We began Day 2 in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone with a visit to Yaniv railway depot. Established in 1925, this whistle stop at a once-remote farming outpost became an essential hub of activity in 1970, when construction began on the Chernobyl nuclear power plant (known prior to 1986 as the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Station) and the city of Pripyat, a utopian model community built to house workers and their families. The Yaniv depot, conveniently adjoining a transportation network of river and roads, would become a landing area for freight and passengers into and out of the nuclear city during its short-lived heyday. After the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl’s reactor 4, the railway would continue to serve vital needs, first as an evacuation route and, in 2016, as part of a transport line to inch an enormous French-built steel sarcophagus over the melted and still highly radioactive reactor’s hastily built and failing 30-year-old concrete tomb.
Now, tracks that once served local traffic on Southwestern Railways and a long-distance Moscow express line are littered with the hulking engines, cars, and debris of a wrecked ghost train. Its derailment is rumored to have been an intentional act by Soviet officials, destroying machines and tracks to discourage appropriation of technology while simultaneously disabling the mobility of these radioactive carriages. That hasn’t stopped squatters from setting up makeshift homes in the occasional train car. But to us curiosity seekers passing through—some having traveled halfway around the world precisely to gawk at this landscape of spectacular ruin—this literal train wreck serves as an ominous metaphor for industry and technology exceeding our means to control ends, when it’s all we can do to short-circuit or bury our most outrageous inventions, clinging to magical hopes that we’ve neutralized their malignancies when all we’ve really done is induce an uneasy coma in a terminal patient. Astonishingly, we’ve evolved a source of energy so potent it can power or destroy our world, and we put it into production despite having absolutely no strategy to dispose of its atmospheric byproducts.
Just as in the utopian city of Pripyat, Yaniv’s structures and machines are now largely obscured by thickets of tall pines, creeping vines, and forest floors mulched by decay and ornamented with clusters of exotic fungi as beautiful as Easter eggs. Unlike more organic structures, of course, locomotives aren’t readily composted by the elements, but nature adapts, growing around and through the ruins. Nature has been and always will be more adaptable than we are.
Climate scientists hold that we’re destroying the planet, whether through negligent nihilism, corrosive incuriosity, or human addictions to convenience—I count myself guilty at the very least on count three, and at times on count one. But this terminal diagnosis of Earth seems shortsighted. We’re really only rendering it uninhabitable for ourselves. The planet seems perfectly capable of persevering in our absence, at least until the sun explodes in a few billion years and vaporizes our universal garbage once and for all.