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/ Forest Primeval, Białowięza

Forest Primeval, Białowięza

by Becky Gibson

Krakow to Warsaw, then on to Białowieża. Seven hours, three hundred miles. BEE-ah-wu-vee-EH-zhuh. Still a stumble for the tongue, despite months of practice. Forest blanketed Europe long before homo sapiens spread the continent, honing his words and ax-blades. Now we’re travelling east on the DW689 to see what’s left, a sizable remnant spanning the border between Poland and Belarus. Along the road, stands of pine, white birch. Lone stork in a field. Ciechanowiec. Stucco cottages, each with its garden of sunflowers and one apple tree, heavy-limbed, bowing with fruit. Two hours from Białowieża Village. We should get there before dark. 

Stories I loved best as a child took place in a deep dark forest. Even early in the 19th century, when the Brothers Grimm spun their tales, forests like this one must have been common. What had been lost to timbering for ships and houses surely survived in the collective memory. Folk material the brothers drew upon must reach back centuries, maybe millennia, when the European plain was connected by forest, not by currency and tribunals, multi-national agencies and corporations.

Lofty trees filtering light, throwing long shadows. Snow White promised the Queen’s huntsman that if he put away his knife, she’d run off into the wild forest and never come home again. I too wished to go into the forest as far as I could, sensing perhaps the deeper I went the closer I’d get to a wild part of myself. That which holds out against taming. A secret place for the inner life to fruit.

For a shy child like me (cat got your tongue?) who spent a lot of time in her imagination, where better to live than in a hollow tree deep in the forest? Cozy, out of the way, hidden from adults. Even reading about forests seemed to offer me protection. From what? Things I didn’t understand? Those who didn’t understand me? 

Bielsk Podlaski to Hajnówka. First signs for Białowieża, 20 kilometers. In the morning my husband and I are scheduled for an 8-km hike in the Strict Reserve, an area of eighteen square miles, a little over half the size of the National Park it sits in, and not even a tenth of the Forest as a whole. Like a nesting Russian doll, the Forest holds within it zones more and more safe from human meddling. The Strict Reserve is the Forest’s heart—the deepest, oldest part, the part most zealously protected. As visitors are forbidden to enter on their own, we’ve hired a licensed guide.

Boundaries. Lines around countries. Demarcations. Whether or not they still exist. Landing in Berlin two weeks ago, I began seeing borders everywhere—between tree and sky, river and bank, light and dark, what we do know and what we do not. Patrols to keep out one thing, let in another. The Iron Curtain. As a child living far from here and across an ocean, I pictured it as a literal curtain of flexible iron strips. Checkpoint Charlie. Brandenburg Gate. Berlin Wall, what’s left of it, swarmed by tourists and painted with graffiti in primary colors. A “death strip” on the eastern side, a guide told us. Even someone gathering mushrooms there could be shot. Glienicke Bridge, the Bridge of Spies, spans the Havel River where it narrows at Potsdam. Precisely at the halfway point, a metal plaque still brazenly divides the river into East and West.

Images like these occupy my mind when we reach Białowieża Village. We’ve made this trek across Poland, off the beaten track, to see the forest mentioned in some book I’d come across. I knew I had to go there. To fill some need of mine—but exactly what? A year since my dad died at ninety-eight. He knew trees. He trusted nature to know what it’s doing. Now both parents are dead. I’m still learning to be in a world where I’m no longer anyone’s child. The draw of this place may have less to do with real trees than with the imagined forests of childhood.

What do I expect upon entering? A full-blown epiphany? To be awakened, changed forever? To find my true home? Białowieża is more actual than that, and far more interesting. 

Our guide shows up at Wejmutka Manor a little before nine. Early August. It’s hot and dry all over Europe. Has been for weeks. He wears a name badge, olive green pants and t-shirt. Patryk Czortek looks like an ordinary guy, a greengrocer or a trucker perhaps, not—as we soon learn—a Ph.D. and lecturer in Botany at the University of Warsaw. There may be mosquitoes, he tells us, and horseflies. We’ve been warned. I’m in a thin cotton blouse with long sleeves.

A woven wood gate marks off the Strict Reserve. I do not hesitate but walk right in. As though I belong. I do belong. I do not. Space vast, intimate. Invites, pushes away. A rush of heart, of recognition. At the same time, alien. Green, every shade of it. Intense, relentless. The light, the green, the depth. My vision as a child, I’m swimming in it.

And yet. This is no fairytale forest. We keep to the path and heed what Patryk tells us. Since 1921, Białowieża has been protected by the Polish government. And, for centuries before that, by the aristocracy. Poland has been shuffled, re-shuffled among powers, its borders frequently redrawn. The Forest became hunting grounds for whoever took charge. Dukes of Lithuania, kings of Poland once sniffed the air just as we’re doing. Fox, lynx, roe deer, red deer, mule deer, boar, elk, bear, bison. Without royal protection, Białowieża Forest would have vanished.

