Forgotten by Time
Apart from being the original home of the European bison, Poland’s Białowieža National Park forms a part of the continent’s last and most ancient primary forest complex, a trans-boundary zone of extraordinary biodiversity, much of which has remained untouched for centuries.
There are ghosts in this forest.
They’ve been here for as long as the trees can remember: wispy, dramatic things, hovering silently in open places. Maybe they’re the spirits of kings who, five hundred years ago, preserved these woods for hunting deer and boar. Or perhaps they’re the kind of creatures you read about in fairy tales, concealed in the folds of leaves and the knots of 800-year old moss- covered oaks. Or maybe it’s just the fog of the dawn, accompanied by a good dose of imagination. Białowieza Forest remains the last of the primaeval woodlands that once covered nearly all of Europe. What was then a vast continental spread is now reduced to just over 92,000 hectares shared between two countries: Poland and Belarus. Of the nearly 650 square kilometres on the Polish side, roughly a scant 150 is protected as the Białowieza National Park. Additionally, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Białowieza (pronounced Byah-woh-vyeh-zhah) has a torrid history, spiced with Polish monarchs and Russian tsars and even Nazi murders. In the 16th century, King Sigismund I issued the first recorded legislation protecting the forest’s ecosystem: death penalty for anyone caught poaching the wisent or the European bison. The precautionary measure was a successful one. The forest remained largely unpopulated and untouched by humans until the late 18th century, when Poland was partitioned and its eastern region was annexed by Russia. On the heels of annexation came the Tsars, and with their arrival, Białowieza was once again opened up for hunting. In just 15 years, the population of the wisent fell from 500 to less than 200. In 1860, Tsar Alexander II re-established the protection of the bison, but the forest again suffered large-scale losses of her inhabitants, wisent and others, during the First and Second World Wars. Railroad tracks were laid in previously untouched tracts of Białowieza. Lumber mills were built. Graves of those murdered in the forest by the S.S. regime can still be seen to this day.
Then the Nazis fell, and life resumed a sense of normalcy. Poland, bruised and battered following its six-year occupation, slowly began rebuilding itself. The Soviets filled in Warsaw’s bombed-out hollows with towering cement housing blocs for the workers of the new Communist regime. War-torn people began milling on the streets again. Markets reopened. Finally, in 1947, Poland turned its attention to its national treasure, and Białowieza National Park was officially restored.
A Precarious Biosphere
This ancient ecosystem — quietly keeping time by the rings of its trees— has existed far before it served as a backdrop for our recorded human dramas. Białowieza is 10,000 years old. On the geological clock, that puts its birth just after the last Ice Age. In prehistoric times, lions roamed here; wolves, deer, ermine, beaver, fox and bison still do. Parts of the woodlands have remained untouched for those one hundred centuries— a living, breathing time capsule. Given its diminutive state as the fractured vestige of a once-mighty arboreal empire, Białowieza’s faunal life remains diverse and unique. 8,500 species of insects make their home here, alongside 54 mammalian species and some 250 birds. Białowieza’s floral diversity is even more impressive: over 900 species of vascular plants coexist with hundreds of types of lichens and mosses, as well as an astounding 3,000 species of fungi. The ecosystem is classified as a temperate deciduous forest, comprising conifers and broadleaved trees — a hodgepodge of oaks and alders, pines and spruces. On the European continent — a mosaic of modern architectural wonders and charming farmland — uninterrupted stretches of forest are a sight for sore eyes, and Białowieza, an ancient oasis for migrating birds, is especially so. In 1977, UNESCO heralded the forest first as a Biosphere Reserve, and then as a World Heritage Site in 1979.
To enter the oldest and most pristine section of the park, you must be accompanied by a guide. This ancient spread comprises less than a quarter of the total mass of forest on the Polish side, and it is guarded by a simple wooden fence. It is here, in the foggy silence, that you are engulfed by the 10,000-year-old symphony conducted by Mother Nature. Dotted with mist-shrouded bogs, fed by the watershed of the Black and Baltic Seas on which the forest comfortably sits, Białowieza is a place where old-world fables are born: of hungry, carnivorous animals disguised in human clothing, or a place where people leave bowls of milk near the front door for the occasional thirsty fairy that passes by.
