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Shadow Economy : Forever Amber: On the Baltic, They Dig for the Stuff of Myth : Their quarry is that lovely, precious resin of prehistory. These enterprising Poles work quietly, after dark, because sometimes this is not exactly legal.


GDANSK, Poland — It was a dark night in a pine forest, the Baltic Sea a faint murmur on a gravel beach a quarter-mile away. Three men--amber hunters--were out checking on their digs in the woods.

Leszek, Krzysiek and Andrzej, young advocates of unbridled private enterprise, were moving with a certain stealth. It was vault-dark, and they carried no flashlights, but the way was familiar.

They were on the lookout for police. The problem is, they said, that the authorities issue only a few licenses for amber digging, contending that it causes environmental damage.

Andrzej and his colleagues had a six-man crew working in the forest. They were looking for a "fritz," their word for a cabbage-sized chunk of amber. Andrzej, who wore a blue jogging suit that appeared to glow faintly in the gloom, stepped carefully around the depressions in the forest floor where his crews had been working earlier in the week. It was nearly midnight. The lights of a car approached on a nearby lane. The three men froze, watched until the car was gone, then walked on, talking quietly.

"Well, yes, it's true nothing much grows for five or six years after amber diggers have been around," Leszek admitted. But he preferred to take a long view of the damage. "It will come back, eventually. In the meantime, now that we're reforming the system, the government ought to just declare this a mining area and get on with it."

Leszek, Krzysiek and Andrzej have three perfectly legal amber digs in the pastures of local farmers and employ about 30 diggers to search for the amber. The work in the forest amounts to supplementary income, but they are convinced that this is where the best stuff comes from. In fact, it is probably where most Polish amber comes from.

Once it came only from the beach. A few times a year, most commonly in the fall, storms blowing out of the northwest churn up the floor of the Baltic Sea. For longer than anyone can remember, inhabitants of the Baltic coast have hurried to the shore on mornings after the big storms to pick up amber left behind by the waves.

"You go out early in the morning," Krzysiek said, smiling at the vision, "and you can see it, a line of it, floating off shore. It's like a tide of money. When it comes in, people run around like crazy, picking it up and stuffing it into bags."

Leszek and company, however, are not the type of fellows who are content to hang around depending on the weather for a chance to go to work. Like scores of other amber diggers who do their mining at midnight, they apply considerable creative energy to outfoxing the police and developing ever more efficient systems to haul up the amber buried in the forest floor.

"You wait for storms," said Leszek.

"Watch out!" whispered Krzysiek. "Who's that?"

They stopped and peered at a figure lumbering through the trees. It was a large man, carrying coils of fire hose over his shoulder.

"It's Karol."

"This way," said Karol, and led on through the trees.

Amber is an old obsession, the stuff of mystery, myth and commerce, apparently since prehistoric times. It has turned up at Stonehenge and in ancient Greek tombs. Romans wore amber amulets as protection against witchcraft; a slave could be purchased for the price of an amber figurine.

As far as Leszek, Krzysiek and Andrzej are concerned, this goes back to before communism was invented, and then died, and therefore ought to predate any strong governmental claim. They recognize this argument as a shaky legal position, so their methods of operation are designed to attract as little attention as possible. Apparently, thousands of years of amber gathering has still left what Leszek confidently calls "an endless supply," and he and his colleagues are dedicated to its extraction.

Amber is a curious material, the fossilized sap, possibly of pine trees, broken by frost and swept into the sea some 60 million to 70 million years ago. It is, in effect, nature's own plastic, a material so light that it will float in a strong solution of salt water, buoyant enough in seawater to have been carried along on bottom currents for millions of years. It is soft enough to be scratched by a copper penny, breakable but not bendable. When rubbed, it gives off a pleasant, resinous aroma. It dissolves slowly in alcohol, and old remedies call for carrying a bit of amber in a vial of alcohol and sipping the resulting brew as a tonic for rheumatism.

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