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Białowieża Forest

One August morning in 2010 I woke up before dawn to go bushwhacking near the Belarussian border. My guide, a friendly Polish geography teacher named Romek, was waiting outside to take me into one of the last patches of primeval wilderness in Europe, Białowieża Forest.

Primeval forest is what covered nearly all of Europe from the time the glaciers receded to the late Middle Ages. It’s the spooky, dense forest of Grimm’s fairy tales, full of danger and beasts (there were lions in these woods!) For anyone used to the tame farm landscape of modern Europe, it takes quite an imaginative leap to realize how threatening and impassable the continent used to be. It’s easier to just come and see it.

In most of Europe primeval forest disappeared as fast as people could cut it down. Today there are only a few stands of it left, mostly in inaccessible corners of the Carpathians and other mountainous areas. Białowieża is unusual both because of its size and because it lies right in the middle of the E-Z-Invasion strip through the Central European plain, not the first place you think of when looking for something that’s been left alone for ten thousand years.

The forest spans the border between Poland and Belarus; the two countries manage it jointly as a strict biosphere reserve. And they mean strict! If I have a heart attack this morning, Romek tells me with a smile, I must not expect an ambulance or helicopter to come get me. Paramedics will arrive on horseback, many hours after I first clutch my chest, and my mortal remains will be dragged out of the forest by cart.

There hasn’t been a motor vehicle in the forest since World War II, and that’s only because a couple of Nazis (of course) needed to unload bodies in a hurry and violated the driving ban. But even the Nazis only did it once. Before them, the last vehicle to enter the forest did so in 1922.

Should I find a feral apple or pear tree (there are a few), I’m allowed to eat the fruit, but I can’t drop the cores. Those have to come back out with us. Strict!

But the greatest temptation in Białowieża grows on the ground. Poles love mushrooms, every family has its expert, and on autumn weekends you will find the forests around any major city getting strip-mined by packs of intent and mutually suspicious day-trippers. We grow up in an atmosphere of scarcity and distrust where mushroom picking is concerned, particularly since it’s considered extremely bad luck to even talk about where to find them, for fear of jinxing yourself.

So visiting Białowieża is like being one of those dogs whose master stacks dozens of treats on its muzzle and just makes it sit there. There is suffering. No hobo passing a pie cooling on a windowsill ever faced greater temptation than the daily procession of Polish day hikers forced to stroll past perfectly formed two-kilo flavor monsters growing right out in the open, the fungal equivalents of a thirty-pound lobster or fist-sized golden nugget.

Like Mordor, one does not simply walk into Białowieża forest. There’s no obstacle preventing it apart from a simple wooden gate, but if you are caught without a guide you pay an enormous fine. God help you if you’ve picked a mushroom. Most visitors confine themselves to a group hike around a loop trail of several miles along an abandoned road bed, but there are longer hikes if you’re willing to get your feet wet and pay for a permit. I figure if I’ve come out all this way to see primeval forest, I should see some primeval forest, and so I spring for the special backwoods hiking permit. It buys me six hours of Romek’s time and the right to go bushwhacking in a more remote area of the forest that sees about forty human beings a year.

You reach the forest by walking through its exact opposite, a beautiful, meticulously groomed English park created for Tsar Alexander III near the end of the 19th century. There are broad lawns between copses of trees which have been selected to give nice color contrasts in the autumn, or to pleasantly offset each other with different shades of green in the summertime. Almost all of these the trees here are rare exotics, many brought from North America at terrific expense and by the express request of the Tsar. It doesn’t do much for me personally to see a Douglas fir, but I can understand why they were a big hit with the Russians.

Beyond the park is a brief stretch of open country that leads to the wooden gate. It is just before daybreak when we arrive, and the world is completely still. Later on there will groups of hikers passing through, but for the moment we have the woods completely to ourselves. The gate opens and I prepare to enter a world of magic.

Instead my first impression is of extreme clutter. It looks exactly like any other Polish forest, except no one has cleared all the dead branches and trees that lean in every direction or just lie rotting on the ground. Some trees have died in place and their bare trunks rise out of the undergrowth like ghostly masts. I fully expect to see the rusted skeleton of an Ursus tractor in between the brambles. The place looks like it could use some pruning and a judicious series of fires. I shoot Romek a wounded glance, but he has already disappeared into the trees.

As we walk deeper into the woods I begin to notice that the trees are very tall. In fact, I’ve never seen broadleaf trees this big before. If they were growing anywhere else there would be a chain around them, a little brass plaque, and a place to park the tour bus, but here they are just average. If you’ve ever been in a redwood forest you will know the feeling. The immensity isn’t immediately obvious because everything is on the same huge scale, but all you have to do is walk up to a trunk to realize that you are now a smurf. What looked like saplings from a distance are perfectly respectable beech or ash or linden that are just completely out of their class here.

