The Tears of Trees

In southwest England’s Cheddar Gorge there is a huge cavern. Since it was discovered more than a century ago it has yielded many rare artifacts and bones, including a complete seated skeleton, nine thousand years old. But in 1950, this place, named Gough’s Cave after the Victorian sea captain who found it, also yielded what is perhaps the oldest piece of traded gem-type material ever discovered. It is dark red and rather dirty, like a scuffed piece of translucent toffee, and almost the size of a dozen credit cards stacked on top of one another. It is a piece of amber, and it was traded at least 12,500 years ago.

At the time of its discovery there was no way to ascertain where the amber in Gough’s Cave had come from — whether from Britain or farther afield. However, fourteen years later a professor at Vassar College in New York came up with the answer. Using dental equipment, he ground up a tiny fragment of the amber and then observed how it absorbed infrared light. He determined that it was of Baltic origin and was therefore around forty million years old.

This was no huge surprise: most of the world’s amber is from the Baltic area of northern Europe. But how could the amber have found its way to Gough’s Cave so long ago? Today a small amount of amber is washed up every year on eastern English beaches, but when the Gough’s Cave piece arrived, Britain was still linked to the rest of Europe by a vast land bridge, which only disappeared around eighty-five hundred years ago. Similarly, the Baltic was not a sea but a huge freshwater lake, and it remained enclosed by land until the North Sea crashed through Denmark around 5500 BC. So, for that little piece of amber to travel the hundreds of miles from its place of origin to Somerset’s Cheddar Gorge, it must have been carried there — by human hands.

Perhaps it was kept in a pouch by a single long-distance migrant, but it is more likely, given the distance involved, that it got there in a complicated series of trades. The amber would have been handed from one early merchant to another, swapped for food, weapons, flints, or furs, and its presence in the Somerset cave was the earliest evidence of what would become an extensive trading network across Europe.

The Greeks called amber elektron, meaning “the sun,” because it comes in all the colors of the sun, bright yellow to sunset red, and because when it is rubbed it attracts lint and dried grass and creates sparks of light. Later, the English physician William Gilbert noticed that amber shared this quality of attraction with several other substances, including tourmaline, glass, jet, sealing wax, sulfur, and resin, and in 1600, he named the phenomenon “electricity,” after the Greek name for amber.

The only thing the ancient Greeks knew about the origins of amber was that it came from very far away, from a place, as a king of Nineveh had inscribed on an obelisk, “where the North Star culminates.” Their taciturn suppliers did not enlighten them; the Phoenicians dealt in amber throughout the Mediterranean and as far away as modern Iraq, and like many gem dealers today would not reveal their sources. The buyers of the ancient world therefore relied on myth and rumor to enlighten them, and for a while their main clue came from a Greek legend about a boy whose failure to control his vehicle almost led to the total destruction of the world.

According to legend, Phaeton was the son of the sun god. Every day he watched his father driving his chariot across the heavens, and every day he begged to try it himself. One day he had his chance. His seven sisters helped to harness the horses and he set out with all the confidence of a pampered teenager. But tragedy struck, as it always does in ancient myths. The joyrider soon lost control and the chariot veered off course. It seemed that the world would be destroyed, but Zeus, the king of the gods, sent a thunderbolt to kill the boy and stop the damage. Phaeton’s body fell to Earth beside a north-flowing river, which the barbarian tribes called the Eridanus. As punishment for helping him, his sisters were turned into black poplars. As they wept over the fate of their beautiful, arrogant brother, their tears fell into the river and became amber.

AMBER REALLY IS THE TEARS OF TREES — not of black poplars, although they do produce a thick resin, but of conifers that grew in great forests millions of years ago. Many evergreens ooze resin as a self-healing mechanism, much as human bodies send out red corpuscles. But for a normal forest with a modest drizzle of resin to be transformed into an amber forest with a flood of it, something special had to happen. One theory is that it was global warming. Another suggests it was a matter of evolution and that some trees were programmed to weep plenty of tears. Or perhaps trees had been weakened by an unidentified disease, and were just trying to save themselves.

Whatever the reason, at some point in prehistory a species of conifer went into medical overdrive. Judging from the massive lumps of amber that are sometimes found today, some of which can weigh nine pounds or more, it must have been quite a sight. Resin would have hung from the branches like great toffee apples, spilling onto the forest floor in honeyed pools and even oozing under the bark of the trees like coagulated butter. As well as being very sticky, the whole place must have smelled intoxicatingly of incense.

