THE WILD BOAR IS STANDING 30 OR 40 yards away, at the bottom of a grassy bank, staring right at me. Even from this distance I can see its outrageously long snout, its giant pointed ears, and the spiny bristles along its back. It looks part porcupine, a number of shades of ocher and gray. And it's far bigger than I expected, maybe chest-high to a man. The boar is like some minor forest god straight from the wilderness, gazing wild-eyed at the strange spectacle of a human being. For a moment it seems to consider charging me, then thinks better of it. When it trots away, it moves powerfully, smoothly, on spindly, graceful legs twice as long as a pig's, and vanishes into the trees.
I climb back into our VW van, tingling all over. The sighting bodes well. I've come to what is being dubbed Europe's largest wildlife refuge in early July, when I knew spotting animals wouldn't be so easy. (Winter, with its scarcity of food and lack of foliage, makes them more visible.) And within a couple of hours I've ticked a wild boar off the list. Maybe luck is on our side.
But luck isn't our only obstacle to wildlife spotting here. This is northern Ukraine's Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, a huge area, some 60 miles across in places, that's been off-limits to human habitation since 1986. Even now, 19 years after the collapse of the USSR, nothing happens in this former Soviet republic without sheets of paper typed and stamped in quintuplicate. It took months of e-mails and phone calls to get permission to spend a few days here. Yes, we're only a couple of foreign vagabonds—photographer Rory Carnegie is an old travel buddy of mine from England—but we have cameras and a telephoto lens, and my notepad has lines in it: obviously we're spies. The Soviet Union may have died, but the Soviet mind-set has not.
At the Chernobyl Center, a kind of makeshift reception building in the heart of the old town, I had to hand over a solid nine inches of local bills—hryvnia, pronounced approximately like the sound of a cardsharp riffling a deck—sign a stack of agreements, compliances, and receipts, and then get checked on an Austin Powers–style Geiger counter made out of chrome. Finally, under the protection of a guide, a driver, and an interpreter, we were free to set off into the zone—as long as we did exactly what our guide said.
A handful of dilapidated roads cross the zone, half-overgrown with weeds and grasses, and the whole area is littered with pockets of intense radiation, but nature doesn't seem to mind. All nature seems to care about is that the people, along with their domestic animals, are for the most part gone. The zone is reverting to one big, untamed forest, and it all sounds like a fantastic success story for nature: remove the humans and the wilderness bounces right back. Lured by tales of mammals unknown in Europe since the Dark Ages, we're setting out on an atomic safari.
IT WAS SOON AFTER 1 A.M. on the night of April 26, 1986, that one of the world's nightmare scenarios unfolded. Reactor 4 in the huge Chernobyl power station blew up. The causes are still the subject of debate, but it was some combination of a design flaw involving the control rods that regulate reactor power levels, a poorly trained engineering crew, a test that required a power-down of the reactor, and a dogged old-style Soviet boss who refused to believe anything major could be wrong. At any rate, it was spectacular. Eight-hundred-pound cubes of lead were tossed around like popcorn. The 1,000-ton sealing cap was blown clear off the reactor. A stream of raspberry-colored light shone up into the night sky—ionized air, so beautiful that inhabitants of the nearby city of Pripyat came out to stare. When it was all over, estimates former deputy chief engineer Grigori Medvedev, the radioactive release was ten times that of Hiroshima.
Chernobyl had been a mostly peaceful settlement for 1,000 years and a predominantly Jewish town for the past three centuries, famous for its dynasty of Hasidic sages. Since the Russian Revolution, the Jews have thinned a lot, but even today there are two shrines to the Hasidim where once a year devotees come to light candles and pray. It's incredible what survives a disaster. As Emily Dickinson said, "How much can come and much can go, and yet abide the world."
In 1970, nine miles from the town, the Soviet Union started building what they hoped would become Europe's largest nuclear power station. (Only four of the planned eight reactors had been completed when disaster struck.) To go with it, they erected a brand-new concrete city, Pripyat, whose 50,000 inhabitants greatly outnumbered the 12,000 living in Chernobyl. The nuclear industry fell under the military complex, and the traditional Soviet culture of secrecy was all over it. Radiation is bad enough, but compound it with Soviet pride and paranoia and you have a potent mix of Kafka and Ray Bradbury.