Bialowiecza Forest – a natural cathedral

“What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another” (Mahatma Gandhi). Today, fewer and fewer unspoilt forests and woodlands remain in a world exploited for its natural resources. Fortunately, there is one in eastern Europe.

Deciduous forest covered lowland Europe at a time when oak and other broad-leafed trees extended across a territory almost as vast as the Amazon. In 2,000 BCE ancient forests draped the British Isles, the southern parts of Scandinavia, France and northern Spain, and penetrated far into present-day Russia. At that time, great rivers flowed through a landscape of willows and sallows, forming dense bogs and marshes. Centuries later the dark forest came to haunt the imagination of European writers like the Brothers Grimm, and in it roamed auroch, bison (known as wisent), elk, red deer, wild horses, wolves and brown bears. Not much of it remains, but 155 miles east of Warsaw stretches its last remnant, fortunately under international protection. Whoever sees it today, sees it as it was thousands of years ago.

For half a millennium the Bialowiecza Forest, which straddles the border between Poland and Belarus, was the private hunting domain of the kings of Poland and the tsars of Russia, who conferred on it special privileges, prohibiting wood clearing. During the 1914-18 War, the forest was occupied by German soldiers, who cut down large tracts of trees and shot the wildlife for food. After the War, a National Park was established and successful attempts made to reintroduce the European bison. There were 16 bison in the Park, two of them descendants of a pair of wisent given by Tsar Alexander II, by the end of 1939. But that same year the local inhabitants of Polish nationality were deported to remote areas of the Soviet Union and in 1941 the Germans occupied the forest and expelled its Soviet inhabitants. Later the trees became a place of refuge for both Polish and Soviet partisans, and in retaliation the German authorities organized mass executions of people suspected of aiding the resistance. Graves of people killed by the Gestapo can still be seen in the forest. In July 1944 the area was liberated by the Red Army and it reverted to being a National Park. In 1992 the forest on both sides of the border was added to the World Heritage List and internationally recognised as a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1993.

The Bialowiecza Forest figures in Wilderness Europe (Time-Life, 1976), in which Douglas Botting describes the magnificently tall trees soaring up more than 130 feet, and the total absence of signs of people. Nothing interferes with the natural rhythm of self-generation and the forest looks like “a cross between an arboreal boneyard and a nursery, with seedlings, saplings and young trees competing for space and light in the gap left by a fallen giant.”

Forests and woods grip the imagination of people accustomed to urban living and to the unthinking destruction of natural habitats – whether it be the English countryside, whose countryside is gradually vanishing, the lowlands of Papua New Guinea, where logging is taking its toll, or the felling of the last tree on Easter Island. In the chapter “Primeval Woods” in Wilderness Europe, Botting captures something of that fascination when he describes setting foot in the ancient forest for the first time:

“My nose picked up the rank, dank vegetable odour of leaf mould, humus, bog water and decaying wood. In that silent place my ears registered every sound, so that even the minutest noises seemed magnified: a pine cone fell on the soft forest floor with a thud like a hammer blow, a maple leaf fluttered down among the branches with a clatter like broken crockery, the mad cackle of a jay and the rattle of a woodpecker echoed and re-echoed between the myriad noise-reflecting surfaces of the tree trunks like the uproar of a blasphemous congregation in a cathedral.”

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