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The sun came out, and a soft breeze silvered the birch and willow trees shading the shoreline. The bulrushes clattered. Fish nipped at insects, sending ripples over the pond’s lilycovered surface. “Steve, you come here,” Igor shouted. ” I circled the edge of the pond. There was Igor, standing next to the carcass of a moose calf. The calf lay on its side, half submerged. A black water beetle the size of a tea saucer clawed at its nose, and frogs squatted on its bloated rib cage, snapping at flies.
But in many European countries the consumption of berries, mushrooms, and wild game is to this day restricted because of contamination from Chernobyl’s fallout. The area around the hotel in Chernobyl is considered “clean” by Zone standards, with about three times the background radiation found elsewhere in Europe. Still, it was high enough to sharpen one’s sense of mortality. On our first morning, as we gathered in the parking lot before breakfast, a cuckoo called from the trees. According to Ukrainian folklore, Gennadi said, the number of calls corresponded to how long you will live.
Trees and bushes encroached on the road, at times scraping the doors. “I like this forest, almost jungle,” said Igor Chizevsky, a technician at the Chernobyl EcoCenter and our official guide. His job was to make sure we didn’t stray into sensitive areas like Chernobyl-2, even though it had been decommissioned long ago and pictures of it were easy to find on the Internet. Soviet-era paranoia has a long halflife. On my first day in Chernobyl, an irate military officer interrogated me in the street for taking pictures of a Lenin statue.