Free Chemists’ Association
photo: Zbigniew Kupisz

Free Chemists’ Association

Years ago, I blew up a tree in the Szczytniki Park. What I did was neither a terror attack nor an act of hooliganism. Rather, it was an outcome of research inquisitiveness, a passion for knowledge, and the ardent perusal of young adults’ fiction

Although I was twelve then and served as the chairman of the Free Chemists’ Association, I was unable to sustain cognitive neutrality and remain at the scene. I immediately dashed away, terrified by the deafening bang, yet proud of my experiment. Admittedly, the plumes of explosion did not look as spectacular as in war films, but the crooked tree under which I had planted my device totally crashed into water.

When I came back the following day, I could examine the effects of my action without rushing, and drive away the vision of unwelcome ramifications, which I had kind of feared, to tell the truth. The place was completely empty and deserted, with nothing to suggest that anybody had been bothered by the noise of the explosion or noticed its upshots. I boastingly showed my pals – the two other members of the Free Chemists’ Association, who accompanied me – the experimental site, a large whole in the ground, and the tree crushed at its roots, corroborating the account I had given them of the scale of my experiment.

The Free Chemists’ Association itself, whose foundation contributed to this and many other chemical experiments, had come into being as a result of a confluence of several inspiring reads and my germinating belief that being just a reader was by far not enough, and one should have one’s own adventures. When paging through an old history textbook, I came across a fascinating passage about free coalmen, who in the times of yore dwelled hidden deep in the woods and mastered the craft of tar and charcoal burning. With this skill, they did not have to obey any ruler and could light fires in the forest; they were free and self-reliant. As for the idea of an association, I got it from The Paul Street Boys, a book whose protagonists founded a secret Putty Club at school. Nevertheless there was another book, the most important one in my reading set at the time, which gave my pursuits a decisive thrust. I got this book from my mum as a reward for sparing her upbringing problems. Entitled Between Play and Chemistry, it was an educational volume for aficionados of scientific mysteries. I literally never parted with it, reading it time and again with an ever increasing comprehension. I had had Between Play and Physics before, and my mum had seen how fervently and even systematically I had applied myself to various exercises explaining the laws of physics. Consequently, when she saw a similar book, she bought it – without much hesitation, I believe, and also without checking what was actually inside it. If she had, she would certainly have noticed that many of the book’s passages were perfectly fit for a dynamitard’s manual. The chapters concerning powder, nitroglycerine, dynamite, magnesia, guncotton, the mixing of acids and the making of aqua regia soon became my favorite reads. I had read them several times before I proceeded to action and mustered courage enough to visit a store with chemical reagents. There was such a store in Wrocław. It was situated in the Market Square, next door to a record shop. Enveloped in a mysterious penumbra and silence, the store was usually empty, with cupboards and glass-paned cabinets filled with brown-glass bottles holding all the substances one needed for experiments.

I counted all the money I had, and to my regret I realized that it would not see me through all the experiments I craved to do. As a result, partly for economic reasons and partly for social reasons, armed with precious know-how and a wealth of literary and historical arguments, I began to campaign for the foundation of a Free Chemists’ Association among my schoolmates. While my pals liked the name very much, the idea of paying membership fees did not appeal to them in the least. Only two of them turned up at the secret founding meeting, but it proved a turbulent event anyway. The association could not do without a majority-elected chairman, while each of us wanted to hold this position. Although I regarded this attitude as blatant ingratitude (after all the name of the association and its agenda, i.e. conducting as many various experiments with bangs and explosions as possible, were mine), I had no other choice and consented to a draw. The fate was fair, twice in fact. First, I drew the longest matchstick, and when my friends protested the result, we repeated the entire procedure under the increased surveillance of all us present, and the fate chose me again. That I became chairman was totally indisputable. It was also the first and the last time in the history of the Association that membership fees had been collected. If my memory does not deceive me, the fee was 40 PLN.

At a small factory of laboratory glass in Ładna Str., we bought a flask, test tubes, pipes, and a spirally twisted piece of laboratory glass whose shape appealed to us, but whose uses we did not know then. As it turned out later, it was a vapor liquefying cooler, an extraordinarily useful device for distilling moonshine. We used these objects for mixing potassium permanganate and dissolving various inks in water, so as to see the diffusion of colorful liquids which blended in a variety of fashions in diversely shaped vessels. For each of us to have his share of fun, we transported the gear from home to home, and when the repeated experiments started to feel monotonous, we embarked on other activities.

