Maybe they can also offer inspiration for its future?
Last month I traveled to the border of Poland and Belarus to one of the last great untouched European forests, a UNESCO World Heritage site and a place of unique wild beauty whose past and present are a monument to the many-faceted relationship between humans and nature.
We saw wild bison, visited a tree memorial to the thousands of Poles exported from Białowieża village to Siberia, and stood in the beautiful forest at the site where Nazis had buried hundreds in a mass grave. We witnessed signs left by the changing climate as well as recent clashes between logging and environmental activists, and traces of the transformation as the forest adapts to new conditions. But it all began with a strange and unexpected nightly noise concert.
Howling under the stars
After a good four hours of drive from Warsaw, at eleven in the evening, our guide Adam Bohdan parked us at the wooden Wejmutka Manor in Białowieża village and asked us if we’d like to head right back out again to listen to the red deer.
We followed him into the night and made our way to a meadow, treading around puddles and over ditches guided by phone lights. When we came to a halt and our eyes adapted to the dark, we could see fog lying low on the notches bathed in the light of the milky way and Jupiter shining down on us from a spectacular clear sky. Soon the roaring began.
Stags were letting out long growling calls that echoed over the landscape, sounding like a mix between a Godzilla and a manatee (if manatees made sounds, this gnarly, bullish version of whale song is what I imagine it would be like). The calls are the stags’ way of attracting females, or hinds. Watching through Adam’s night-vision goggles, we spotted a pair of hinds nearby with pretty baffled looks on their faces (probably because of us and not the rutting concert, though).
To make the scene of nightly howling meadows more unreal, we spotted a handful of falling stars. One of them was so near that we could actually see it flaming, fiery red tail with sparks and all. A fitting symbol of the rare privilege of visiting a remnant of Europe’s primeval forest.
In defense of dead wood
After a short night of sleep we headed out to the forest in the morning. Our guide Adam Bohdan was not only an expert on the forest through his research on insects, lichens and fungi living on wood, but also an environmentalist central to the efforts to protect the forest since 2017, when activists campaigned to stop the logging of hundreds of hectares of valuable old forests surrounding the strictly protected core of the Natural Park. The open meadows where we listened to the deer were located at the backyard of a house that used to serve as the environmentalists’ local headquarters during a period of frequent protests.
Adam organized protests and marches, even chaining himself to ranger headquarters and heavy forest machinery, and suffered rough handling at the hands of the authorities. More than 300 court cases and an EU appeal later the environmentalists were finally vindicated: the courts recognized the justifications of the activists, and the European Court of Justice ruled that Poland had broken EU law by logging.
The contested forests have undergone rapid changes. The spruce-dominated parts of the forests, relatively atypical for Central Europe and more at home in the Nordics, have almost disappeared, suffering from dry and warm conditions and the increase of spruce bark beetles. The infestations were used as justifications for the felling and removal of the wood from the forest, while the ecologists argued for the importance of dead wood for the forest ecosystems and allowing the natural succession of deciduous trees like birch, oak, linden, hornbeam, and ash to take place.
It has not necessarily been easy for the locals to see the rationale for leaving usable firewood lying on the forest floor, but an abundance of dead trees is the most crucial factor differentiating a managed, commercial forest from one that is in a natural state. Most of the animal species living in Białowieża forest are linked to deadwood: out of the 12,000 invertebrate (insects, spiders, snails, etc.) species found there, more than half live off of decaying trees. Ecologists stress the unique value of the area as one of the best preserved fragments of old-growth forest in the European Plain, the kind that used to cover most of Europe between the Atlantic Coast and the Ural mountains. More than a quarter of all wood volume in the forest comprises dead trees, in some areas as much as half.
The diversity of plant, mushroom, and animal species we saw was exceptional. The trees, both dead and living, were covered with a wonderful variety of fungi, mosses and lichens. Adam pointed out many majestic old trees with protected rare species of moss and lichen growing on them also outside the most strictly protected parts of the forests, and the richness of natural decay where the environmentalists’ efforts had helped stop fallen trees from being removed.
