The wild hop wreathed upon the currant bush;
The service tree with shepherdess’s blush;
The hazel like a maenad clad with shapes
Of thyruses and nut brown pearls like grapes.
The forest children shorter than the rest,
The hawthorn with the elder on his breast
And blackberry to the tips of raspberry pressed….
The trees and bushes joined their leafy hands
Like men and girls preparing for a dance
Around a married couple. Midst the host
Of forest trees, stood forth the pair that most
Excel in slenderness and lovely hue,
The darling silver birch and her spouse true,
Adam Mickiewicz, Pan Tadeusz (1834)
When Adam Mickiewicz immortalised the great primeval forests of Białowieża in his epic, Pan Tadeusz, at the beginning of the 19th century, it was a crowning of the laurels. Already renowned across Europe for centuries as a spectacular hunting ground, with a wealth of game and in places a near impenetrable wilderness which added to the excitement of the chase, the forest, never cleared, had stood defiant against the march of time.
Playground to the Kings, from the Jagiellonians and before that to the Electors of Saxony, it was during the reign of Stanislaw August (1764-1795) that the forest, perceived with ‘enlightened’ eyes, was first respected as the unique ecological treasure it was. Animals such as the bison, elk and lynx, traditionally preserved for Royal hunting parties, became protected and the pursuit of nature replaced that of sport.
At the end of the 18th century Białowieża fell into Russian hands as a result of the Partitions. At the beginning of the 19th century, the Napoleonic armies briefly reclaimed it for the Poles under the Duchy of Warsaw and the forest itself was the scene of fighting in the late Spring of 1812 as the Grand Armee pushed onwards into Russia, frightening even:
‘The bearded bison in his mossy lair,
Trembled, and bristled up his shaggy hair
Half standing and upon his hind legs raised
He shook his hoary beard, and saw amazed
The glittering sparks that in the brushwood fell.’
Despite the changes in ownership an interest in nature and forestry was established firmly enough across national borders for Białowieża to become the subject of serious study. The man the Russians appointed to the task, Juliusz von Brincken, was a German by origin and an experienced Russian forester by profession.
Even though von Brincken drew up plans for his masters to turn the wilderness of Białowieża into a source of economic prosperity with ideas for timber plantations and trees graded according to age and size, he also fell in love with the very charms that on paper he was struggling to discipline. The romantic in him recorded with pleasure the 815 rings on a fallen Linden tree. The naturalist in him tracked the number of bison dwelling in the forest in 1828 to 732. He set out to refute the views of earlier, eminent, natural historians, among others the Swedish botanist, Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1708), who claimed that the bison were a wild strain of domestic cattle or, in fact, the already extinct wild ox. With observation and research he set the record straight. Moreoever, von Brincken believed that the indigenous bison of Białowieża needed these very surroundings, the herbs and grasses, seeds and barks and undisturbed ecology of the primeval forest in order to survive and breed. Hence the failure of the bison to reproduce when transported abroad.
Despite the exploitation that Białowieża was to suffer in the future, von Brincken’s recorded respect of the forest and the life within it undoubtedly helped to protect its very core.
By 1914 the stock of bison had already been depleted to around 460. This was due in part to deforestation and in part to the hunting parties of the Tsar. The most damaging of these must have been when the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand decided to ‘kill two birds with one stone’ and test the latest productions from his munitions factory at Styr on the wildlife, machine gunning anything that moved. During the First World War, Białowieża was taken under German ‘protection’. Huge numbers of bison were exported abroad as gifts, for barter or to be exhibited in German zoos. Others were slaughtered as fodder for the starving troops as defeat became imminent. By the end of the War there were just four bison left in the forest. A few years later, in 1921, the last bison of Białowieża died of natural causes.
A century after von Brincken had been busy with his research, a man of similar leaning arrived at Białowieża. Jan Sztolcman was a biologist, fired with a passion for the noble bison and a determination to bring them back to their rightful breeding ground. By 1929, Sztolcman had successfully traced a number of the bison which had been exported to German zoos and organised for their repatriation, together with some bison which had survived in the South of Poland. Independent Poland established the League for Nature Conservation and Białowieża become one of Poland’s first three National Parks.
It would be nice if the story ended there but history, as we know, has a habit of repeating itself. Another war and Białowieża found itself back in German hands. Goering took the forest as his personal property, proclaiming it a ‘Heiliger Hein’ – a sacred grove. Now that the animals and birds within it were classified as Aryan, strict orders were given that they were not to be touched. The role of the forest had changed. Once a platform for man to test his superiority over beast it became the scene of appalling warfare between German soldiers, Polish partisans, Soviet partisans and numerous victims from the local population. Mass grave after mass grave was dug among the ancient trees. None better suited as a witness to this genocide than the birth, whose shape Mickewicz described as:
‘Like a peasant weeping for her son
Or widow for her husband, as she stands,
Hair streaming to the ground, and wrings her hands
Her silent form than sobs more eloquent.’
In the new shape of post-war Poland, its border with Byelo-Russia ran right through the forest, with the oldest part lying on the Polish side. Security was tight and areas of forest were cleared for guard towers, but Stalin himself had bigger game to hunt than mere bison and elk and after the Moscow State Circus had been unsuccessful in coaxing the bison to perform tricks, they were left in peace. Białowieża is today the last primeval forest in Europe and still a rare haven to herds of elk and bison. Listed by Unesco as a world heritage site, it continues in its defiance against the march of time with Mickiewicz’s descriptions of it as apt today as we near the end of the 20th century as they were when written:
‘You find a wall of stumps and roots and logs
Defended by a thousand streams and bogs.’
Many mournful layers of history have entwined themselves though the forest’s floor, but the subjects of the author’s cry in Pan Tadeusz live on.
Trees of my fatherland! If heaven will
That I return there, shall I find you still’
The above is an extract from Poland’s Gourmet Cuisine (Hippocrene Original Cookbooks, 1999) by Bernard Lussiana and Mary Pininska (now Lussiana). It is available, along with the author’s other books on Polish Cooking from www.amazon.co.uk.