Sunday, May 15, 26th day of the Omer, in the Bialowieza Forest
You might ask, what can one say about a forest? This one is pretty special. It is the last untouched remnant of the forest that used to cover all of Europe. Unfortunately, now it only traverses the borderlands of Poland and Belarus (39 sq. miles within Poland and 684 sq. miles in Belorussia). It was lovely to visit it during the springtime when the ground cover was so green and full of buttercups. There were also lots of purple flowers, and a plant called bear garlic. The little white flowers smell of garlic when you sniff up close, and when there are dozens of plants together, the smell of garlic is in the air. The leaves of the plants look like they are covered with fine, white ash, but this is just stuff from the trees and flowers (I think this is what Reagan called "tree pollution"). I can't put these photos in the blog right side up, for some reason, so you'll just have to use your imagination.
The area has a buffer zone in which hunting is allowed and there are fewer rules about access, and there are buildings still remaining there from the period of the Tzars and afterwards. We walked through that. Then there is the protected Bialowieza National Park. No machines may enter there, no planting is permitted, and no one cuts down trees (although trees that fall over the official pathways are cut by hand saw and moved to the side). No one can sleep in it overnight, and you cannot enter without a special tour guide. Also, people can enter only on foot or in a horse-drawn carriage. Lucyna arranged a 3 hour walking tour for us.
Most of the forests I’ve seen in my life have not been “first growth,” so the trees are younger and there is more space between trees. Also, fallen trees are usually removed by agencies concerned to prevent forest fires, but in Bialowieza the centuries of leaves and rotted trees have made the ground quite fertile, and so the seeds grow prolifically. And then, because of all the rot, there are lots of types of fungus and many kinds of wood-eating and fungus-eating bugs (though we didn't see them). The guide called this tree “grandma, mother, and daughter” because the youngest grew out of the older and that one grew out of the oldest. We saw some trees that were 300-400 years old, mainly oak and spruce. Spruce trees have very shallow root systems, so if they are knocked a certain way (say, by another falling tree), they can fall over right from the root. We learned about trees splitting in two because of frost damage, but then continuing to grow with the split between them. The tour guide gave us all sorts of lovely facts. Plus some unlovely ones, like the places where partisans hiding in the forest were rounded up and shot. I guess being that this is Poland, it's hard to escape the ghastly reminder of the Nazi occupation. Mostly, we just took in the fragrant air and the springy ground beneath our feet.
Bialowieza still has lots of wildlife, but during the day we wouldn’t be likely to see it. Our guide told us that she once came upon a lynx very early in the morning. There are wolves, deer, and the bison were hunted out of the forest in the 20th century but then were bred in zoos and reintroduced successfully. The Poles are very proud of this, and there are bison pictures and statues everywhere. Also, a Polish beer company graces its label with the bison, so at first glance you think “how lovely, a wild animal” until you actually read the text.
Before entering the park, we sprayed each other with mosquito repellent and received the scorn of a couple of old Polish men who thought we would drive away the bison or irritate them into not reproducing or something. It wasn’t likely that we’d see bison anyway. Afterwards we went to a bison reserve so we could say we saw bison. “We saw bison” -- dismal, miserable animals, penned up in a bison reserve instead of prancing through the buttercups! Nearby were apathetic balding deer and dispirited indolent wolves. I felt better after Rachel and Francesca bought me a little jar of honey and Lucyna bought me bison grass. Enterprising Polish entrepreneurs have convinced Poles that sticking bison grass into vodka for several days gives a good flavor to the flavorless liquor. This recipe tip, of course, has no allure for me, and bison grass is nice on its own. It smells like the sweet grass on Amy's farm. If I hadn’t left it in Lucyna’s car, I’d go sniff it now and assure myself of pleasant dreams.