From reading descriptions of old-growth forest, I had expected the landscape to be very uneven and hard to cross. The idea is that when a dying tree falls over it tears a big hole in the ground, and the earth trapped in its root system accumulates in a litte hill next to the depression when it rots away, creating a landscape of pits and hillocks.

But where we’re walking the earth is packed and flat, with barely any underbrush. A troop of cub scouts could pitch their tents here with no trouble (though they would quickly find themselves exsanguinated). I shoot Romek a second wounded glance, but he knows the secret of the forest, which is that if you want a complete change of scenery you just have to walk a few hundred steps. Before long I will see my pit-and-hill forest, then bog, thick brambles, tall bushes, and even a kind of oversized lush meadow between the trees, the comically big blades of grass looking like a lawn misrendered at the wrong magnification.

The forest is sensitive to small changes in microclimate and soil chemistry. They determine which species of tree will grow best, and the trees in turn affect everyting else. Some of them engage in ruthless chemical warfare, dropping leaves or seeds that poison the soil for their rivals, or attracting animals to trample the competition. Others suction up water at a prodigious rate to dry out their neighbors. The forest is one giant monument to plant’s inhumanity to plant.

The oak tree has a clever way of eliminating its competition. Boars go insane for the rich taste of acorns, and under every oak you can see what looks like a garden that’s been tilled by a drunken backhoe, where boars in search of a fix have carved up the ground with their tusks. This helps fertilize the tree and uproot all competitors, but at the price of nearly the entire acorn crop. The oak owes its continued existence to forgetful squirrels, who will hide away a store of acorns and nuts for the winter and occasionally forget where they buried it. The little storehouse sprouts the next spring and the crisis is averted for one more generation.

A tree’s life in Białowieża begins with a race to the canopy and never gets significantly easier. As it grows, the sapling has to contend with every kind of opponent, from bark beetles to grazing deer. The ugliest of these is a fat, leathery parasitic mushroom that grows on a tree’s trunk like a shelf, and can kill it in a handful of years. You can count the layers on the ugly thing to get an idea of how long the tree survived before succumbing.

Once the tree dies, the real party begins for the many species that survive on dead lumber. This is where old forest comes into its own, with specialist bugs to eat the rotting wood, specialist woodpeckers to eat the specialist bugs, and onwards through a whole chain of endangered animals and plants designed for the business of tree removal, whose world is confined to a few small areas of forest like this.

The principal large mammals in Białowieża are the bison, moose, wolf, boar, bobcat, and graduate student. The last spends a lengthy juvenile period studying forest theory in Western Europe before migrating in to do field work and possibly mate. The nutrient-rich graduate student is a cornerstone of the forest food pyramid, a conveniently mobile, heated feed bag for a variety of small cosmic horrors. Since there is so little real forest left in Europe, the supply of these initially pink-cheeked graduate students is limitless and easily replenished. If you step quietly, so as not to spook them, you can see them sometimes through the trees, catching frogs with nets, cataloguing the various insects buried in their skin, or peering resignedly into bird holes. They look pale.

As Romek and I walk deeper into the brambles, I find my own interest in the forest reciprocated by a dismaying variety of parasites. Anything with legs, wings and a bloodsucking proboscis has perked up and come to greet us as we enter areas that have gone a long, hungry time since their last warm mammal. The ticks are the most horrifying. Romek is talking to me about the subtleties of forest ecology when I see something with far too many legs run up from his collar directly into his ear canal. He doesn't notice and keeps talking, but unconsciously pokes at his ear with an idle fingertip as I die on the inside. Moments later, of course, I feel a certain scrabbling at my own hairline. Whatever Romek says for the next hour is lost to me as I claw at myself, every once in a while catching a little facehugger that makes a tiny popping sound between my fingernails.

Ticks wait on the tips of leaves and drop on you from above when they detect a plume of your sweet breath. Or else they climb on grass or bushes and will hitch a ride on you as you brush past them. Their instinct is to climb before attaching, so you have a few minutes to intercept them before they reach the Klondike of your scalp or armpit. If you are really tough, you’ll just ignore them and wait until they’ve inflated to their full raisin size a day or two later. “Check your groin when you take a shower!” Romek warns. “They sure do love the groin!”

Providing air support for the ticks are mosquitoes that swarm so densely in places they have to take turns landing on us. We slather ourselves with DEET on the half hour, and the effect is immediate. Now we are only bitten by the mosquitoes that blunder into us at random, while the remainder hover in a confused and hungry cloud.

