Deep in a pine forest to the north of Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, a beautiful mushroom warmed its brown cap in the gentle autumn sun — it was an all but irresistible scene for Ukrainian mushroom hunters.
But all around there was danger. Cut through the mossy forest floor were line after line of trenches from the battle for Kyiv last winter, and countless mines and unexploded projectiles. Weighing the risk of mines and the allure of their quarry, thousands of Ukrainians in the first mushroom season since the Russian invasion hunted for mushrooms.
Now, they are in the post-picking phase of the season, tallying their spoils and setting out to preserve them for the hard winter ahead. The risk may seem extreme for what was so long seen as a pastoral pastime, but Ukrainian mushroom hunters view it differently. They are passionate about their tranquil walks in the forest, and see in them a sign of Ukraine’s resilience and a way to preserve ordinary life during wartime.
“I wanted to go back to a peaceful life,” said Dmytro Poyedynok, 52, a yoga teacher from the Kyiv suburb of Bucha who was out mushroom hunting on a late-fall day.
He said he saw such mushroom excursions as “symbolic for me as it’s a peaceful hunting” in a forest that saw so much violence. In glades and meadows, blown-up tanks rust. Earlier this fall while looking for mushrooms, he stumbled on the makeshift grave of a child.
People who have lived through the horrors of the war often find great solace in routine. But many now have lost their jobs and rely on mushrooms to earn money and to preserve food for winter. Mushroom hunters may have lost loved ones, but they were not ready to lose the glimpses of their former lives they found in the misty, damp autumnal forests.
As the war drags into a 10th month, Ukraine’s government and people remain defiant, even as electricity blinks, water taps go dry and apartments hover around freezing temperatures from lack of heating as Russian missiles attack infrastructure targets.
Ukrainians, many of whom have second homes in villages and feel an attachment to the countryside, even if they live in towns or cities, said they knelt for no one — but would do so to pick potatoes or photograph mushrooms.
And so Poyedynok rode his bicycle into the pine forests around Bucha, carrying a few plastic bags, something he has done all of his life.
He lived through the occupation of Bucha, a month of horror during which Russian soldiers shot civilians and left their bodies on the streets. He said that his uncle was killed and that he was detained and threatened with execution.
The forests in areas that were occupied remain heavily mined. Mines and unexploded ordnance cover thousands of square miles of Ukrainian land, according to the interior minister, Denys Monastyrsky.
The Ukrainian government pleaded with people not to pick mushrooms, and the government agency for forest resources imposed formal restrictions on walking in forests in nine Ukrainian provinces, including the region around Kyiv where Poyedynok goes.
But specialists say it will take at least a decade to demine the forests — and many Ukrainians were not ready to wait that long before returning to their favorite hobby.
Reports of mushroom hunters stepping on mines came regularly from all of the nine provinces where walking in the forest was banned. The numbers are not very high by the measure of a war that is believed to have killed tens of thousands: three to four people per region have stepped on mines, dying or losing legs, while searching for mushrooms, local officials said.
“Generally people are careful, but not all of them are,” said Viktoria Ruban, a spokesperson for the Kyiv province’s emergency service, which has responded to calls when mushroom hunters step on mines.
Poyedynok used to teach packed classes of yoga, but only a few of his students have stayed in Ukraine. With the money he is able to earn from teaching drastically decreased, mushrooms, as they have so often in times of famine or distress in Ukraine, have helped.
He said he was able to pick 550 pounds of mushrooms. His family preserved much of the bounty for winter for themselves and gave a lot to friends and relatives. They also started selling mushrooms.
Some of the purchasers are mushroom pickers who long for the sensations of the pastime but are too cautious to enter the forests.
“Those who always go mushroom picking but now are scared started coming to us just to smell the mushrooms, look at them,” said Poyedynok’s wife, Yana Poyedynok, “and eventually started buying them.”
The family earned about $1,000 this season selling mushrooms.
“It is not a lot,” Yana Poyedynok, 44, said, “but covered some small expenses.”
Most of the time, Dmytro Poyedynok went mushroom hunting on his own.
After the excursion with his family when he came across the child’s grave, his wife and son became afraid of the forests, and now seldom join him. They go only to the forests they have already been to, and to those they believe to be safe.
As Russian soldiers pull back from parts of Ukraine, the celebration generally proves short-lived. Soon enough, the bodies are found, and the accounts of atrocities against civilians emerge. But those are deaths past. The dangers in the forests threaten death today, and for any number of tomorrows.
In September, when most of the Kharkiv region in the northeast was recaptured, it was just on the cusp of mushroom season. Within weeks, reports began coming in of mushroom pickers stepping on mines. Three were maimed in October in the newly retaken forests, local officials said.
In one forest on the outskirts of Izium, a city in Kharkiv, investigators found hundreds of graves bearing civilians and a mass grave where Ukrainian soldiers appeared to be buried, officials said.
Next to this forest lives Raisa Derevianko, 65. In September, she looked on from a bench outside her house as the human remains were exhumed. Now, she can watch the demining work.
Mushroom season came and went, but she never made it into the forest.
“All of this is very horrible,” Derevianko said of the mass graves. “But what I want the most is for them to finish clearing my forest. I miss mushrooms so much.”