Many of the nearby inhabitants have also come to realize the role of nature conservation in the local economy. The village of Białowieża offers everything from accommodation, guided tours, restaurants and local breweries (spruce bark beetle beer, anyone?) to bison souvenir stands.
We enjoyed all of the above. After a lunch in a local restaurant, we headed into the strictly protected area where access is restricted to groups smaller than ten led by a certified forest guide. The history of the forest offered more examples of the many-faceted relationships between humans and nature.
The Białowieża forest owes its 600-year protected status to the privilege of kings and tsars, beginning with the Grand Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland, Władysław II Jagiełło in the 14th century, serving as a rich and scenic hunting ground for nobility, with a death-penalty in place for bison poachers. In later centuries, local peasants were employed as caretakers of the forest and received a tax-exempt status. Under varying protection from Polish kings and Russian tsars, the place remained a recreational and strategic hunting resource until the last bison were killed during German occupation in World War I.
A beautiful backdrop for political and humanitarian conflicts
By the 1930s, a reintroduction of bison was well underway, but in 1939, the place underwent a different catastrophe: during Soviet occupation, thousands of Polish locals were deported to Siberia and replaced by Soviet workers. Two years later, the place was taken over by Nazi Germany, and thousands more were sent to concentration camps. Hundreds of villagers were marched out into the forest and shot, dying terrible deaths in a place of rare natural beauty.
While we contemplated the dire history of the humans of Białowieża, we could hear rare woodpeckers call as they flew overhead and admire puffy pink droplets of wolf’s milk (an amoeba-like slime mold) and white coral fungi growing on massive, iconically hollowed-out tree trunks, like those you see depicted in Disney movies.
Humanitarian crises are unfortunately not only things of the past in the Białowieża forest. On our first night, while watching the stars and listening to the deer, we stood on a narrow overgrown road that cut across the grasslands toward the Belarussian border which lies within an easy walking distance.
A few months prior, a steel border wall had been erected there by Poland as a response to the migrant crisis that began in 2021, when Belarusian authoritarian leader Lukashenko decided to use refugees to retaliate against EU sanctions. People from the Middle East and Africa are being trafficked into Belarus with the promise of entering Europe, then forced at gunpoint to cross to Poland with the aim to cause tension in the EU. Tens of thousands of people have tried to cross in the past year, not without risk.
Caught between two quarreling governments, displaced people end up hiding in the forests without food or shelter, and nineteen have been found dead in Białowieża over the course of the conflict. The former headquarters for organizing the environmental protests (the one we passed on our way to listen to the howling deer) had been transformed into a center helping house and assist the migrants.
The clearing of the forest for the border wall as well as the barrier itself are also damaging to nature, as it cuts the area in two. More than half of the protected forest is found on the Belarusian side, and fragmentation acutely threatens the small population of lynxes, which are solitary animals with large territories, and need to range over great distances to find a mate.
The bison farewell
As our group left the old wood gate guarding the giant trees of the Białowieża forest behind us and headed over the fields toward the village, we were treated to an unforgettable farewell encounter: a bull bison stood a mere hundred meters from our path across the grassland.
The bull paused its grazing to observe our cautious passage. We walked past, holding our breaths and stopping again and again to admire the sheer gravity of the presence of the heaviest land-animal living wild on European soil. I was moved with gratitude and joy for the fact that such creatures still roam free in forests where trees grow hundreds of years old, and that so many people have seen the value and beauty of this place and have worked hard to protect it.
There are few simple answers for the best way forward for human societies and nature on the planet we live on. I choose to see hope in the way humans not only fight for survival and fight each other, but that we can also look beyond that and stand for those who cannot fight for themselves, be it the last untouched remnant from Europe’s forested past, or displaced powerless people looking for a chance to a better life. Whatever the way forward will be, I believe it will be stronger if we work together: humans for humans, and humans for nature – our well-being goes hand in hand. Nature protection that ignores human struggles is bound to fail, while human suffering and conflict will all too predictably end up wounding the natural world.
I would like to view this thrilling moment of peaceful coexistence with a beautiful Białowieża bison as a symbol of what the future can look like, if we decide this to be the kind of world we want to live in: one with space for both humans and nature to thrive.