Over the years, most of the resin dripped into the soil and was absorbed. But some solidified, and the long process of fossilization began. Much of the resulting amber is still buried hundreds of yards underground, hidden forever in the tucks and folds of the earth. But around fifteen million years ago, some of it was washed from the rocks and transported by rivers and glaciers to be dropped near what became a vast seabed.

Around 330 BC, the Greek explorer and writer Pytheas left his home in the south of France to find the mysterious northern lands. Pytheas described an estuary on the ocean “called Mentonomon,” occupied by Germanic people and a day away from an island called Abalus or Basilia. It was a place, he recounted, where amber “was thrown up by the waves in spring.” The inhabitants used it as fuel for their fires and sold it to their neighbors, the Teutons.

When Pytheas traveled there, the coastline had already been the center of amber trading for many thousands of years. And when I went there, some twenty-three hundred years later, there was still activity, albeit of a rather more touristic kind.

I HAD TIMED MY TRIP to the northern sea for August, to coincide with the so-called Amber Washing Championship at Jantar, a coastal settlement about twenty miles east of the Polish port of Gdańsk. Photographs of previous years’ championships showed participants in the sea, holding nets to scoop up chunks of amber floating among the seaweed. I imagined myself joining in, wading in the waves with a borrowed net, learning the techniques and secrets of the “amber washers” of northern Poland.

I arrived on the beach in Jantar just as four children in school uniforms were singing the Polish version of “Long-Haired Lover from Liverpool” from a temporary outdoor stage. The audience whistled and clapped. I was less enthusiastic, but then again I didn’t know that this would be the highlight of my day. Down by the seashore a dozen people were crouched on the sand apparently searching for lost contact lenses. I went to help and realized I had stumbled on the amber competition itself. The organizers had planted fragments of amber among the seaweed and twigs, and competitors had five minutes to pick up as many as they could find. The amber pieces were no bigger than shirt buttons and the whole thing was as exhilarating as a grape-peeling competition. “What happened to the amber washing and gathering that I saw in the photographs?” I asked.

“Changed,” a man said. Too much amber had been lost in the sea. “That’s the trouble with amber,” he went on. “It floats — except when you need it to.”

Amber is lighter than seawater, but only just. On a stormy winter’s night the Baltic scoops it off the seabed and sends it bobbing to the surface like yellow warning buoys. In the morning it can be seen floating around the rocks along the coast or lying on the beach. Local people in life jackets do still fish it out of the water with huge nets, demonstrating the reason for amber’s ancient English nickname, “scoopstone.” Usually the pieces are small but occasionally large bricks are cast up, as if there were a great building underwater in desperate need of restoration.

THE MUSEUM OF AMBER INCLUSIONS at the University of Gdańsk consists of just a few display cases in a small corridor. But as curator Elżbieta Sontag pointed out, “The important thing about museums is the collection, not how big the exhibition area is.” She had hated amber when she was a child, she said casually, as she rummaged through the collection. “My cousins used to come from Warsaw and buy big necklaces and I thought, how ugly.”

“What changed your mind?” I asked. In reply she put a honey-colored sample under a microscope and beckoned me to take a look.

I found myself gazing at a forty-million-year-old spider, looking exactly as it must have in the final seconds of its life. Every hair was immaculate, one leg raised forever in a state of potential motion. The resin must have been very liquid as there was no sign of the smearing you might see when a creature had been trapped against its will in a sticky substance. “They didn’t all go down without a struggle,” said Dr. Sontag, and replaced the sample with another spider that had evidently tried desperately to clamber out of the pool into which it had fallen.

Forty million years ago, when the soft Baltic resin lay in pools on the forest floor or dripped from branches, life in the rest of the forest continued as usual. Bees were buzzing, spiders spinning, petals dropping, lizards stalking, and flies resting. And some of that life was suffocating in the resin, giving us today an astonishing three-dimensional view of the amber forest.

Looking through Dr. Sontag’s forty-million-year-old Baltic collection was like viewing a selection of video stills from the past. In one, two mites were eating a caddis fly, its wings partly torn apart. Another showed a mite in the process of laying eggs. Other samples contained filmy spiders’ webs, and still others had little bubbles that had come from the insects as they died. Visually, the last samples were nothing special, but for some paleontologists they are the most exciting of all, since the tiny bubbles hold clues to the air and bacteria of the prehistoric forest.

