Put in superlatives, this place sounds great:
- one of Europe’s last stands of primeval forest;
- home of the rare European Bison;
- the revered hunting grounds of Polish kings and Russian tsars;
- a strict preservation policy that allowing nothing in, nothing out (no matter how good those mushrooms look);
- wolves, lynx, eagles, moose, badgers, birds and more!
Well, it’s not.
I found a blog post about the Bialowieza Forest and eagerly told friends of its legend. In my mind I saw startling nature, stands of old growth, wild animals fighting for dominance, sunlight blocked out by canopy, mushrooms littering the ground, pristine terrain. I lifted this forest to unattainable proportions in my mind. I saddled it with expectation (even though the writer of that blog kept it in proper proportion). And I told friends that I was going to visit without ever checking how long it would take to get there.
By the time I scheduled a week off and started looking into details, I was confronted with a 22.5 hour journey clear across both Germany and Poland with no real time for exploring sights along the way. Just a late night arrival in Warsaw and an evening in Bialystok.
Leaving Bialystok, you immediately begin seeing what comes to mind when you think Eastern Poland. Actually, I had no clue. But if your mind’s eye conjures small wooden houses with clever shutters and picket fences, you’re on track. Sturdy folk on tractors plowing up dark thick earth. And wide fields peppered with tiny towns. Our bus continued through the countryside.
And here’s the thing about going to see a forest. It’s not like cruising over the hill near Cochiti in New Mexico and seeing the grandeur of the Santa Fe National Forest laid out before you in the distance. It’s not like driving toward the California coast and suddenly finding yourself at the edge of the earth. You just see a line of trees in the distance under an ominous blanket of gray skies*
Everyone in the town of Bialowieza has a cabin out back or an extra room to rent. My initial fears of having to sleep on the side of the road were unfounded. There were more beds around than I was comfortable with. Food was another thing since it was low season.**
I got together with the guide I had hired to show me the forest. See there, that’s the other cool thing. You are only allowed to enter when accompanied by a guide. And even then you’re only allowed to see this one tiny corner of the forest since the rest is kept for the wild animals and graduate students.
We walked from the visitor center across a wide field and came to a large gate similar in scale and foreboding as Jurassic Park.
But on your first step, you realize. It’s a forest. Granted, it’s a thick forest, but really, just a forest. It’s nice. There’s moss everywhere. Little lichens and fallen trees that have fallen, decomposed and returned to feed other trees. I saw a squirrel with tiny horns. But not that different from other forests.
Until you start paying attention to the details. Trees that fall here, fall where and when they please. And according to our guide, other than clearing trees from the single road that covers this tiny corner of the forest, there’s no touching, no harvesting, no hunting, no picking berries, no dropping your trash, nothing.
And as your eyes and ears get tuned in, you look to your left and see a 450 year old oak tree or that 100 year old linden with a pile of saplings around it’s trunk just waiting for it to fall so they can take its place. A fallen old spruce pulls up a pancake of shallow roots spread out revealing it’s strategy for catching water – until the ground gets too soft and can’t support its height.
Stepping off the trail, there’s a springy bounce to the ground. Moss, detritus, and a built up collection of fallen leaves, trees and more. More and more and more compost that continually feeds the other trees, collects moisture and feeds back into the system. Scattered little saplings across the forest floor holding one last yellow leaf in surrender to the winter.
And I guess that’s the difference. A lot of the forests I’ve seen in Europe are well managed. They appear wild, but there aren’t any old giants. There’s prescribed burning, select cutting, whatever, but this huge tract of forest is left completely to its own devices. Old giant elm trees that have outlived dutch elm diseases. Invasive species aren’t invited, but aren’t pursued and destroyed either.
It’s interesting, and it’s a little thing, but it’s amazing to see what happens when you just don’t meddle. It’s like how you can learn more by sitting still. The forest is a meditation. And just like that, before I knew it my time was up.
So no, it really isn’t any of those superlatives listed above, it’s more than that. And worth the 22.5 hour slog.
*That is one preconceived notion I had of Poland and it was true. The entire time, it was completely gray and bleak and charming.
**When I did meet people that spoke some English or German, they invariably asked, “Why did you come in November?!?!” or “Thank God you came now! There’s no money coming in!” or “You American? Obama! Obama!”