Date: Mon, 4 May 2009
From: Sergei Roy <email@example.com>
Subject: Moscow’s Shy Spring. Pt.2.
Early in February, when the skiing season was here at its height, a friend living in southern Germany wrote to me of Frühlingswetter “spring weather” that had come to Lake Bodensee – you know, the place where a Russian liner crashed into another plane through the fatal error or negligence of a Swiss air traffic controller who has since been knifed down by the grief-crazed parent of a child victim of that error. The father has already served his term and been greeted like a hero on his return to his native North Ossetia, if you are really interested.
These tragedies, though, could not be further from our present theme, which is precisely Frühlingswetter. Reading that German word in February, what was one to do but pale with envy, clench one’s teeth and wait grimly for the inevitable – one hoped – arrival of the next season here in snowbound Moscow. Also, meditate on the fact that, though part of Russia is in Europe, it is somehow a different kind of Europe. Maybe the feelings and doings of that Ossetian father are somehow relevant here, after all.
Now, three months later, spring is practically here, though it’s still touch and go, with night temperatures dropping sharply, north wind bringing at times vivid memories of winter, and this sort of thing forecast to go on until the middle of May, with the rest of May weather “beyond the horizon of specific weather predictability.” Don’t these weathermen have a knack for the nicely turned out phrase.
Forget the weathermen, though. A bit of sunshine and no rain is all the signal Muscovites need to head for the nearest patch with trees in it for a spot of communion with nature, to celebrate the arrival of spring. So my wife and I at last decided to believe the TV propaganda about the reviving beauty of Moscow’s Botanical Gardens and arrived there Sunday by the Metro in a state of pleasurable excitement.
The first impression was a bit of a damper: the whole area in front of the main entrance was filled, fender to fender, with Toyota Land Cruisers and the like. For all the world the scene looked like Tverbul (Tverskoy Boulevard to you) in the 19th century, where carriage owners used to parade their horses and their women while the women paraded their furs, their diamonds, their lapdogs or husbands or whatever, and the fops were busy lorgnetting (lornirovali, that is, impudently stared through lorgnettes at) the whole scene. The air around Tverbul now being unbreathable without a gas mask, the whole scene has moved to the Botanical Gardens – minus the lorgnettes, but the spirit is much the same. What is mostly paraded are the cars, the kids’ rollerblades and accoutrements, and the toddlers’ electronically controlled tiny vehicles. The lapdogs are perennial, though, and damn the economic downturn.
Luckily the Botanical Gardens are spacious enough even for Moscow, the throng being mostly concentrated around the main entrance and the widest asphalted path or road, rather, running across the whole Gardens toward the VVTs, or VDNKh (it answers to both names), Moscow’s vast Expo area. Being old customers around here, we headed straight for the Zapovednaya Milya (the Sanctuary Mile, I suppose) – a square mile in the center of the Gardens surrounded by a tall metal fence, originally planned to preserve a Central Russian landscape in pristine shape, untrodden by human feet.
I don’t know about truly human feet, but the place is certainly well trodden by the feet of the homeless and the drunks (actually, the two categories largely coincide: all down-and-outs are drunks though not all drunks are homeless) who have left their droppings, mostly bottles, all over the place. The metal fence has been breached in many places, and the administration apparently does not have the wherewithal for repairs, or maybe it is too philosophically aware of the futility of the exercise: metal that could withstand Russians’ craving for the forbidden fruit has not yet been invented, I guess.
If you are lucky, though, you can spend a couple of hours here without seeing a soul. On the other hand, if you are not, you can get strangled, as a few solitary young ladies found out a few years back the hard way; but it was a bumper year, a statistical freak that can surely be ignored.
Inured to the sight of the bottles, we concentrated on the flowers, and were richly rewarded. There was a large patch covered with violets, the first time we caught a glimpse of them this year. If you go down on your knees and bend real low (be a nice guy, don’t pick them), you can even sniff at them, but you would have to come impossibly early to smell them when the scent is strongest. Just to look at them brought back happy memories of my youth, when I used to jog on the wooded slopes of Mount Beshtau real early in the morning and would from time to time run into a tiny valley where the air was so still and so filled with violet scent it felt like the more upscale section of Paradise.
There was plenty of colt’s foot in the Sanctuary Mile, too, but we had seen it perform bravely against nocturnal frost for a few weeks already. Russian has a funny name for colt’s foot – mat’-i-machekha “mother-and-stepmother,” because of the leaves: smooth as mother’s caress on the upside, they are pretty rough on the downside.
Then another yellow delight, not yet seen this year: buttercups in profusion, at various stages of opening up. The one obnoxious thing about buttercups is their Russian name, lyutiki, which starts a melody, if you can call it that, of a pop song that goes round and round in your head until you want to climb the nearest tree. As if that would be any good.
No such musical torment clings to another variety of lyutik – ranniy, or vesenniy lyutik, which to an English eye is not a lyutik at all but the lesser celandine. Not much difference from the buttercups so far as I can see, though: the lesser celandine’s petals are pointed while those of buttercups are rounded, and don’t shoot the amateur botanist, he is only trying.
Now for the greatest news: Strochki are out! I saw five of them, looking like small pictures of human brains well hidden among last year’s leaves, and they were even the non-poisonous kind, Gyromitra gigas, bigger and a lighter brown than their poisonous brethren Gyromitra esculenta, also known in Russian as torchok. English does not distinguish between the two kinds, calling them both false morels, which Roger Phillips’s Mushrooms describes as “deadly poisonous.”
Ha. A lot those Brits know about mushrooms. The great Russian mushroom-gathering season is open. This is a national sport; and, as in any other kind of sports, some individuals bite off more than they should chew, so they fall by the wayside. These are mostly connoisseurs trying to impress other mushroom-gatherers with their superior knowledge. Just another proof that you can’t fool Nature, Nature will fool you every time. Count the dead from mushroom poisoning toward early autumn (usually around four hundred a year).
Like someone said, you can eat all kinds of mushrooms – but some only once.