Saturday, September 19, 2015

The abandoned city of Prypiat

Not long ago, camping on the edge of a field, a passing child saw me reading Tim Dee's Four Fields (it's cover a flat grey landscape) and pronounced "that looks boring".  If he had stopped to listen I might have explained that the Fens are a lot more interesting than they appear and furthermore that the book's other 'fields' involve drowning wildebeest, Custer's Last Stand and the aftermath of a nuclear explosion.  At Chernobyl, Tim spends five days with scientists Tim Mousseau and Anders Pape Moller and is given the task of capturing grasshoppers in a bag ('the clicks of their legs against the plastic like the ticks of the radiation meter next to them').  He describes a forest so poisoned that for a time even microbial life was destroyed, a village where uncollected scrap metal, remnants of civilisation, slowly rots, an old military airfield which had been intended as a base for the Soviet space shuttle.  The journey ends in the abandoned city of Prypiat, where trees have engulfed everything and the roads are almost all impassable...
'The asphalt surface is split as if rotten, and welters around strapping trunks.  Every two- and three-storey building has been overgrown and is deep in tree shade.  Leaf ghosts camouflage grey concrete panels, where last year's emulsified foliage has printed itself on to the walls,  This year's leaves are adjacent and ready.  In other places the concrete is veined with green deltas of moss and water runs up as well as down.  The buildings seep...' 
Prypiat was the U.S.S.R.'s ninth nuclear city, built in 1970 to service the workers at Chernobyl.  Its ruins are increasingly well-explored and photographed and are possibly too rich in symbolism to offer much scope for artists.  They have appeared in music videos and TV programmes (an episode of Top Gear), fictionalised in novels, movies and video games like S.T.A.L.K.E.R.  It is now possible to go on tourist trips to see the dead city but restrictions on access have allowed some non-professional artists to receive attention for their work.  The Daily Telegraph published a set of photographs by 'Michael Day, 29, an air traffic controller from London' who 'visited the disaster scene with a Ukrainian government escort to photograph the ghost town'.  The drone footage in Postcards from Pripyat (above) was put together in his spare time by a photographer working for CBS.  In a crowd-funded project, Prypyat mon Amour, Alina Rudya has returned to the city her parents left in 1986 to take ghostly photographs of herself in and around what remains of their old apartment block; a book is due out next year to coincide with the thirtieth anniversary. 

 S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat

Tim Dee mentions trying to record birdsong in the Zone, but it was so quiet in September that he gave up trying.  All he could hear on playback were the buzzes and clicks of the machine.  When I read this I thought of sound artist Peter Cusack: on his Sounds from dangerous places site you can listen to recordings like 'Cuckoo and radiometer, Pripyat'.  As I wrote here back in 2009, Cusack found nature thriving at Chernobyl: 'radiation seems to have had a negligible effect. The increase in wildlife numbers and variety means that the natural sounds of springtime are particularly impressive. For me the passionate species rich dawn chorus became Chernobyl’s definitive sound'.  Tim Dee, working with the biologists, saw things very differently: 'one in ten of all birds of all species are afflicted in the Zone.'  Research continues.  Tim Mousseau was interviewed in the New York Times last year about new research on adaptation in some bird species.  He still 'dismisses the idea that the Zone is some kind of post-apocalyptic Eden.  But the latest study has given him pause, he said, because it shows the kind of adaptations that may allow some creatures — chaffinches and great tits in this case, though not barn swallows or robins — to thrive in the Zone. However, it remains to be seen whether these species are truly thriving...'  Mousseau is broadening and deepening his research around Chernobyl, but he now has to divide his time.  Since 2011 he has made more than ten trips to Fukishima.

(Note: The name of the city is spelt differently by different writers: In 'Four Fields' it is 'Prypiat'.)

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