In Forests Full of Mines, Ukrainians Find Mushrooms and Resilience

ZDVYZHIVKA, Ukraine — Deep in a pine forest north of Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, a beautiful mushroom warmed its brown hat in the soft autumn sun: an almost irresistible scene for Ukrainian mushroom hunters.

But all around him was danger. Piercing the mossy forest floor were line upon line of trenches from the battle for Kyiv last winter, and countless mines and unexploded shells. Weighing the risk of the mines and the lure of their prey, thousands of Ukrainians in the first mushroom season since the Russian invasion hunted for mushrooms.

Now, they are in the post-harvest phase of the season, counting their loot and preparing to preserve them for the harsh winter ahead. The risk may seem extreme for what was for so long considered a pastoral hobby, but Ukrainian mushroom hunters see it differently. They are passionate about their quiet walks in the forest and see in them a sign of Ukraine’s resilience and a way to preserve everyday life during war.

“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 hunting for mushrooms one late autumn day.

He said he saw such mushroom excursions as “symbolic to me as it is a peaceful hunt” in a forest that saw so much violence. In clearings and meadows, burst tanks rust. Earlier this fall, while searching for mushrooms, she stumbled upon a child’s makeshift grave.

People who have lived through the horrors of war often find great comfort in routine. But many have now lost their jobs and rely on mushrooms to earn money and preserve food for the winter. The mushroom hunters may have lost loved ones, but they weren’t ready to lose the glimpses of their former lives that they found in the misty, wet autumn woods.

As the war drags on for a 10th month, the Ukrainian government and people remain defiant, even as electricity flickers, water taps run dry and apartments hover in sub-zero temperatures from lack of heating as Russian missiles strike infrastructure goals.

Ukrainians, many of whom have second homes in villages and are attached to the countryside even if they live in towns or cities, said they would not kneel before anyone, but would do so to pick potatoes or photograph mushrooms.

And so Mr. Poyedynok rode his bike into the pine forests around Bucha, carrying a few plastic bags, something he has done all his life.

He lived through the occupation of Bucha, a month of horror during which Russian soldiers shot civilians and left their bodies in the streets. He said that his uncle was murdered and that he himself was arrested and threatened with execution.

The forests in the areas that were occupied continue to be heavily mined. Mines and unexploded ordnance cover thousands of square miles of Ukrainian land, according to the interior ministerDenys Monastyrsky.

The Ukrainian government pleaded with people not to pick mushrooms, and the government agency for forest resources has 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 clear the forests, and many Ukrainians were not willing to wait that long before returning to their favorite pastime.

Reports of mushroom hunters treading the mines came regularly from the nine provinces where walking in the forest was prohibited. The numbers are not very high when compared to 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.

“In general, people are careful, but not all of them are,” said Viktoria Ruban, a spokeswoman for the Kyiv province emergency service, which has responded to calls when mushroom hunters step on mines.

Mr. Poyedynok used to give crowded yoga classes, but only a few of his students have stayed in Ukraine. With the money he can earn from teaching drastically dwindling, the mushrooms, as they have so often done in times of famine or distress in the Ukraine, have helped.

He said he was able to pick 550 pounds of mushrooms. His family kept much of the winter’s bounty for themselves and gave much to friends and family. They also started selling mushrooms.

Some of the buyers are mushroom pickers who crave the thrills of the hobby but are too wary to venture into the woods.

“Those who are always going to pick mushrooms but are now afraid began to come to us just to smell the mushrooms, look at them,” said Mr. Poyedynok’s wife, Yana Poyedynok, “and eventually began to buy them.”

The family made close to a thousand dollars this season selling mushrooms.

“It’s not much,” said Poyedynok, 44, “but it covered some small expenses.”

Most of the time, Mr. Poyedynok hunted for mushrooms on his own.

After the excursion with his family when he came across the boy’s grave, his wife and son began to be afraid of the forests and now they rarely join him. They only go to forests that they have been to before and to those that they believe are safe.

As Russian soldiers withdraw from parts of Ukraine, the celebration often proves short-lived. Soon enough, bodies are found and stories of atrocities against civilians emerge. But those are past deaths. The dangers in the forests threaten death today, and for many tomorrows.

In September, when most of the Kharkiv region in the northeast recovered, it was right at the height of the mushroom season. Within weeks, reports began coming in of mushroom pickers treading the mines. Three were mutilated in October in newly reclaimed forest, local officials said.

In a forest on the outskirts of Izium, a city in Kharkiv, investigators found hundreds of graves with civilians and a mass grave where Ukrainian soldiers appeared to be buried, authorities said.

Next to this forest lives 65-year-old Raisa Derevianko. In September, she watched from a bench outside her home as her human remains were exhumed. Now, she can see the demining work.

Mushroom season came and went, but she never made it to the woods.

“This is all very horrible,” Derevianko said of the mass graves. “But what I want most is for them to finish clearing my forest. I miss mushrooms so much.”