This place was part of my life for only one summer, many years ago, yet I remember it well. I was seven years old, a thoroughly urban child, and my mother took me to a friend’s cottage in the countryside for a month.
It was a wet August, but the rains came mostly at night and the days were still warm and long. We went wild mushroom foraging almost every day. To leave the village, we walked along a harvested field, strewn with thick stacks of hay which steamed in the morning sun and smelled faintly of caramel. The path led through a dense beech forest, very dark, the tree trunks silvery, smooth, and straight. There was no undergrowth. At every turn, I expected to see Baba Yaga, the fabled old witch, her log hut swaying on giant chicken legs. Then the woods changed abruptly. We emerged into bright sunshine, into a large and airy grove, mostly birch but some aspen and pine, too. On three sides, the grove was surrounded by the beech forest. At the far end, it gave way to a steep slope, with wide views of the valley beyond. I remember the blinding whiteness of the birch bark and fragility of the aspen leaves trembling in the breeze.
But mostly, I remember the mushrooms, the variety and proliferation that I haven’t seen anywhere else I lived in the world since. Every day, our baskets were full: meaty and dignified ceps, the “king mushrooms”; orange-capped aspen boletes; chocolate-capped birch boletes; slimy and spongy “slippery jacks”; russula mushrooms, pink or greenish-yellow, with their brittle gills; bright orange chanterelles, the “little foxes”. I looked for my favourites – convex saffron milk caps, fringed when young, bright orange, with darker concentric stripes and water collected at the bottom of the “vase”. They oozed milk and stained my fingers an unexpected green. I also learnt about toadstools and deadly parasols. I admired, but did not touch, the fairy-tale caps of fly-agarics, bright red and covered with white spots, highly toxic. The perfectly spherical caps of giant puffball mushrooms exploded into dark grey clouds of spores under my feet.
Once, we set out to the grove in a company of my mother’s visiting friends. We took a different from usual path to get there. Having spent half a day picnicking, the company started on its way back through the beech forest. The direction we were heading in looked wrong to me. A seven-year old, city-raised child voiced her concern and of course no one listened. I cried and insisted and pointed the way. The grown-ups were patient but firm. We came out of the beech forest on the other side of the fields; for what felt like hours, we trudged through spiky remains of harvested wheat, under the scorching afternoon sun.
After Chernobyl exploded, a couple of years later and a few hundred miles from where we lived, we didn’t go foraging for a long time. We never came back to that cottage either. I don’t even know the name of the village, I never thought of writing it down.
A small part of my identity was formed that summer though. I would always think of myself as capable of navigating mushrooms, and topography; I would occasionally remind myself that I had a strong sense of direction, and that a child may know better. I often dream of that birch grove, and of the wild mushrooms.