Dr. Sontag’s pieces came in a range of colors, like cream swirling in lemon mousse, or the last shafts of light in a clouded sunset sky. Most were in an autumn range of yellow, orange, red, and brown, but some were wintry: blue, black, and, most precious of all, white, which looks like froth on beer and is created by a similar process. Millions of years ago these little drops of resin were shaken into a pale cloud, and eventually, very slowly, they will return to resin color — the color we refer to when we talk about “amber” traffic lights. Blue amber is rare and rather disconcerting, an ethereal ultramarine aura on something darker. Black is even rarer — when you find it today it has usually been artificially colored — and although pine green is popular in jewelry it is usually an indication that the piece has spent time in an oven, especially when it contains sparkles.

Treatments are an increasing problem in the amber trade. If you pick up amber from the beach, you can be sure that it has not been doctored, but otherwise, “Buyer, beware.” In Russia, a whole institute is dedicated to devising tests to recognize imitation amber — and the knowledge is applied to develop better fakes. Several factories in Russia and China raise scorpions, frogs, and ant colonies. When these hapless creatures reach maturity they are placed in molds and smothered, gently, in a warm soup of melted amber to be sold as key-rings in Hong Kong.

MOST OF THE AMBER ON SALE on sale in Gdańsk does not come from Poland at all, despite what some shops might claim, and was not washed up on a beach. Instead, it comes from a mine in what is sometimes called the “Wild West” of Russia. It is the biggest amber mine in the world and, as with amber itself, some of the history preserved in it is both extraordinary and violent.

The mine is in a part of Russia I had never noticed on maps. It is a fairly small province, the size of Connecticut or Northern Ireland, squashed between Poland to the south and Lithuania to the north, separated from the rest of Russia by at least three hundred miles. Known as the Kaliningrad Oblast, for forty-five years it was one of the hardest places in the Soviet Union for anyone to get to — and that included Soviet passport-holders.

The night before I was due to go, I stayed in a town called Elblag on the Polish border. I went out for a beer and, after I had explained my mission, the barman introduced me to another customer, who had once been an amber salesman in America. When I told him about my plan to visit the mine, he raised his eyebrows. “You must be careful,” he said. “Kaliningrad is like Brazil.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I mean this part of Russia is not like Europe. In fact, this part of Russia is not even like Russia. It is a dangerous place. I am not saying you will definitely be hurt or killed,” he added, “I am just saying you must be careful.”

The mine is an hour east of Kaliningrad, along a straight military road that leads to the coastline of the Samland Peninsula. As we drove there early the next morning, my translator, Olga, explained that until the end of the war the town near the mine was called Palmnicken, but when the Communists arrived, with their emphasis on utilitarianism, they had changed it to Yantarny, which simply means “amber.”

In the past there had been several mines, but today only one is operating, and special permission is needed to visit. A mile and a half out of the town we came to a desolate yellow brick building in the middle of scrubland, surrounded by barbed wire. Olga went in and eventually returned with a young man in khaki combats whom she had found asleep at a desk. He agreed to take us to the mine for a few dollars, jumped into the front seat, and directed us onto a muddy, potholed track. Buckthorn and elder grew beside it; during the Cold War, when the amber trade was bad, people had collected the berries to supplement their diet.

We stopped in front of what looked like a ruin of falling-down, gray breeze blocks: the headquarters of the mine operations. We were not allowed in. The young guard beckoned us up a grassy ridge behind it. And there it was — the greatest amber mine in the world. It was a shallow brown crater, about the size of a small town, fringed with ridges like the one we were standing on, where the trees were covered with a patina of dust. It should have been full of bulldozers and people in hard hats, but it looked deserted. Eventually, as my eyes adjusted to the distance, I saw two all-terrain walking excavators digging elegantly into the ground. They were so far away that they looked tiny, although they weigh eight tons and are usually hard to miss.

They were excavating “blue earth.” This is the layer of gray clay in which lumps of amber sit like raisins in rye bread. Blue earth stuffed with amber can be found all over the Baltic, but the reason the mines are here and nowhere else is that the blue earth on the Samland Peninsula is just 50 feet below the surface; in many parts of Poland and the Baltic states it is 130 feet down or more, making mining uneconomical. It is becoming uneconomical at Yantarny: amber prices have dropped, the ageing equipment has not been replaced, and many workers have been laid off. The world’s amber markets are exploring alternative areas, like the Ukraine.