Later, as we’re leaving the forest, we pass an inbound group of hikers wearing just shorts, t-shirts, and open sandals. Even at the edge of the woods, they already seem mildly uncomfortable and are swatting at the air. My stomach clenches in sympathy knowing what awaits them. Either that, or something has successfully bored its way in.

A paradox of the primeval forest is that nothing in it is very old. The longest-lived organism in the forest is an oak tree, and the most it can reasonably survive before lightning or rot does it in is eight hundred years (1). So while the ecosystem has existed in its present form for over a hundred centuries, the oldest artifacts in this forest are all of human origin.

These are low mounds of earth called kurhany in Polish, курганы in Russian. They are paleolithic gravesites. Some were made for just one person, others hold a number of bodies along with artifacts like pottery shards. Excavations show that they were built by a number of unrelated cultures at different times in the far past, and that they range from opulent to purely utilitarian. Further batallions of graduate students have been deployed to study them.

Early in our walk we cross a section of the forest called ‘Lagery’ (The Camps), which peasants since time out of mind have used as a hiding place in time of war. The giveaway here is a birch tree, the only one I’ll see in the entire forest. To a forester it’s about as blatant a sign of human presence as a lamppost. In a real contest against broadleaf species, the birch has no chance, but as soon as people cut a clearing somewhere, the tree seizes its opportunity to grow. So the vast birch forests emblematic of Eastern Europe are really a memorial to the much mightier forests of years past.

There are less subtle signs of human presence, too. Romek points out a long, slotted board leaning against a tree trunk. It looks like a weathered piece of driftwood. This board used to hang ten meters up the trunk of a nearby tree, suspended like a pendulum over a small hollow in the trunk. Wild bees had made a hive there, and some enterprising human foragers found it and hung the board to protect the hive from bears. A bear could climb the tree and swing the board aside with one paw while still holding on to the trunk, but the board would swing back before the animal had time to reach in and scoop out the sweet, sweet contents. So the poor bear would just hang there getting stung, unable to use both paws without falling out of the tree, staring at the unreachable honeycomb, thinking its thoughts. A small peephole in the board let the insects come and go unimpeded.

This clever device kept all the honey safe for the foragers, who could come back at regular intervals to collect it until they were killed by a furious bear. This particular specimen probably dates back to the eighteenth century.

A little further along, we pass a set of fresh bison hoofprints, which Romek says are extremely rare in this part of the forest. This is not because the European bison (a fearsome, top-heavy beast that looks like an ox wearing a sweater) is rare, but because it prefers to stay in closer proximity to people, in the hope of finding treats. Nothing stirs the heart of a bison faster than the thought of uprooting someone’s vegetable garden. Even though it's the symbol of Białowieża forest, one of the last places on earth where it survives in the wild, wildness is somewhat wasted on the bison, and it must be watched to keep it from sneaking out of its majestic habitat.

The park is also home to a homely little plant called bisongrass (żubrówka), named that because it is one of the very few plants that bison can’t stand and will not eat. Bisongrass is used to flavor a Polish vodka of the same name; the vodka turns a faint yellow green and the dried plant gives it a pleasant herbal taste. Because this grass is endangered, the fines for actually picking it in the wild are astronomical. Special indoor bisongrass plantations supply the vodka industry, though from the way the vodka is marketed you'd think it was collected like dewdrops from right under the noses of the thirsty beasts(2).

The first mention of Białowieża is in 1409, when King Jagiełło used it as a royal meat factory to supply his army for a campaign against the Teutonic Knights. The king and his party arrived in the autumn and hunted through the winter, sending hundreds of barrels of smoked and salted meat down the river to Płock, where his troops waited in winter camp. This was pre-potato Poland, where if you didn’t find a boar to roast you'd be stuck until spring eating bread, sorrel, turnips, onions and beans, so the expedition to Białowieża was a big deal. It was also the closest thing the fifteenth century had to military exercises. The king could test the mettle of his lieutenants by pitting them against various large game, and the survivors would bond afterwards in the mead hall.

That giant hunt whetted a royal appetite that was the key to the forest's survival. The forest became crown territory, a hunting preserve strictly reserved for the king. No one was allowed to enter it without royal leave, even to gather hay, and only the local peasants were given passes to enter. A small cadre of royal game wardens patrolled the lands to keep poachers out. Woe to anyone caught entering the forest with a dog or a firearm. Every few years the king would return in splendor for a few weeks of hunting.

As time passed, these royal hunts grew more decadent. To save the king the discomfort of riding through the forest, carpenters would build a big stage-like dais for the entire royal party, with a large corrall connected to it by a chute. In the weeks before the ‘hunt’, the king’s minions would catch dozens of bison, deer and other game animals alive in nets and fatten them in the corrall.

