imaginary places: Bialowiesza

Bialowiesa forest is one of the last and largest remaining parts of the immense primeval forest that once stretched across the European Plain.”

bialowiesza

David Levene/the guardian

As soon as I read those words, I started dreaming of a visit. Bialowiesa, reaching far across the border from Poland into Belarus, is a forest from a time before borders. Its old-growth woodland – puszcza – flourishes in much the same way as it has done since the bronze age. I read about its wolves and its herds of wild European bison, the last of their kind, and decided that this was the forest of my childhood fairytales.

Of course, it isn’t really like that.

In 1919, the last wild bison was killed in the forest, after years of poaching by soldiers from all sides of the Great War. This was the extinction of the wild European bison. The current herd was established in 1929 from captive specimens mixed with Caucasian bison brought in specially by the Polish government. Caucasian bison have also since become extinct in the wild.

bison

David Levene/the guardian

Today the Polish government is in dispute with Greenpeace and the UN about logging in the area. The fringes of the forest are logged, and ecologists argue that these areas should be left after logging for the forest to reclaim. Debates rage over whether to intervene in the spread of the spruce bark beetle, and whether to feed and cull the bison. There is no such thing as untouched forest any more. But, having recognised how destructive our touch has become, the question we face now is whether we can, or should, leave the forest alone.

One answer to that question means that I might never visit. Today’s news about the logging – and subsequent discovery that the bison have been reintroduced after extinction – has made me wonder about human intervention, including tourism. Is it better just to leave these places be, content with the knowledge they exist? The forest has survived for over 7,000 years; is it hubristic to think it needs our protection? And is it idealistic to believe it can be preserved, after so much damage has already been done?

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