The only people who make an easy profit now are the amateur diggers. Some months before, when Olga had visited, none of the miners were working. She saw just one man, digging an illegal pit. “I was worried for him: there could have been a mudslide, and who would have known?” The local government tries halfheartedly to take precautions, but millions of dollars’ worth of amber go missing every year, smuggled across the border in suitcases and bags.

BEFORE I CAME TO RUSSIA I had searched for information on Yantarny and found precious little — some environmental assessments (it has apparently spewed more than a hundred million tons of waste into the sea over fifty years), and a vivid account of the Wild West atmosphere that prevailed there a few years ago when locals, beset by job losses, spent their days standing at the waste pipes of a disused mine on the beach, waiting to fish out amber from the gray effluent. But I found an intriguing footnote in an academic journal, which suggested that for several years the exploitation of amber at Yantarny was controlled by the secret police and carried out by prisoners in a gulag.

The gulags, labor camps set up in 1919 to deal with dispossessed landowners and intelligentsia after the Russian Revolution, were expanded when Stalin realized how cheap it was to build canals or operate mines with slave labor. Olga had not heard of a gulag in Kaliningrad. “This will be a difficult question to ask even now,” she warned me, “but we will try.” Our first stop would be the local museum where, if there had been a prison camp, somebody was sure to know about it.

Yantarny Museum was full of the flotsam and jetsam of history. The guide, Mischa Permjakov, was explaining to a primary-school group why so few amber artifacts dated from the Prussian era. “Why do you think the ancient Prussians didn’t value amber?” he asked the children. When they said they didn’t know, he asked them what their favorite toy was.

“A teddy bear,” several squealed.

“But if you had thousands of teddy bears, would you still be interested in them? Well, the Prussians had thousands and thousands of pieces of amber,” he said. “They weren’t interested in them at all. It was only the people from outside who liked them and wanted to trade.”

Later he told us that the mine had been developed for the same reason — outside interest. In the 1850s, Moritz Becker, a German businessman, had been on holiday in Palmnicken. When he saw amber artifacts on sale and found out that the material was collected at the whim of winter storms, he wondered whether there might be a more sure way of retrieving it. He and business partner Wilhelm Stantien raised some money and hired machinery to dredge the sea. They found tons of amber. By the late 1860s, they had already excavated two shaft mines — one was called Anna, the other Henrietta. Henrietta yielded very few jewels and was soon closed, but Anna operated until just before the Second World War.

Drawings from those years show amber mining to be unpleasant work. A cartoon from a German magazine depicts two men with pickaxes standing in groundwater up to their knees while a third adjusts some precarious tunnel supports. Their faces look strained: apparently it stank of sulfur down there. A second drawing shows miners being body-searched at the end of their shift: their boots have been removed, their knapsacks are open for inspection, and they look nervous. There were heavy penalties for pilferers. “They would sometimes be beaten,” Mischa said, “or they would go to prison.”

Only one piece of amber in ten is worth stealing; the other nine are too flawed to be made into jewelry. However, they still have their uses. “Some of the amber is melted down,” Mischa explained, “and it is made into these . . .” He showed us a large cabinet full of small orange teddy bears. They looked plastic and they might as well have been. It is cheap and easy to reconstitute amber like this: it is crushed to powder, then pushed into molds under high temperature and pressure. The final product has the color of amber and its chemical formula, but not its history or true nature.

There are other uses for low-quality amber. During Becker & Stantien’s early days, something curious was observed among the workers at the mine and factory. People who worked ordinary manual jobs had the same rate of respiratory infections as the rest of the population, but those who polished the amber had fewer. This seemed to confirm an old superstition, and the company studied the ancient use of amber as a remedy. They realized that the sailors who had smoked pipes with amber mouthpieces because it was “good for their lungs” might have had a point.

In ancient Lithuania people called amber gintaras, meaning “protector” — the Russian word yantarno has the same origin — and took it as a cure for rheumatism. Flagman Vodka, official purveyor to the Kremlin, apparently includes 1 percent amber extract to stave off hangovers. The healing property of amber is not proven, but it makes sense: whenever trees are hurt they send out resin to heal their wounds. So it is not surprising if resin has some benefits to human health.

We had almost reached the end of the museum tour. I glanced at Olga, who nodded, so I asked Mischa about the gulag. He froze. “There was a camp . . . ” he said, then stopped as a colleague walked past. Later we asked him again but he said he knew no more. I asked why it wasn’t mentioned in the museum display. “People prefer to see the good things, and this is not good history.”

