Sunday, April 03, 2011



This book is a seminal work on the natural history of Chernobyl. This review was originally published in an issue of Tree News,  which I was Editor-in-Chief of, in 2006.

Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl by Mary Mycio [Joseph Henry Press h/b £16.99 ISBN 0309094305]

This timely book – we have just passed the twentieth anniversary of the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear plant – is the detailed account of the author’s forays, armed with dosimeters and protective gear, into one of the world’s most radioactive wildernesses.

Here she discovers, to her astonishment, that not only have very few mutated species of animals been found – any that did exist would have been eaten or would have died and decomposed before being able to reproduce – but also that the area has become a burgeoning wildlife sanctuary of radioactive animals.

Plants and trees do mutate, however, and radioactive waste dumps can be identified from the air by the radiomorphism of the trees growing above them. Healthy pines have a single trunk with branches growing from it well above ground level; radiomorphic pines grow a single truck close to the ground but branch into a filigree of multidirectional stems which look like pine bushes and are shorter than the surrounding forests.

The biggest and most dangerous of these radioactive dumps is called the ‘Red Forest’. In 1986, four and a half miles of evergreen woodlands stood directly in the path of the deadliest debris from the explosion and they turned red and died. The trees and one million square metres of topsoil were buried on the spot by the authorities and covered with four feet of sand; years later, young strange-shaped green pines have sprouted but the name has stuck. It is one of the most radioactive outdoor environments on the planet and has become the premier site to study the effect of radioactivity on trees.

According to the author: ‘Radiation resistance among trees varies widely. Evergreens die at lower doses than leafy trees and young trees are more vulnerable than older ones. The growth of spruce and pine, the most sensitive species, gets stunted at absorbed doses of 150 to 250 rads. But it takes 1,000 to 1,500 rads – fatal for most other trees – to slow down an aspen. Birch and alder are somewhere in the middle.’

Incidentally, it is widely believed that Chornobyl (the original Ukrainian word that has been Russianised) means ‘wormwood’, linking the disaster to both the Biblical prophecy of the Wormwood star preceding Armageddon, and to the herb of the same name. Turns out, however, that wormwood is Artemis absinthium whereas chornobyl is Artemissia vulgaris, the common English name for which is ‘mugwort’.

This a genuinely fascinating book which takes you into unreal landscapes and the strange lives of the people who exist there and also seeks to explain, in carefully worded detail, the intricacies of radioactive substances and their effect on human health and the environment. A superb piece of reporting by an American journalist, who still lives in Kiev, that deserves to be widely read.

This review focused on the effect of radiation on trees but there are many other interesting stories to do with the wildlife in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.



The Prezwalski’s horse had been native to Asia, primarily China and Mongolia with the last wild horse being spotted in China in 1966.  The horse is named after the Russian geographer and explorer Nikolai Przhevalsky and has never been domesticated, hence it is considered to be the world’s true wild horse. [Text Source: Straight From the Horse’s Heart]

According to a review in Nuclear Engineering International (June 2006)

‘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.”

Here is an updated 2008 report on the status of the horses:

Zharkikh T.L., Yasynetska N.I., 2008. Demographic parameters of a Przewalski horse (Equus przewalskii Polj., 1881) population in the exclusive zone of the Chernobyl power plant. Bulletin of Moscow Society of Naturalists. Biological series. Vol. 113, No 5. P. 3–9.


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