Stalking the wild Lithuanian
The train reaches the end of the world at eight o’clock. Morning fog lies thick and heavy over the wooden railroad station in Marcinkonys, largest village in Varena County, in the middle of Lithaunia’s largest forest. Stand on the platform and look in any direction: woods. The farmers’ low-slung houses are painted blue, red, or yellow.
This used to be the mainline. German engineers planned the route that tied Warsaw to St. Petersburg starting in 1864. Russian noblemen, Polish lords, Jewish merchants, Lithuanian farmers – they all looked out as their trains flew past the little clearing where the village of Marcinkonys stands, briefly interrupting the endless sameness of the Dzukija forest.
Now Marcinkonys is the end of the line. There is not a lot going on, somewhat as though the village had been abandoned. A morning in late summer, and no signs of life except two dogs who wander the two streets and a selection of sand-paved paths.
The only other passenger was Renata, 23. The student walks half an hour to her office in Dzukija National Park. Her commentary on the empty village: “They must all be in the woods.” It is mushroom season. Every citizen with the power of locomotion is combing the woods with a basket. They grow so thick you can harvest them with a scythe. No one claims to “look for mushrooms.” You “go mushroom-picking.” Every hectare of woods sports around 100 kilos of the things, and there are 50,000 hectares of woods. That makes 5,000 tons of mushrooms.
English-speakers are rare. Renata is one of the few. Tourists are a new phenomenon. The villagers are not, strictly speaking, farmers. They are hunter-gatherers. Nature rules here with her wise laws of growth and decay, an enlightened despot intent on letting no one die of hunger, assuming he remembers to fill his larder in the fall. The woods, the creeks, the swamps nourish the 858 inhabitants of Marcinkonys: with berries, mushrooms, fish, wild game, honey, wood to heat and build, herbs and roots to stay healthy, bark to make shoes and baskets, reeds to cover the roof.
Renata opens Danuta’s garden gate. She is not home. “I should have known,” Renata says. She wanted to enlist Danuta to cook for some French tourists. The park has no restaurant.
Danuta has been roaming the park since six a.m. Her old VW Golf is parked on a sandy road. Carpets of blueberries and moss under a roof of pine and birch twigs. The luster of fresh spider webs and juniper. But Danuta has no time for beauty. She stares fixedly at the ground. “I’m sick and tired of mushrooms,” she says. Most young people share her view. There are 100 deaths for every 14 births in the region. The Catholic church lacks a priest. The Djukija is slowly dying off. The sandy soil produces potatoes the size of pigeons’ eggs as feed for pigs. The dunes, up to 90 feet tall, can support nothing more demanding than buckwheat ….