Sunday, October 21, 2018

Wormwood forest

Ah, I see that it is exactly a year since I last posted here - a link to Gene's obituary. He has been much on my mind this month, for obvious reasons.

Am deep in Gibbon book and its writing - just spent the afternoon reading a book that I first heard about more than ten years ago (in this TLS review, though I can't access the whole piece without requesting it through ILL - in all these years, the TLS still hasn't improved the usability of its archive!), Mary Mysio's Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl. It is a very good book without being a great one (the excellence of the topic exceeds the skill level of the writer, perhaps - the copy-editing isn't great and in the hands of a different publisher it might have developed into something more for the ages). Which is to say that it doesn't have the literary force (the unforgettable shock value) of Svetlana Alexievich's Voices From Chernobyl: An Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, with which it must be read in tandem (I'm thinking about a reread now). And yet it is an absolutely extraordinary story! Not least in the episode it recounts about the release into the wild of several small herds of Przewalski's horses, a longtime favorite of mine (I just saw some at the small zoo at the Jardin des Plantes the other week).

My reading was prompted by this passage in Gibbon, in which he discusses the repeated and ongoing invasions of the Illyrian provinces after the death of Valens:
Could it even be supposed, that a large tract of country had been left without cultivation, and without inhabitants, the consequences might not have been so fatal to the inferior productions of animated nature. The useful and feeble animals, which are nourished by the hand of man, might suffer and perish, if they were deprived of his protection: but the beasts of the forest, his enemies, or his victims, would multiply in the free and undisturbed possession of their solitary domain. The various tribes that people the air, or the waters, are still less connected with the fate of the human species; and it is highly probable, that the fish of the Danube would have felt more terror and distress, from the approach of a voracious pike, than from the hostile inroad of a Gothic army. (26, 1:1068-69)
The Gibbon book is going to be weaving together a lot of different stories, memoiristic as well as critical, but is really about the cast of thought that makes information become intellectually and analytically interesting....

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