The Flagship Species
But of all the creatures who call the forest home — real or imaginary — one has emerged to become synonymous with Białowieza itself: the Wisent, the largest European land mammal. Smaller than its North American cousin, the European bison has nonetheless maintained its precarious foothold repeatedly in the face of extinction. The very last Białowiezan wisent was shot in 1919, but a decade later, the herbivorous behemoth was reintroduced via four individuals relocated from other areas. Białowieza’s bison population now stands between 300 and 400. To this day, the park carefully manages them, even providing food in the arduous winter.
The bison has become so beloved by the locals (and financially valuable, as well) that a version of Poland’s favourite spirit has been named after the creature. At any cafe in and around the park, along with a heaping plate of pierogi (the delectable dumpling for which Eastern Europe is famous), one can order a shot of Zubrówka, a fiery vodka distilled from the bison grass on which the wisent feasts. Should you be fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of the evasive herbivore, you would be doubly lucky to see him grazing amongst Białowieza’s other treasured species: the mighty oak tree. Reaching a height of some forty meters and an age of up to eight hundred years, the oldest and largest oaks in the forest are lovingly given names like “Great Mamamuszi” and “The Dominator Oak” (the latter of which, though still standing, has already died).
But mourn not the dead oaks. It is in its own death, its own rhythm, that Białowieza regenerates itself. On a chilly early morning stroll, our guide (a sixty-something grandmotherly “babushka”-type straight out of “Little Red Riding Hood”) tells us that each and every tree in Białowieza is an ecosystem unto itself.
“You see that tree there?” Grandma Guide points at a large oak behind the group, a decidedly regal tree in its prime. “That tree is a home to probably 1000 species. Lichens, mosses, fungi, bacteria, insects. Now, you see that one?”
This one is a fallen comrade: long dead and no longer vertical. Grandma takes a seat and pats the oak affectionately.
“This one, a dead one, can host up to 5000 species.”
Today, Białowieza is threatened by illegal firewood harvesting, something the National Park administration hopes will decrease once residents understand how unique the ecosystem is. If tourism increases — and with it, business — then perhaps the local population will be reminded of what lies in their neighbourhood: a treasure chest of biodiversity. An inspiration for story-telling. And a teacher, perhaps, for those of us who sometimes forget how to live in rhythm, how to let go and be reborn, and how, when allowed, to thrive.
“Did you enjoy your tour?” Grandma asks.
“Yes, I did,” I reply. “I especially enjoyed learning about the oaks.”
“Thanks,” she says, winking as she takes the money I offer as a tip. “Vodka money,” she grins.
How to go – Fly into Warsaw, Poland’s stalwart capital city. From the city’s main train terminus, the Polish State Railways Soviet-era trains will connect you to Białystok, the nearest city to Białowieza, in about two and a half hours. Once in Białystok, head to the back side of the train station and look for VoyagerTrans bus company. The 14 złoty (about 5 USD) ride should take about an hour and a half.
When to go – The rains begin in September, swiftly followed by a long winter with short and frigid days. While you’ll have the park to yourself, you’ll have very little daylight in which to explore it. Instead, visit the park in the spring, when the flowers are blooming, or during the late summer, when the lingering twilight allows you to stroll the grounds as long as you’d like.
Things to remember – Definitely opt for a tour within the protected centre of Białowieza, which also happens to be the oldest part of the park. Guides are available in English.
In general, you won’t hear much English being spoken here. Bring a small dictionary: a little goes a long way, and locals love it when visitors try to speak (and inevitably butcher) the notoriously difficult Polish language. If you end up having a drink with a local, remember to toast with a hearty “Sto Lat!” or, “Na Zdrowie!” You won’t need to book lodging in advance: Białowieza village is chock-full of family-run guesthouses. Just walk up the main street of the town and look for lodging signs. Accommodations will run you about 20 USD a night for a single if you can bargain.
For more information – Visit www.poland.travel/en/
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