KATOWICE, Poland — Agnieska Babczynska dreamed as a girl that one day she would travel to the Amazon to study the wealth of plants in its lush rainforests.
An unusual ambition, but perhaps understandable given that she was living and dreaming in Katowice, one of the most polluted corners of the planet at that time. It was an ecological dead zone that was killing its coal miners and steel-foundry workers 10 years faster than other Poles. The air reeked of a toxic brew wafting from chemical plants and was often opaque with smoke and coal dust.
And it was opaque and benzene-scented when last I saw it 20 years ago.
So imagine my surprise to return and find the man-made clouds have lifted to reveal a post-post-industrial city reinventing itself as a modern business and service centre at the heart of Silesia in southern Poland.
Babczynska, 38, who still recalls childhood taunts that she was "so lucky to be able to see what you inhale," pursued her dream, earned a PhD in biology, and has discovered that she need not visit the Amazon to be awed by nature -- the awesome can be found right outside her door in, of all things, the waste rock heaps that cover some 7,000 square kilometres of land in this district, the enduring legacy of Old King Coal.
But I get ahead of myself.
When I was here in 1990, Poland was freeing itself from the chains of the Soviet era. Its Solidarity labour movement already had forced the Communist government to make constitutional changes that in 1991 led to the election of Solidarity leader Lech Walesa as president.
As the USSR collapsed, so too did its command economy, exposing 19th century, coal-fired industrial centres like Katowice to the pressures of competition and the ecological expectations of modern times.
Overnight, and without having to impose an environmental regime of any kind, the coal mines failed and closed for lack of guaranteed markets in the former USSR, and for lack of efficiencies to compete for European buyers with cheaper, higher-grade coal that other sellers from as far away as Australia could offer. The steel mills followed, unable to out-price or out-perform steel from China and India, and then the chemical plants shut their doors, too.
As industries closed, the demand for electricity from coal-fired generating plants fell, contributing to a further decline in smog.
And just like that, Katowice's pollution problems evaporated. Today, rivers run clear and small lakes that dot the region and whose waters were black from use as industrial holding tanks, again are used for recreation.
The air is almost pure -- it never exceeds minimum standards, experts say -- but it is not entirely smog-free because coal remains the fuel of choice for home heating, and consumers being price conscious are inclined to buy the cheapest coal, which also is the dirtiest
"What we have is the reverse of 20 years ago," Miroslaw Law, head of environment and human studies at the University of Silesia, told me. "The biggest polluters then were the biggest plants. Today, the biggest producers are the smallest plants (households)."
One unexpected consequence of clean air has been a rise in acid rain -- air pollution in the past neutralized sulphur-dioxide emissions. Another anomaly is that 40 per cent of Katowice is forest -- the perverse result, it is said, of providing, for more than a century, a CO2-rich climate in which trees could thrive despite what should have been debilitating pollution.
The good news on the environmental front, however, was bad news for coal dependent workers who in the past had not only enjoyed cradle-to-grave job security, but were guaranteed pay rates 2.5 times the national average.
In the coal-mining sector alone, employment fell to 123,000 in 2006 from 388,000 in 1991 -- a loss of 285,000 jobs, according to research conducted for the European Union by University of Silesia professor Kazimiera Wodz.
The economic hardships were softened to some extent by state buyout plans that gave miners with 19th-century skills an opportunity to retrain for jobs of the 21st century, she said, but nothing could repair the social and psychological damages incurred when a lifestyle and traditions that had developed over more than a century simply became irrelevant.
I read an anecdote in a report on changing social conditions about a woman packing away christening clothes and other artifacts saved and reused by Silesian mining families over generations because she knew her children would have no need or desire to use them. "Mothers," the report observed, "found they had more in common with their grandmothers than with their daughters."
And while the bleeding eventually was stanched, Katowice has not entirely recovered -- its population today is about 300,000, down 50,000 from 20 years ago.
The recovery in Silesia, of which Katowice is the capital, was helped significantly by the fact that Poland borders Germany, rather than Russia, to the envy of Ukrainians.
European financial assistance poured into Poland after the Soviet collapse and accelerated as Poland bid to join the EU, which it did in 2004. And as the money poured in, Katowice, to its credit, made good use of it.
Under Piotr Uszok, who has been deputy mayor and mayor since 1994 and who is expected to win a another term this year, and with the best advice that Brussels could offer, Katowice decided that its potential strength could be found in its weaknesses.
It was realized that there was no way Katowice could promote itself as tourism destination given its infamy as "the museum of ecological disaster," as it was described to me 20 years ago, nor could it hope to pretend to be a cultural centre given its hard-hat history.
And so it was decided that the best way forward was to make the city a better place for the people who actually live here, rather than for people who do not, the foreign investors and tourists that neighbouring Ukraine pursues in hopes that their arrival will produce dividends for local services.