At the chemical store in the Market Square, I purchased new ingredients: several kinds of saltpeter and some other substances with which it was possible to produce a few types of powder at home. A friend from my neighborhood would often bring me small-caliber shells from a shooting range. One of our entertainments when playing outdoors was filling them with sulfur scratched off matchstick-tips. When plugged and put on tram rails, the copper shells would go off as tram wheels crushed them. And on special occasions, when two trams going in opposite directions passed each other in Sienkiewicz Str. between Górnicki Str. and Rej Str., where we lived, the effects were sometimes veritably spectacular. It was where our Association had its first noticeable success: the substances we mixed went off with an incomparably louder bang than the regular sulfur-filled shells made by other boys from the area.

[This is probably a good moment to apologize to tram 17 drivers who inadvertently blew off dozens of our devices along the route between Łukasz Górnicki Str. and Mikołaj Rej Str. My apologies go particularly to the gentleman who stopped his tram, grabbed an iron bar used for track switching, and, wearing his tram-driver’s suit, doggedly chased us across backyards]

These triumphs greatly augmented our bonds and enhanced our pride in being members of the Association. However, they also occasioned us troublesome fame. The local militia officer intervened, which spoiled our school records and nearly made us subject to monitoring by social workers. Stressful and unpleasant though these ramifications were for a while, the Association’s members began to garner esteem even from older students. Nevertheless, the growing popularity failed to translate into increased membership, as the prospect of paying a high fee effectively discouraged new enthusiasts. Our association still had three, and later only two, members.

In view of these circumstances, I had to propose a lower-profile, but still attractive agenda. So I chose a recipe for humidity-resistant powder and a water-proof fuse. My reasons were purely practical, for our planned detonations were supposed to take place in secluded locations, preferably at a remote corner of a park or a community garden. To totally minimize the probability of any unwelcome witnesses (and the related trouble) getting in our way, we had to pursue our aims not only at deserted places, but also in torrential rain.

There was a fantastic dead trunk, protruding a couple of meters up, at the right side of a wide alley running down from the National Museum across the Słowacki Park. The trunk was nearly as wide as it was high. It looked like a molar almost filled with a huge concrete inlay. To plant explosives there was a highly ambitious and tempting goal. Yet we gave up on it, and that for no less than three reasons. Firstly, I liked the tree a lot, and imagined it to be a prehistoric baobab; it would be a pity to destroy it. Secondly, the explosion that we envisaged was supposed to be huge, and as such it could not go unnoticed at this place. Thirdly, as our funds from the fees had already shrunk considerably, we needed a target whose size did not outstrip the bomb we were able to construct.

A community garden at the riverbank of the Oder was also discounted as a possible venue of our action. Too many allotment holders kept hanging out there, even when it was raining, and allotment holders were well known to be distrustful of strangers. The Szczytniki Park, however, appeared a prudent choice, especially that it was far more densely overgrown than it is today, and on weekdays it was completely deserted. Wrocław’s papers proudly reiterated that it was the biggest English-style park in Europe. Even if the information was not exactly true, the park was indeed large and beautiful. Additionally, it was usually empty, as an aura of notoriety had stuck to it since early post-war years. Even though we had just celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the Return of Western Territories, stories were still rife about dangerous bands prowling around the park at night, and even in daylight.

All this suggested the Szczytniki Park as our perfect venue. We found a promising spot near a picturesque pool formed by a stream that crisscrossed the park. A kind of construction project had started there, with paths all dug up, benches removed, bushes and some trees grubbed up, and the stream-front being paved in setts. Yet all these works seemed to have been abandoned, the area was one huge mess, and there was never anybody around – neither workers nor strollers in sight. This is where we chose our tree – a crooked specimen which nearly leaned flat on the water. It looked like it was just about to slide down and join other trunks already lying in the pool, having broken down or tumbled off the low bank.

