Sunday, October 14, 2012

A Shortcut to Mushrooms

First, I would like to thank everyone who offered support and concern for my well-being last week. I am pleased to announce that we now have working toilets, sinks, and showers on our floor, and the kitchen is to all appearances close behind. I have also managed to acquire, in whatever ways one does, such prized possessions as a mirror, electric kettle, and (miracle of miracles) a French press and bag of ground coffee, which wouldn't impress any true west coaster, but which has earned my personal reverence on the level of something approaching the Holy Grail. Together with a wonderful cadre of eclectic friends who have done much to take the edge off the disorientation and shock of finding myself very far from home, I am starting to fill in the details on the map of Kaliningrad in my head. Every day adds another cafe, market, or bus line to my geographic repertoire, and my phone's contact list is expanding correspondingly. I suppose this is what adjustment feels like.

Besides vodka and football riots, there are few activities more stereotypically Russian than mushroom hunting, unless you combine both vodka and football riots. Fortunately, last weekend I had the pleasure of participating in a peaceful fungus harvest, rather than a Bacchic brawl, and can now cross the former off my long Russian bucket list. Given the damp weather recently -- by recently, I mean all year, and by damp, I mean rain that makes Portland look dry -- it seemed like a good autumn for mushrooms, so I tagged along with some of my international colleagues out into the slightly soggy countryside.

Калининградская область, the surrounding province also by the name of Kaliningrad, is roughly the size of Connecticut. The city of Kaliningrad is by far the largest urban center within the exclave's borders, but several smaller towns are scattered across the region, connected by a network of roads in varying stages of repair. From our centrally-located dorm, we pass through Kaliningrad's outer ring of fortifications, which circumscribes the city in a connect-the-dots of twelve major and several minor German forts (visiting them all is also on the list). Before 1945, this northwest road was called Reichsstraße 143, connecting Königsberg to the seaside town of Rauschen (now Светлогорск, Svetlogorsk). Today it goes by the less grandiose name of A192, although sections of it are still lined with rows of oaks that predate the war, and are apparently known locally as "the last soldiers of the Wehrmacht." Large trees seem a dangerous way to mark a road, but I have to admit that the way they frame the fields and arch overhead in hues of gold and rust is impressive against the October sky.

In the general vicinity of Переславское (Pereslavskoe, German Drugehnen), we turn off the main road and pile out of Nikita's black Volga, a car so deliciously classic that I may have been having Cold War spy daydreams for most of the trip. The experts among us have deemed this particular patch of woods a likely mushroom habitat, and I try to avoid the worst patches of mud as I look around. I am used to the evergreen forests of Eastern Oregon, full of hanging lichens and granite outcroppings. In contrast, the trees here are mostly deciduous, just starting to turn their autumn colors, and they form a delicate stamp against the overcast light filtering through from above. For the moment, the rain is holding off, and we stand at the bottom of a small hill, looking upwards and listening for the calls of fungi.

The problem with mushrooms is that they all look the same. The other problem with mushrooms is that some of them will kill you. Our experts describe to the rest of us what types we are looking for, and I try to absorb this information, although I suspect that if we leave here with mushrooms today, they will not have been found by me. We set off up the hill, and I train my eyes on the ground. At first I see nothing but the springy mat of leaves underfoot, but then something whitish and dome-shaped catches my eye. "Is this a good one?" I ask. It is not. It has a red stem, which is apparently a poisonous attribute. We move on, but now I see mushrooms everywhere! Yellow ones, red ones, puffy ones, shelf-like ones, ones with spots, and ones that ooze a milky white sporific substance if you squeeze them. I leave most of them alone.

What a wonderful snack this slug must have had before crawling six inches
to the upper left and departing from this world.

As we traverse up the hill, we spread out, each deep in our own fungal pursuits. Stooping along the ground, I begin noticing large depressions in the terrain, three to four feet deep, some of them unusually rectangular. They're trenches from the Second World War, Nikola explains matter of factly, and points to a shallow ditch winding off into the brush. The deeper square holes were dug deliberately, the rounded ones are probably craters from exploding shells. I think I stare at him in shock for a few seconds and then mutter a string of expletives because I have no idea what else to say. Perhaps I shouldn't be as surprised as I am, but I came here looking for mushrooms, not the war. The war does not belong here in my Sunday afternoon, and I don't know what to do now that it's all around me.

I cannot go back to picking mushrooms after that. All I can see are the holes pock-marking the hillside amidst the birdsong, and I climb down inside one to see how it feels. The forest is just as light and open as before, just as full of springy moss and autumn leaves, but now there is something else woven into the woods and it prickles the back of my neck. My imagination is already digging the trenches down as they must once have been, raw and muddy gashes in the hillside, full of men to whom I cannot give their own faces. A lifetime of literature and war movies supply the acrid smell of gunpowder and the shrieks of shells in the night, splintering the trees around me and throwing clods of earth into the air. Then suddenly I am back, it is noon, and a light mist is beginning to filter through the leaves. All is silent, all is peaceful; there is no one here but us.

It is surely a strange juxtaposition of such violence and such tranquility, between looking for enemy targets and looking for mushrooms. But even the shock of finding the war on this quiet hillside is self-evident, and I try to poke a bit deeper into the landscape. I feel dislocated, like I am the ghost here, the one who doesn't belong. Is this my history? We have no battlefields like this in the west of America, nothing to which I can connect this experience. Civil War graveyards belong to the other side of the Mississippi, and the sites of Native American confrontations with the U.S. cavalry are marked more by their obscurity than their importance. The closest thing I can relate this to is the occasional World War II concrete gun mount in the rainforest along the Oregon coast, but those defensive legacies are nothing like this. These foxholes are personal -- men dug them, and men perhaps died in them. Even the serenity of the woods and the abundance of plant life seems to confirm that there is nothing industrial about this. The war looms so large in our memory, in cinematic battlefields and tanks rolling along European rivers to the swell of violins. This bears no resemblance to that. Here, the trees are close, the trench zigzags in a strangely intimate way, and it is all too easy to imagine crawling from one hole to another in the dark, they are that close.

I am afraid of sounding trite, afraid of appropriating experiences that I have no claim to, of imposing my own American conceptions of the war on this place, of fetishizing this landscape with my own desire to have a profound experience. The dead cannot speak for themselves, and I have no right to put words in their mouths, although I am doing so merely by trying to give them faces. I don't know what happened here. I don't know what the people in these holes might have thought, might have felt. I don't know what this place meant to them, or how they might wish it to be remembered. I am afraid that my very act of imagining them here bears little resemblance to who they were, and does more of a disservice than a commemorative one. I am afraid to take some meaning away from here that is artificial, a product of what I want to see, and not of what is. I am just here to pick mushrooms.

How we remember is powerful. I suppose that is the lesson I must take away. Of course there is no true meaning to this place besides what we ascribe to it. It is just a forest, filled with trees and shrubs and mushrooms. Every person who has ever walked or died here has had their own experience of it, and mine is precisely as valid as theirs. Our experiences and the stories we tell about them become history, whether or not they bear any resemblance to what may have happened in a place and time. This is not my land and this is not my war, but I am here now, in October 2012, and this is the story I am telling about it.

When we reconvene for hot tea at the car, even the experts among us have not managed to find many mushrooms of the edible variety, but we all agree that it was nice to get out of the city.

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