Massive efforts went into infrastructure renewal. Sewer and water systems were upgraded, streets were rebuilt to European standards, as were sidewalks. Gridlock in the city centre was eliminated by creating a 660-metre traffic tunnel under it. Freeways, including a 130 km/h "autobahn" and the 10-lane divided A4, were constructed linking Katowice with 14 cities, towns and villages in the "metropolis" region so as to create marketing synergies by uniting two million inhabitants. The district today truly is more than the sum of its past parts.
Closed coal mines and steel factory properties were turned into hundreds of hectares of green fields for other uses.
The Silesia Centre, for example, an indoor shopping mall twice the size of Polo Park and too big for Katowice alone without the road networks, sprang up on a coal field off the six-lane divided Chorzow Street.
The mall preserves a red-brick bathhouse created for the exclusive use of coal miners a century ago. But today it is for the exclusive use of high-end stores. A miners' chapel, thought to be the only one remaining, has been preserved for worship, and the high-tower lift that once brought coal 600 metres from the dark depths to the surface has been transformed into a towering neon beacon of commerce.
Ikea has opened a superstore, Porsche a dealership, its second in Poland.
A new international airport, the third, and third-largest, in Poland, has been built outside the city. Last year it logged 1.5 million passengers, up from only -- and unbelievably -- 16 passengers in 1991 when travel and financial restrictions were tight, and the very idea that one could be free to travel was as foreign as were travel destinations.
"Once you make the infrastructure, you can begin to deal with the rest," said Marcin Stanzyk, a spokesman for the Katowice mayor's office.
The next step -- or steps -- include a reconstruction of the entire city centre along Korfanty Boulevard, named after Wojciech Korfanty, a Polish nationalist who led uprisings after the First World War that resulted in Katowice being annexed from Germany by Poland in 1920.
The city will assume the cost of public amenities, the private sector will do the rest. In fact, it already is. The view from my hotel window is of the new 30-storey Qubus hotel complex (tallest building in Katowice) while in the opposite direction the attractive redevelopment of a 1,000-apartment, Soviet-era Goliath is nearing completion.
The public commitment is a $300 million US "centre of change" initiative that includes the construction, on a reclaimed mine site, of a convention centre for 12,000 next door to the existing Spodek (flying-saucer) arena as well as a concert hall for the Silesian Philharmonic Orchestra and a new Silesian museum.
"The money comes from the EU," Stanzyk said. "We applied for it and got it. It's considered an investment."
Only after the "centre of change" is completed in 2012 will the city turn to brightening its stock of historical and Soviet-era buildings, and the remaining, iconic, red-brick, white-window, row-house developments that were home to miners and their families for more than a century.
As they were 20 years ago, the exteriors of most buildings range from grey to black, painted, as it were, by coal dust and rain over generations.
So it would seem that in every way Katowice's environment has improved since 1990 and, perhaps ironically, the best way forward is to allow it to happen naturally.
Which brings us back to Agnieska Babczynska, who dreamed of working in the Amazon, but who today devotes her talents and energies to assisting nature in reclaiming what had been despoiled.
Her research in the waste heaps has found that despite concerns that the heavy metals they harbour are hostile to it, "life is finding a way." Billions of microbes, mites, lice, spiders and earthworms that it was thought could not tolerate the waste heap environment have adapted and begun the slow process of creating soil for larger organisms to grow.
Some waste grounds have become refuges for rare orchids.
Sink holes created when underground mines collapse -- "technical earthquakes," according to Prof. Law -- were once thought best fixed by backfilling. But experience has found that the depressions eventually fill with rain runoff so as to create lakes in which biota appear, followed by marshland plants and larger creatures such as swans.
She has found beech trees, one-tenth the size of normal, taking root in the heaps and surviving despite the poisons found there and the absence of water-retaining ground cover. The ability of beech trees to adapt to this "hostile" environment seems to promise that one day the waste heaps, many of which already resemble hills more than heaps, will be covered in forests of pygmy beeches.
In fact, she is finding that the miracle of nature that she wanted to experience in the Amazon is as enthralling to witness in the waste heaps as she thought it might be in the rain forests, just different.
"I find this environment very interesting, I think because nature always survives," she said. "Humans might think they know how (to reclaim waste lands). But humans can never help or stop nature.
"I think it is best to leave them on their own, then they will survive for sure."
This view that nature can best restore what man has despoiled is rapidly gaining favour across Europe, where it increasingly is seen that the cost of remediating environments of little practical value is a waste of money, that it is better to let nature find a new balance, even if it is a different one.
In fact, Bernard Blaszczyk, who 20 years ago took me on a day-long tour of what he called "the museum of ecological disaster" when he was the regional director of ecology for Katowice, and who today is Poland's deputy minister of the environment, is a convert.
Last year he hosted an international conference in nearby Kracow to examine, among other things, that:
"New investigations have come up with evidence of intrinsic degradation and retention processes at a site as being more effective than artificial processes induced by technical remediation measures."
The conference was titled: "Using the self-cleaning capacity of Nature."
It would seem, then, 20 years later, that Katowice has, and will continue to get healthy. Naturally.