27 August 2005

Dancing in Thetford Forest

By Jacqui McCarney

I was sitting in the garden when a haunting and poignant song drifted down from my husband's study, strangely familiar and forlorn - I almost hoped it would end quickly but it was also compellingly beautiful. I remembered the steps that accompanied it; it was in fact a dance, The Elm Dance.

It was fitting that I should be reminded of the Elm Dance after a day spent at the very moving exhibition at Saint Peter Mancroft remembering the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 60 years ago. This song is a reminder of a more recent nuclear catastrophe, the horrific accident at Chernobyl in 1986, and of the townspeople upwind at Novozybkov.

I first saw the dance and heard the story of it at a workshop with the Eco-philosopher, system theorist and Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy, who starts each day of her workshops with the joining of hands to follow the simple steps of the Elm Dance. She does so to remember the suffering people of Novozybkov whom she had promised she would never forget. Each time she leads this dance, it is in recognition of their suffering, in solidarity with them, and in hope for the future of humanity.

As the burning reactor in Chernobyl exploded in a volcano of radioactivity, the winds shifted to the north east, carrying a cloud of poisoned smoke in the direction of Moscow. To save the millions in that city, a quick decision was taken to seed the clouds and cause them to rain. So an unusually late April heavy rain bearing intense concentrations of radioactive iodine, strontium, caesium and particles of plutonium, drenched the towns and countryside of the Bryansk region. The people there were not informed of their government's decision and even now, although it is common knowledge, it is rarely mentioned.

Joanna Macy and her team had travelled from one town to another, offering workshops to help with the psychological trauma of those affected by the contamination of Chernobyl. Novozbkov was the last town she visited, and although the most badly affected, nobody wanted to talk about Chernobyl. Sitting in a circle, these people wanted to talk about the anger and breakdown of their community, from sullen children, absent spouses, to backbiting neighbours. But the nightmare of the contamination was taboo.

They also remembered happier times and their own childhoods - harvest time, sleigh parties and picnics in the forests. Even during the Nazi occupation, they fought from the shelter of the forests. Even under Stalin, they went into the forests every weekend - walking, picnicking, mushrooming. They said that they were "people of the forest". They could not move forward from 1986. They refused to accept the horror that happened to them, but felt compelled to speak. They recalled the searing hot wind from the south east, the white ash that fell from the sky, the children running and playing in it, the drenching rain that followed the rumours, and the fear.

As the workshop progressed, a number drew pictures - many of trees, and the road to the trees blocked with a large X, blocking the way for wood absorbs most radiation and the forests had become the most dangerously contaminated area.

When they returned to the circle, they were angry and distraught. One woman cried: "What good does it do? I would be willing to feel all the sorrow in the world if it could save my daughters from cancer. Each time I look at them I wonder if tumours will grow in their little bodies. Can my tears protect them?"

The next day, calmer and clearer, they acknowledged how hard it had been to face their pain, but they also spoke of how it had connected them to everyone else "as if we were all branches of the same tree". Breaking the silence was painful, but cathartic - a man who had left silently every day to visit his young daughter in hospital said: "It is like being clean, for the first time in a long time".

In Norfolk, we are at considerable risk - on our doorstep, we have nuclear warheads at the US base at Lakenheath, and reactors at Sizewell. In June, we heard that the government is considering using a site in Thetford Forest for storing/dumping nuclear waste. There was also the exercise called 'Dimming Sun', which simulated what would happen if a US plane carrying nuclear weapons crashed in the forest. Those wishing to rid this area of nuclear weapons will be holding a vigil at the Lakenheath base on September 25th. I hope they too will find time to join hands in solidarity with the people of Novozybkov for the Elm Dance.

A CD of the Elm Dance and booklet can be obtained from info@scottstudio.co.uk.