Head for the Woods, Russians
Published: August 20, 2014 (Issue # 1825)
Ïóùà: dense, virgin forest
Ah, August. August is usually the scary month in Russia, the month when bad things happen, the month of mourning, the month when political history is remade by tanks or peat fires. But this year, things have been so scary and so awful for so long, what difference could one month make?
Òüôó-òüôó-òüôó (sound of spitting over my shoulder three times to ward off bad luck).
Since scary things will happen no matter what, it is much better to spend the month out of the city heat, taking long walks in the woods.
The Russian language is rich on the subject of forests. The generic word for a forest is ëåñ, but there are plenty of more specific terms. For example, you might choose the word ïóùà to describe a dense, virgin forest — if you know what a virgin forest looks like, that is. The most famous one is Áåëîâåæñêàÿ ïóùà, where the U.S.S.R. was officially dissolved, usually simply transliterated as Belovezhskaya Pushcha.
A few trees are called ðîùà (grove, copse), and the most famous kind in Russia is áåð¸çîâàÿ ðîùà (birch grove). A stand of pine trees is called áîð (pine grove). In Moscow the most famous one is Ñåðåáðÿíûé Áîð (literally, Silver Pine Grove).
An impenetrable part of the forest is called ÷àùà (thicket), or ÷àùà ëåñà (deep in the forest): Â áèíîêëü ÿ âèäåë, êàê îí âûõîäèë èç ÷àùè (Through my binoculars I saw him come out of the thicket).
And if it’s a really old forest that has miraculously been untouched by civilization, it is äðåìó÷èé ëåñ (primeval or old-growth forest). This is also a description of someone’s unknowable soul, as expressed in saying ÷óæàÿ äóøà — ëåñ äðåìó÷èé (literally, a person’s soul is a deep forest).
Folks who know their forests might refer to either êðàñíîëåñüå (coniferous forest) or ÷åðíîëåñüå (deciduous forest). For example: ß íå õî÷ó ñêàçàòü, ÷òî êðàñíîëåñüå õóæå, íî êðàñèâ è îñèíîâûé ëåñ, êàê áû îñâåù¸ííûé áëåäíî-çåë¸íûì ñâåòîì (I don’t mean that coniferous forests are worse, but aspen forests are lovely, too, when they seem to be lit by pale green light). ×åðíîëåñüå is black (÷¸ðíûé) for a reason — all those leafy trees block the light: Êîãäà çàåõàëè â ÷åðíîëåñüå, ïîòåìíåëî â âàãîíå (When we went into the broad-leafed forest, the train car went dark.)
And folks who can tell one tree from another might be very specific, if old-fashioned, when they talk about the woods: äóáðàâà (oak forest); îñèííèê (aspen forest); âÿçíèê (elm forest); ëèïíÿê (linden forest); åëüíèê (fir forest); êåäðîâíèê (cedar forest); ñîñíÿê (pine forest).
Not surprisingly, the forest figures in several common Russian expressions. Ò¸ìíûé ëåñ (a dark forest) is the English speaker’s “It’s Greek to me” — something incomprehensible.
And where there are forests, there are wolves. Âîëêîâ áîÿòüñÿ, â ëåñ íå õîäèòü (literally, if you’re scared of wolves, don’t go into the woods). In other words, if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. Ðàáîòà íå âîëê, â ëåñ íå óáåæèò (literally, work isn’t a wolf that will run away in the woods). That is to say: Work isn’t going anywhere (so have some fun). And finally: Êàê âîëêà íè êîðìè, îí â ëåñ ñìîòðèò (literally, no matter how much you feed a wolf, he keeps looking at the woods). Today this is usually abbreviated to ñìîòðåòü â ëåñ — to yearn for something better.
Like a nice, dark, cool forest on a hot day.
Michele A. Berdy, a Moscow-based translator and interpreter, is the author of “The Russian Word’s Worth” (Glas), a collection of her columns.