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Plants, Heavy Metals, and the Lingering Scars of World War

In 1919, all along the Western Front, French authorities were taking stock of the devastation of World War I. From the border with Belgium at Lille to the border with Switzerland near Strasbourg, this most brutal of wars had torn a rupture through the land: It was ripped, cratered, pitted, charred by a billion artillery shells fired over four years. “Where there are no dead,” wrote Henri Barbusse, “the earth itself is corpselike.” A Frankenstein landscape, stitched and stapled together, which harbored in its flesh millions of tons of unexploded munitions and chemical weapons enough to kill an army, all over again.

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Economically hobbled by war, and awed by the scale of the problem facing them, the French authorities developed a triage system: They surveyed the régions dévastées and drew up a series of maps that charted areas believed to be devastated beyond repair. In total, more than 460 square miles were classified in this way, shaded with a red pencil and declared no‑go areas. Though over the following decades, this total was much reduced, but near Verdun, where the land was choppier, steeper, more remote, and the damage total.
After a period of uncertainty, it was decided to plant a shroud of trees over the war zone—a living sarcophagus that might stabilize the soil and contain the terrors within for a generation or more. A forest of forgetfulness. Where the land was worst affected—soil stripped almost to the bedrock—they planted black pines, one of the only hardy species that could thrive there. So it remains today. They call it the Zone Rouge.

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