I DON’T KNOW WHAT I would have expected if someone had suggested I’d share the ride back to Poland with professional smugglers, but it would not have been the nineteen women who clanked onto the 6:30 a.m. bus to Gdańsk loaded with plastic bags. They were all in their fifties, with high-heeled shoes and immaculately coiffed blond hair.

“They are vodka smugglers,” the man next to me explained. “They do this every day.” The border is riddled with smuggling rings. Sometimes it is money, sometimes alcohol, sometimes petrol — and, of course, many kilos of amber come over the border without papers or provenance every day. At my request, my neighbor asked one of the smugglers if she ever took amber across, but she refused to answer. “She thinks I’m the police,” he said. The Polish customs office claims to have confiscated eighty kilos (some 180 pounds) of amber in the first three months of 2005, including a single haul of twenty-one kilos (46 pounds), but the fines are so small that it is worth the risk.

When we reached the border there was a flurry, and the chief smuggler went off, handbag swinging, to check which customs officers were on duty. They called one “Hitler,” and if it was his shift they would turn back, bottle bags clanking. But Hitler was otherwise occupied, and an hour later another officer appeared. “Does anyone have anything to declare?” he asked from the front of the bus.

“Oh, no,” said the ladies, wide-eyed.

“Does anyone have any alcohol?”

“Oh, no,” they fluttered.

If anyone had been watching from outside, the officer would have looked very efficient, marching up and down the aisle, interrogating the passengers. But he only searched two Russian weekend tourists with little backpacks, and a businessman with a briefcase; neither was carrying amber or alcohol.

BACK IN GDA&#323SK, the city was celebrating the sunshine: the streets were full of people eating impossibly tall ice creams as they strolled past old facades and statues. As I stood in the medieval precinct of Long Market, listening to a string quartet playing in the open air, I felt a universe away from Kaliningrad, where everything was gray, dull, and disconnected. Sixty years before, the two cities had been almost the same: mostly rubble. But while the Russians had rebuilt their city without regard to the past, the Poles had rebuilt theirs with pride. If their people were poor, then they were going to make sure their buildings were rich. If they had lost everything, then they were going to build it again, just the same.

A few streets away from Long Market something extraordinary is slowly taking shape. It is an altar, and when it is finished it will be the largest and perhaps most beautiful amber construction in the world. The medieval St. Bridget’s Church was as damaged as the rest of Gdańsk during the war, but because in 1948 the Stalinists who took power recognized the Catholic Church quite justifiably as a threat to their regime, it was left for decades as a ruin. In the mid-1970s, St. Bridget’s was given a copy of a painting called Our Lady of Czestochowa in memory of twenty-eight Gdańsk shipyard workers killed by the Communist authorities. The church still had no roof, so the priest hung the painting outside, as a statement of support for the Solidarity Movement. It was there in all weathers, rain and snow, but was apparently undamaged. It was like a miracle, the shipyard workers said. It became a sacred symbol for them and St. Bridget’s became a center for anti-Communist activity.

In 1999, with Communist rule ended in Poland, and Our Lady of Czestochowa hanging above the altar of the now rebuilt church, someone had the idea of making her a dress of amber. Icon-makers have traditionally used the most precious of garments in dressing the Virgin. In medieval paintings she is usually shown in blue because ultramarine was then the most expensive pigment in the world; in sixteenth-century Holland she was sometimes depicted in red because cochineal was the rarest and most precious dyestuff. So in Gdańsk she was clothed in white amber.

The icon’s cloak was created by the local artist Mariusz Drapikowski, from material donated by local amber producers from their private collections. When the cloak was finished, the congregation decided to make an amber altar to surround the icon. It will contain eight tons of amber and will measure thirteen hundred square feet. It will also be made of only natural materials, however long it takes to gather them, and — most important to the Poles — the amber will all be sourced in Poland, dug out of the ground with special permission from the government and gathered from the beaches in the traditional way. The design will contain all the elements of amber: the fossilized insects, the rainbow colors, the suffering, the beauty, the electricity, and the history.

“I want to show how the celestial light shines through it,” said Drapikowski. “I want to build this altar out of light.”

Victoria Finlay lives in England and works for the Alliance of Religions and Conservation. Her essay in this issue is adapted from her book Jewels: A Secret History, published in 2006 by Ballentine Books and used here by permission. The essay was included in the 2007 Best American Science and Nature Writing.