For two days it has been cold and pouring continually, but each morning the caravan of scientists rolls out from the inn on the square in the small northwestern Czech village of Horni Blatna and heads an hour north into the mountains. At the group’s study site, just a few miles from the German border, the forest is full-grown Norway spruce about a hundred years old. The trees survive on the western edge of the notorious Black Triangle, the heavily industrialized region where Poland, Germany, and the Czech Republic meet. During the Communist era, this 12,000 square-mile area was one of the most polluted industrial landscapes on the face of the globe.
The group unpacks its gear — from pruners that can reach branches 30 feet off the ground to small glass lab dishes in which a single spruce needle can be cut up and preserved — and hikes into the woods. Barrett Rock, a professor of natural resources at the University of New Hampshire, a tall, ruddy-faced, white-haired Vermonter, briefs the researchers on their procedures and they set to work, some at branches, some at trunks, some at roots, like a Lilliputian surgical team operating on a giant. Their patient, however, is not one tree or a single group of trees but the forest itself. They want to know what effects the region’s pollution has had on it. And then, they hope, if their measurements and instruments are sensitive enough, their analyses can be used to chart the pathology of this or any other forest. These Czech scientists and students working in the forest with their American counterparts regard its recovery in the Krušné hory — the Ore Mountains — as something of an ecological allegory, a tale in which natural fortunes reflect political ones.