After the last ice retreated and the Holocene began, trees took root here. We keep step with Patryk as he bounds through millennia. Birch, aspen, pine, willow. Then the deciduous broadleaf—oak, linden, elm, ash, maple, hornbeam—which, along with spruce and pine, became a fairly stable mix, more or less the forest we know. He says cycles of warming and cooling have occurred naturally from the start.

Until now. In the last fifty years a rise of almost one degree Celsius. Climate change is real, Patryk insists, clearly impatient with those who deny the evidence. Shallow-rooted spruce, weakened by drought, become easy targets for the spruce bark beetle. He points out dead spruce, tallest trees in the canopy, their ghostly crowns scarcely visible against the pale sky.

Białowieża. The largest remnant of primeval forest in lowland Europe, a World Heritage Site protected under EU law. And yet, two years ago, the Polish Minister of Environment had ten thousand Norway Spruce removed, some of them more than 100 years old, to ‘eradicate’ the spruce bark beetle so as not to ‘infect’ other trees. Or that was the claim.

Arriving yesterday afternoon on a two-lane road through state-owned reserves, we saw spruce severed at the base, stumps raw and recent. This action by the Polish government met with protests world-wide. An international court ordered the logging stopped. It has stopped—for now. According to some reports, proceeds from the sale lined private pockets. 

Flagrant ignorance? Or worse—flagrant cynicism? Ten thousand spruce. Ten thousand. Not felled by slow-eating beetle or even by rhythmic ax. Rather by heavy mechanized equipment, heaving, spewing sawdust. Spruce cleared, hauled out fast, whisked away on flatbeds to brokers who’d turn a quick profit. Fungus robbed of its job breaking down cellulose and lignin, returning tree to forest. At least the Strict Reserve has not been touched. Nor the National Park. Not yet.

What makes Białowieża rare among European forests, Patryk says proudly, is that so much of it is unmanaged. Trees stay where they go down. He’s among the scientists who see to that. Such a lot of death piled up! Yet never have I seen a place greener or busier with life. Everywhere the redolence of damp, decaying wood, deep red, red-orange—vivid mosses, liverworts, ferns spilling lavishly from it. I came to see old trees, yet have fallen under the spell of the bryophytes and fungi abundant here because of all the dead wood. 

It’s not so much about individual trees here—though many are magnificent—as about the connections they make with each other and with everything else. Białowieża Forest is one organism, Patryk tells us, an organism continuous for thousands of years. And it will keep on, if left undisturbed, for thousands more. 

This unmanaged forest manages itself.

No enemies here, Patryk explains. Everything belongs—even the spruce bark beetle. Pollen tells the story. Spruce has succumbed to beetle periodically for millennia. Spruce recedes, hornbeam moves in, has its time. Right here, for instance. He leads us onto a rare boardwalk over a boggy spot. Black alder loves the damp, at last has the chance to move into space opened up by a fallen spruce. A clearing. Sunlight. Seeds root, saplings sprout. Nothing wasted, nothing lost. The bark beetle has work.

As does everyone else. Even the horsefly that lands on my forearm, exposed by a rolled-up sleeve. In no time, he locates a scrape, still healing, scab crusted over, tender pink skin underneath. He hooks on. A bead of blood appears. And, as if through a straw, the horsefly sips.

Buoyed by green, I seem to float. We follow Patryk, noting this and that. He beholds everything he encounters, from tallest hornbeam to smallest slime mold. (Is slime mold plant or animal? Do I see it nodding?) The progress of rot, the occasional beetle. Nothing’s irrelevant.  He stops at an aqua-green lichen splashed on a maple trunk. Lichen, he tells us, neither fungus nor alga, rather both. Taste it. It won’t hurt you. Bitter, but not poisonous. We do what he does. Wet one finger, rub it over lichen’s puckered surface. Touch finger to tongue. The bite stays with us awhile.

Patryk leads us slowly, watching. He wants us to see what is here, how it all fits together. Immediate rapport with this man for whom the forest is his laboratory and his love. Where he studies what goes on, where he practices the craft of seeing. I tell him back home I’m called a ‘tree hugger’ (not a term he knows). That, in trying to save trees, I’ve pissed off plenty of people. He laughs with recognition. 

Over there! He points to a standing tree (dying or dead?) just off the path, a huge fungus fastened to one side.  Chicken of the Woods. A spectacular specimen with its extravagant ruffles—yellow, yellow-orange—it looks lit against the dark trunk. Nature or Art? Patryk’s excited. It was not here last week.

