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Wormwood Forest – Mary Mycio ****

This is a rare and enjoyable combination of a natural history book with a personal travel tale – yet strangely a lot of the science in the book (and there is a fair amount) is physics. The reason is simple – Mary Mycio takes us on a deeply surprising tour of the flora and fauna of the fallout zone from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
Mycio is an American with a Ukrainian family, so makes an ideal reporter for this mission – and she proves a worthy proponent of the sort of travel writing that throws in little personal observations along the way. This wasn’t just a two week visit and a hastily scrawled book, though, it’s a long term observation of different parts of the area devastated by the disaster at the nuclear power plant, mostly in Ukraine, though venturing for one chapter into Belarus.
It would have been nice if she could have spent a little longer in Belarus. Belarus is traditionally supposed to have suffered the worst of the contamination, and though Mycio questions the statistics (apparently no one knows where they came from, nor is there any evidence backing them up), it certainly has suffered the worst impact in areas like thyroid cancer in the population. But the limited view into Belarus doesn’t undermine the fascination of the Ukrainian experience.
Perhaps most surprising to the reader is the sheer abundance of wildlife and the very limited visual impact on the plant life. Rather than being a blasted wasteland, much of the abandoned territory teems with wild animals – even bear, beaver, lynx and bison that rarely survive in Europe. Apart from some distortion in trees, particularly pine, whose sticky coatings tended to hang onto radioactive dust, there is little obvious mutation. No monster creatures, or fish with three eyes as those familiar with the nuclear plant in the Simpsons might expect. In fact mutation among surviving animals seems rare – apparently the most common effect is for animals to die, and those that do survive are less attractive for breeding, so mutants haven’t transformed the biological landscape.
Those used to post-apocalyptic landscapes from fiction may also be surprised that rats and cockroaches haven’t taken over. In fact rodents have a bigger tendency to die off than the larger animals, and cockroaches are apparently not very good at resisting radiation.
The message isn’t all is rosy – not in the least – and Mycio sometimes expresses very human concerns about what she is being exposed to – but it equally is not one of total devastation. There is contamination, and the influence of the metaphorical wormwood in the book’s title (a reference to the Bible’s book of Revelation) is ever present – but thanks to the absence of normal human activity, the exclusion zone has become an area of thriving natural life that is beautifully brought to life in Mycio’s book.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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