soviet posters from the chernobyl ruins

After the Cherobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, a Zone of Alienation (The Zone) was established in the vicinity of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Humans were evacuated by the Soviet military and never allowed to return. But The Zone is not entirely abandoned: it’s been re-inhabited by wolves, badgers, moose, and foxes – all species that had gone extinct in The Zone long ago…

Despite its name, the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is the most militarized place on the planet. Like a long jagged scar, it traces a path from the Yellow Sea to the Sea of Japan, splitting the Korean Peninsula into Communist North and Capitalist South. Humans are wary of entering the 2.5 mile-wide gap between the two countries: towns, villages, farms, and factories were all abandoned in the wake of the Korean War. But animal and plant life are less apprehensive: today the area is one of the most biodiverse regions in North-East Asia. There are even claims that locally-extinct Siberian Tigers have re-colonized the DMZ…

In 1962, life in the mining town of Centralia, Pennsylvania changed forever. A small fire spread to a coal-strip mine. Like a metastasizing tumor, the fire spread beneath the city, following veins of anthracite coal. Smoldering pits began opening up across the city, swallowing up homes, animals, people. In a town of devout protestants, it didn’t take much convincing for the inhabitants to correctly interpret the metaphor of fire and brimstone, and Centralia was abandoned. A half century later, grasses poke up through cracks in asphalt roads, frogs lay eggs in gutted churches, and deer stroll confidently down Main Street in the middle of the day…

The United Nations Buffer Zone separates Turkish Northern Cyprus from its Southern (Greek) neighbor. Established following the Turkish invasion of Northern Cyprus and subsequent displacement of Greeks from the northern half of the island, it’s much more permeable than the Korean DMZ or The Ukrainian Zone of Alienation. Despite a limited human presence, animal and plant life still flourish: in a region that’s been victimized by human civilization longer than anywhere else on the planet, this twisted strip of land has been allowed to return to nature…

Each of these are examples of “involuntary parks,” created unintentionally by humans as the result of war, conflict, and industrial catastrophe. During my itinerant mid-20’s, I happened to stumble across all of these places. Nowhere in the world is free from human influence: even the most “virgin” forests have been radically transformed by humanity over the past hundred thousand years: where are the mammoths, mastodons, and sabre-tooth tigers? The special thing about involuntary parks is that they admit to having been influenced by mankind – this is a kind of honesty you don’t experience in Yosemite, Yellowstone, or the Grand Canyon – all places that despire their beauty have nonetheless been subjected to dramatic human alteration.

As the coronavirus suppresses economic activity across the world, we’re entering a phase when the entire planet is being turned into a (temporary) involuntary park. The skies over China are clearing of smog, the rivers are de-acidifying, there are fewer cars on the street and planes in the air… I’m not sure if this is a good thing or a terrible thing, but hopefully it makes you pause to think, like it made me.

ruins of ishinomaki