By Mary Mycio (Joseph Henry Press, 2005)
Triggered or not by An Inconvenient Truth and its fallout, the meme is in the air of contemplating what the planet would look like if everyone vanished, which is really just a polite way of asking whether the planet might not be better off if we weren't on it. There is Alan Weisman's The World Without Us, the Will Smith vehicle I Am Legend, the special Life After People on the History Channel. Somehow we have trouble staying away from the image of New York City alternately underwater or covered with flowers.
In the acknowledgments to The World Without Us, Weisman tells us that his book was inspired by an article he wrote for Discover about the Zone of Alienation, the 30-kilometer circle of land around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, which was suddenly (almost) depopulated in a matter of days after the reactor's catastrophic meltdown in 1986 and never resettled. Wormwood Forest is the book he could have written, as Mycio takes us on a long and eerie tour of the deserted towns and cities, overgrown fields, government posts, and squatters' farms inside the zone, where the irradiated remnants of Soviet-era civilization are crumbling into ruins as the flora and fauna reoccupy the territory we kicked them out of centuries ago. The strange news is that nonhuman life inside the Zone of Alienation--as in the DMZ between North and South Korea — is absolutely thriving, in a way that some U.S. national parks would envy, and despite the serious levels of radiation that will persist there, as far as we are concerned, almost forever. The details of this simple conceit are more than enough to fill a book, and while Mycio may not be as lyrical a writer as Weisman is, her book equals Wesiman's in power for its solid, no-nonsense reporting and, more to the point, its grounding in truth. The World Without Us speculates that the world could recover from us; Wormwood Forest shows us that it most certainly can.