To prepare our explosives, we needed to mix well several nitrates and charcoal. It had to be done by gradually adding very small quantities of the chemicals, because of a very real risk that the mixture would go off while grinding. Wary of this, we ground the powder pinch by pinch. It was far more difficult than filling small shells to be put on tram rails. It took eternity to fill a metal Marago coffee tin (my mum’s favorite coffee, very useful for our purposes). My pals soon grew bored, and I had to finish the job on my own. It was only weeks later that I managed to pack the tin almost brimful, leaving some room for guncotton made of cotton wool and nitric acid. I put on a lid with a slit for the fuse in it, and, just to be clear, soldered it, using a soldering iron borrowed from a neighbor who worked as a TV repairman. I wanted the device to go off with considerable power despite its small size.

In keeping with our plans, we chose a rainy day to carry out our action. Unexpectedly, it was exactly the reason why one friend’s parents did not let him go out, so he did not come to our secret meeting. Thus I inspected the device one last time only with Darek, my best pal and, obviously, a member of the Association. We also exchanged our last remarks before action.

I set out to the park all alone, because Darek, who was hemophilic, remained at my place. It was too risky for him to go, because the bang of the explosion was too likely to make him bleed from the nose and perhaps from the ears too, while stopping the hemorrhage would take a longer stay at hospital. As a matter of fact, Darek liked his stints at hospital quite a lot, all the more so that he was always taken to Warsaw by ambulance and once even by plane. As none of us had ever been to Warsaw, he could later tell us swell stories. On this occasion, however, he did not really fancy going to hospital again, because he had just returned from it after a lengthy treatment. We agreed that he would be at home, waiting for me to come back.

And so I found myself in the park alone, carrying the fuse, matches, and the Marago coffee tin hidden under my polyamide raincoat. The trunk of our chosen tree was perhaps twenty centimeters wide, and the roots stretching beneath it formed a tangled basket grown into the bank. As the tree was doomed to sooner or later tumble down by itself or be cut down, I felt no major remorse to sacrifice it for the sake of science. I placed the tin on the roots, secured it with setts I found lying nearby, and quickly unwound the fuse, which was long enough for me to hide at a safe distance behind another tree. I took out the matches and began igniting the fuse. I was well prepared, but it was raining so hard that even strike-anywhere matches refused to light. When a flame eventually appeared, my water-proof fuse was so soaked that it immediately went out. Several attempts later, my hope was all gone: the fuse was good for nothing. I had a piece of spare fuse in my pocket, but it was very short, just over one meter long. I put it carefully where the ground was a bit less wet, and mounted a tiny tent of leaves over it. Because the fuse was short indeed, I had to run away directly after igniting it. I managed to flee far away, but there was no explosion. I came back, tried again, and this time the bang followed almost immediately. I did not get far enough and was literally hit on the back by the blast. I kept running as fast as I could and did not see much of the explosion itself. I only managed to catch a glimpse of the last traces of spatter on the water, when I looked back over my shoulder for a while. From the bits of the image etched in my memory, it seemed to me that the setts did not jump up into the air, but rolled down into water. Despite all the pride and emotions I felt, I was also somewhat disappointed.

Although the original plan had been for me to run just a bit away and then assess the situation from the distance, I only stopped at my house. Flushed with excitement, Darek listened to my account and concluded: It’s probably the first time that you’ve been paler than me.

The traces of my explosion lingered long in the landscape, which gave me a lot of satisfaction. The rift in the bank and the knocked-over tree provided convincing evidence of the successful experiment. I brought many of my pals to the site, and a girlfriend who did not believe that my story of the event was true. The interrupted construction project was only resumed a few weeks later; then, the workers returned, cleared the pool of all the trunks, taking away my tree as well, finished the paving, graveled the alleys, and put the benches back in place. I have never felt any regrets for the blown-up tree; no matter how hard I try, I cannot even remember what species it was. But I got into the habit of regularly visiting the park, seeking out quiet corners in it, and mindfully communing with nature; the memory of the frantic run has also stuck with me.

At the Czynnik Ludzki/Human Aspect 2019 WRO Biennale, a young plane tree was brought in as an element of an artistic project exploring the communication of plants. After a several-month-long exhibition at the Four Domes Pavilion, the plane tree was transferred to the Szczytniki park. Planted there, it found a new place of its own and in a few years’ time it is likely to equal the size of that other tree, planted in the park decades ago.

Piotr Krajewski

Chairman of the Free Chemists’ Association

Chairman of the WRO Media Art Center Foundation


Piotr Krajewski


plane tree (Platanus)


Szczytniki Park

this plant exists