On the day of the hunt, the King gave his signal and the animals were driven down the chute one by one, emerging directly in front of the platform where the King and Queen could shoot them point blank. A line of servants stood by to clean and reload the royal muskets. A stone obelisk near the park entrance commemorates one of these slaughters in 1759:

On September 27, 1752 His Royal Highness Augustus III, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony, along with Her Royal Highness and Princes Xavier and Carl, hunted bison here, killing:
  • 42 bison, of which:
    • 11 large, the greatest weighting 14 hundredweight 50 lb.
    • 7 small
    • 18 cows
    • 6 calves
  • 13 moose, that is:
    • 6 bulls, the greatest weighting 9 hundredweight 75 lbs
    • 5 cows
    • 2 calves
  • 2 deer
Making 57 all together.

Augustus III was no gym rat, so this kind of hunting was just his speed. The queen bagged ten bison while reading a novel.

After the partition of Poland in 1795, Białowieża became Russian territory. The tsars briefly allowed the forest to be logged before recognizing its value as a hunting ground and putting it back under protection. The Russians were the first to survey Białowieża, leaving behind a grid of small stone markers that forest rangers still use today. And since doing things in moderation is not really the Russian way, they imported thousands of game animals in from Siberia and the Caucasus to stock the forest for hunting, badly overstressing (and probably perplexing) the local habitat.

Tsar Alexander III was particularly fond of hunting here, which is why he ordered the fancy English park and wooden palace. Things remained calm until the First World War, when famished German soldiers descended on the forest like boars on an oak grove. Over four years they exterminated essentially every animal in the forest, including the entire remaining wild population of European bison. The bison only escaped extinction thanks to some zoo specimens brought from various European capitals after the war. So thanks to the Germans, all remaining European bison are near-clones of one another.

When the war ended, Poland popped back into existence and resumed stewardship over the forest. The new government sold a logging concession to an English company, which horrified everyone by starting to clear-cut the lumber. The concession was soon taken away.

The forest continued its role as a privileged hunting preserves. Göring and Ciano both visited here before the war, and Göring (who fancied himself a master hunter) made sure the forest remained intact during the occupation. The Nazis confined themselves to massacring the locals and hunting partisans in the woods. Stalin, also an avid hunter, drew the new Soviet-Polish border right down the middle of Białowieża as part of his successful ploy to shift the country bodily a hundred miles west. The story has it that he intended to annex the entire thing, but took pity on Polish communists who also wanted somewhere to go hunting.

The grateful Polish comrades adorned Alexander III’s beautiful park with a two-story turd of advanced socialist architecture called the Hunting Lodge. In its day this was a very exclusive mini-hotel for entertaining visiting dignitaries from fraternal nations. A whole book could (and should) be written about the Communist obsession with hunting. Poland was no exception, and the likes of Tito, Ceaușescu, and the gorgeously named Valéry Giscard d’Estaing all helicoptered in for a quick murderous visit to the woods. Today the lodge stands empty, though still maintained, a series of lovely flower gardens surrounding it making a contrast with that special Brezhnev-era concrete that somehow looked filthy from the moment it was poured.

Towards noon, Romek and I emerge onto the main forest trail, a broad dirt path wide enough for horse-drawn carts to come through. These take people with limited mobility (or unlimited laziness) on a short loop along the edge of the forest, where some of the biggest oaks are. The sun has come out and is streaming down through the leaves in thick beams like a bad inspirational poster. The light is not only lovely but makes it easier to avoid the trampoline-sized spiderwebs suspended between the trees, where many-eyed spiders as big as a hazelnut sit and await their supper. Romek exchanges greetings with every guide we pass; most of them are leading clusters of German or English-speaking tourists from oak to oak. Soon after that we're back out in the open fields, in one of the most placid landscapes in Europe.

As I climb into bed back at the hotel, I try to summon a deep, National Geographic-style thought about the meaning of this place and my role in it. Instead, I quickly pass out. This teaches me that, given ideal weather conditions, modern clothing, and a thermos full of coffee, I would survive for under twelve hours in primeval forest before a passing wolf found my sleeping body and made me one with nature again.

But it's a hell of a place!

(1) There’s a lovely custom in Poland of baptizing notable oaks and giving them proper names. The reigning old-timer in Poland is a giant named Bolesław, who sprouted from an acorn in about the year 1200.

(2) Apart from a blade of bisongrass, each bottle of this vodka also includes an implicit raised middle finger to the Latin alphabet, in the form of the magnificent Polish word źdźbło (blade of grass). That last vowel represents the rest of the word laughing at you after you have tried to pronounce it.

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