And here, have a look. Fungus so purple it’s black. Royoporus badius. A cup. Small pool in its depths reflects sky and dry tips of dead spruce. Patryk stoops to show us. No chalice or ciborium. Names, rather. Priest of the Forest wears his knowledge like a pallium. Stripped of mythologies, we now have science. And no less mystery.

Barons of decay, the fungi hold sway here. Three thousand species in this forest bestride Poland and Belarus, some of them found nowhere else in the world. Spores need no visas. Spores go where wind takes them. Spores refuse to honor boundaries. A fruiting body may show up far from where its spore started out. Glorious moment! Fungus works mostly in secret, threading its way through leaf mold, leaf litter. Like the imagination, perhaps, probing the dark for connections before sending up fruit. What seems sudden may be long in coming. You go away, you come back. The flower’s there. 

We’ve reached it. Here lies the Jagiełło Oak, most famous tree in the Forest. Patryk introduces the oak to us as though it’s a person, the Polish king it was named after. He chuckles. Legend has it that in 1410 the king rested under the tree before going into battle. Yet, scientists claim the tree was no more than 450 years old, in 1974, when wind brought it down. The Jagiełło Oak has been melting into the soil for forty-four years. Patryk tells us one this size may take as much as a century to disappear completely. If only my dad could see this.

Fomitopsis rosea. Stunning bracket fungi nearby on a spruce log—black with pale pink undersides. In a managed forest, dead wood is quickly cleared, as if the sight of death were offensive. But this drama needs no people. These actors are organisms, micro-organisms, many of them out of sight, hidden underground or buried in damp wood. Focused and efficient, fungi eat death, they gorge on it. Have done for millions of years. The king’s oak has new life as a grand rotting log spread with a plush green coverlet.

Fecund death—life sprouting from it. No religious proposition or article of faith. It’s what we see before us. Life flows into death, death into life seamlessly, the border between them porous. Or so it appears to this untrained eye. How much dead in a tree makes the tree dead, not merely dying? Where does life stop and death start? In an aboriginal forest such as this, does the question even make sense? 

Białowieża puts us on Earth long before we showed up with our boundary-making, name-making minds. Words. Delineation. Putting lines around. Borders. (Cross this line, you will be shot.) Wow! A horn-beetle. Patryk spells out the Latin for what we’re seeing. Prionus coriarious. I write it down in my little black notebook, as though the word might reveal the beetle’s inner life. Does Beetle care what it’s called? Or whether every member of its tribe has been named and catalogued? 

I’ve known this forest all my life. I’m home in a way I’ve never been. Yet, though these creatures are my kin, they’re not my kind. There’s no way I could dwell here, no matter how much I may wish to belong.

We’re almost at the end of our three-hour loop, hot, sweaty. Patryk has another tour in ten minutes, so we hurry toward the gate. Here the dirt path straightens out into a corridor wide enough for horse-drawn carriage, king and retinue. Cathedral green. Trees arch overhead. It’s then I sense his presence. The man who taught me as a child to revere trees has fallen in beside me, keeping the pace. He’s smaller than when he died, though still upright, still curious. He looks around, taking it all in. As we near the exit, he turns to me and says he must stay, for me to go on without him. Then he slips back into the green shade.

Becky Gibson

About Becky Gibson

A 1977 graduate of the PhD program at UNC-Chapel Hill, Becky Gibson taught English at Guilford College until her retirement in 2008. She now lives in Wilmington, NC. Becky has published her poems in a number of journals and anthologies as well as in eight collections:  Off-Road Meditations (winner, NC Writers’ Network chapbook competition, Harperprints, 1989); Holding Ground (winner, chapbook competition, White Eagle Coffee Store Press, 1995); First Life (Emrys Press, 1997); Need-Fire (winner, 2005 Poetry Book Contest, Bright Hill Press, 2007); Aphrodite’s Daughter (winner, 2006 X. J. Kennedy Prize, Texas Review Press, 2007); Heading Home (winner, NC Poetry Society’s 2013 Lena Shull Book Contest, Main Street Rag, 2014); The Xanthippe Fragments (Saint Andrews Review Press, 2016); and Indelible (winner, Dogfish Head Poetry Prize, The Broadkill River Press, 2018). Her current focus is creative nonfiction. Three pieces have appeared in print, in Snowy Egret (Spring/Autumn, 2020), Canary (Winter, 2021-22), and Twists and Turns, an anthology and podcast published by the Personal Story Publication Project (Fall, 2022).

Cold Mountain Review is published once a year in the Department of English at Appalachian State University. Support from Appalachian’s Office of Academic Affairs and College of Arts and Sciences enables CMR’s learning and publications program. The views and opinions expressed in CMR do not necessarily reflect those of university trustees, administration, faculty, students, or staff.