As for the radioactive boar several hundred miles away in Germany, they become irradiated by eating plants downwind from the meltdown that contain residual traces of radioactivity—including truffles, tubers, and mushrooms that absorb high degrees of radioactive waste from the soil. Apart from anniversaries like this one, Chernobyl has faded from memory. But for the radioactive elements the disaster expelled, life has just begun. The disaster lives on, but invisibly.
Perhaps we should pay more heed to our fictions. After World War II, Godzilla, a fictional monster empowered by nuclear radiation, reminded Japan and the rest of the world that radioactive material is a beast more forceful and longer-living then humans can imagine. Allegorically, Godzilla made the otherwise invisible nuclear threat visible.
Other films followed suit. In the 1955 nuclear monster movie Them, an early atomic-bomb test in New Mexico mutates common ants into human-killing beasts. In it, the wise character Dr. Harold Metford (ominously played by the Miracle on 34th Street Santa Edmund Gwenn) observes, “We may be witnesses to a Biblical prophecy come true: ‘And there shall be destruction and darkness come upon creation and the beast shall reign over the earth.’” Mystery and ominousness ruled the day. “If these monsters got started as a result of the first atomic bomb in 1945,” Gunsmoke cowboy actor James Arness asks of Gween’s Metford at the film’s conclusion, “what about all the others that have been exploded since then?” To which Metford replies “Nobody knows. When Man entered the atomic age, he opened a door into a new world. What we’ll eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict.”
Human control comes with a dose of repression. As a modern species, we hope to move forward from calamities like Chernobyl and Fukushima (where radioactive boar have also just been reported). We want to forget our vulnerability and get on with our lives. Humanity’s veneer of stability and progress must be maintained. But the animals won’t let us forget. They carry our past along with them. In eastern Germany alone, the radioactive caesium-137 levels in wild boar is six times the European Union limits for safe hunting and consumption of game. Geiger-counter stations stand sentinel to remind citizens of an invisible toxicity. There is nowhere to run from the geological time of radiation and the evolutionary time of its biological aftermath.
These accidental actors of ecological remembrance are not tricked out in Japanese monster costumes. There is no puppetry nor scale models. In fact, the Exclusion Zone and sanctuary around Chernobyl is also known by an almost existential title, the Zone of Alienation. And who is alienated if not we humans? First from a time outside of human time (the half-life of radioactive elements) and then from physical bodies that do not conform to planned technological progress. Even though they are more modest than our fictions imagined, creatures like boars have become the real Godzillas, invading our cities with their irradiated tusks to remind us of the limits of human control.