl,’ “It takes a lot of human effort to maintain urban landscapes.”

Viewed from the point of view of a morel fungus, or a centipede, or a beech tree, urban areas constitute an intolerable expanse of dead space, requiring aggressive medical intervention.  As the ten-kilometer zone of exclusion around the broken Chernobyl reactor is to human beings, so are the thousand-kilometer zones of uninhabitability surrounding the town centers of Los Angeles or Kiev to a wolf or a fern.  There are few poisons that the wild cannot ameliorate given the time and the space to do so.  Even lethal strontium and cesium are absorbed by pines, concentrated in needles, and shed to the forest floor where deep rooted Boraginaceae mix and blend the chemicals of the earth, dispersing the offending particles into a slowly building geological stratum.  More perniciously destructive than a thousand atomic bombs, more lethal than the most concentrated nerve gasses, and more threatening- to land-dwelling communities at any rate- than the worst oil spill is the daily hew of plows across naked fields and the steady clip of lawnmowers.  Compared to the dedication of wild fennel plants I’ve seen growing vigorously through cracks in the middle of busy freeways, unaided, our asphalt doesn’t stand a chance.  Without the conscientious pulling of weeds and patching of pot-holes, our cities would be a gardens within twenty years.  One could view this possibility with exhilaration, as does Alan Weisman in ‘The World Without Us,’ or with unmixed dread, as did the producers of the two televised adaptations of the book.  The line between sterile grey utopia and bountiful woodland is so thin, depending, as Marlow’s expedition in Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness,’ on a handful of rivets, so to speak.  Perhaps it is not the belching smoke, nor the consuming fires of civilization that we should be looking to, but the axle-pins of the carts carrying its fuel.

There’s a melancholy to the Zone of Alienation that most reports from the region dwell upon.  The sight of collapsing barns and shattered apartment windows, the quiet of a city derelicted of its automobiles, the primal terror in the steady regard of shameless and numerous wolves all play upon a visitor.  There is something both frightening and pitiful in the wreckage of the vacated cities- the scattered baby clothes, mouse-nibbled libraries, pockmarked warning signs, a single bathroom slipper grown over with moss.  It is a curious thing that human beings should seem to suffer so much more acutely from nuclear pollution than any other species.

At this juncture in our history, the world is both dying painfully of a thousand deep and freely bleeding wounds and as vibrant and beautiful as she ever was.  Well-kept mysteries and rituals to the constantly reborn Adonis, Osiris, Persephone, and tripartite Parcae, Norns, Trimurti used to remind us that a being or a place could be more than one thing at once, could in fact consistently be both alive and dead, like Schrödinger’s cat.  What has four legs in the morning, two at midday, and three in the evening?  Dandelions and salsify are tearing through the sidewalks and roadways of the western world, mixing and blending the chemicals of the earth, dispersing the offending particles into a slowly building geological stratum.  Every year, the soil in these roadside cracks grows richer; the sterile cities, in unmaintained crevices, blossom.  The tarballs wash onto the shores of the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Mexico, and are eaten, slowly, delicately by soil-borne bacteria.  The tarballs strangle the fish and they strangle the fishermen.  In Detroit, where whole neighborhoods lie vacant since the departure of the auto industry, herds of deer nibble confidently on fresh shoots of oak and dogwood growing from roadway medians.  In the forest that was once Yaniv a vibrant cluster of porcini mushrooms containing 500,000 becquerels of cesium bursts through the leaf litter.  This is arguably the worst the Earth has ever had it, and conditions will, by all predictions, continue to worsen indefinitely.  And the dawn still comes, and the warblers still sing it in, and the roots still grow, and the marshes of the Pripyat grow heavy with catfish, and the poisons on the earth are drawn down again towards quieter strata, and love still rises in tears and in laughter, and Chernobyl is dead, and Chernobyl is alive.

“The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration.  A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments…” – T.S. Eliot,
Little Gidding

The statue of Prometheus in Pripyat’s main square, mascot and emblem of the Chernobyl nuclear program.


2 Responses to “Last Season’s Fruit”

  1. Well wrought brother. Keeps those cards and letters coming.

  2. A short story recommendation: “The Illuminated Man” by J. G. Ballard
    A movie recommendation: “Stalker” by Andrei Tarkovsky. The Tarkovsky movie is especially prescient. It was made in 1979, 7 years before Chernobyl. I believe “The Zone” is around Chernobyl was named after The Zone in the movie…

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