rom a 3,000-foot ridge atop the Czech Republic's Kruné hory, or Ore Mountains, the sight of young spruces in dense stands takes photojournalist Antonin Kratochvil by surprise. When he last visited 14 years ago, the vista was far different.
"I'm telling you," he says, "there was nothing here. These hills were bare except for the stumps of dead trees."
A Czech émigré who fled Communist Czechoslovakia in 1967, Kratochvil thinks I don't believe him.
"I have pictures to prove it," he insists as he walks off down the slope planted with 10-year-old Norway spruces, trees healthy enough to be engendering seedlings of their own.
"Come here," he calls. "Look, I told you: old stumps! That was all that was here."
Too truculent a man to keep his thinking to himself, Kratochvil tells me as we walk back to the car that the sight of what has been restored here reminds him of what is elsewhere irretrievable. For while the forests of the Kruné hory were dying, the Czech world around them was suffering prodigious sorrow. Under 40 years of Soviet rule, cultures vanished, families dissolved, and tens of thousands of lives came to ruin or death. Some, like Kratochvil, escaped and found refuge elsewhere.
"You can't understand what was lost," he tells me. "The forest can return. The people and their cultures can't."
Today, however, the air is clear, and it's only as we get close to the sprawling Chemopetrol plant that we smell anything but fall in the air. The complex is huge. I count in one quick scan of the scene a dozen concrete towers billowing steam. Along the roadside, stands of cattails are the only signs that streams meander through the property. But even the cattails are new to Kratochvil. When he was here last, there was nothing at all along the road to soften the grimy industrial landscape.
As we drive through the city of Most, Kratochvil tells me he is intent on finding a small town near Litvinov, which he photographed 14 years ago. Like many other towns in this area, it no longer appears on our road map.
"They were planning to move the town to make more room for the mine. I just want to see the little church that I shot."
During the Communist days, even when the mines swept away the people and their homes, it was customary to leave the churches standing. In the case of the old town of Most, they went so far as to move the church to a new site.
Since the map is no help, Kratochvil stops to ask passersby about the missing town. "You have to ask the old people," he says. "The young people have never even heard of it."
But even the old people have to squint to recall the place. The roads they indicate, bordering open fields and lined with abandoned pear and apple trees, lead us only to the edge of the vast open pit that is the mine -- a rough-sided gouge that stretches for miles. Between the mine and the surrounding villages the land has been filled and is covered with high grasses.
"None of this was filled when I was here," says Kratochvil. The missing towns and rolling hills of fill are disorienting him.
A man walking down the road seems to know.
"Is the church there?" Kratochvil asks.
The man shakes his head and mutters something.
"What did he say?" I ask.
"They finally destroyed the church as well."
We wind our way through a small village and suddenly find ourselves driving on a road out among empty fields.
"It was here," Kratochvil says. The road ends at a gate surrounded by piles of rubble. Beyond, there is unplanted landfill, and beyond that, the mine.
I'm thinking, he's a great photographer but even he can't photograph what's no longer there. But I can see it in his face.
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