Elzeard Bouffier and Andrzej Bobiec


Recently I was reading this brilliant story called ‘The Man Who Planted Trees’ by Jean Giono. It tells the story of a man who single-handedly regrows a forest in the valley at the foothills of Alps. It is the story of how Elzéard Bouffier leads a very tranquil life and has found peace in solitude. It is a pretty quick read, and I thought the story was brilliant. The opening lines of the story best describes the book –

For a human character to reveal truly exceptional qualities, one must have the good fortune to be able to observe its performance over many years. If this performance is devoid of all egoism, if its guiding motive is unparalleled generosity, if it is absolutely certain that there is no thought of recompense and that, in addition, it has left its visible mark upon the earth, then there can be no mistake.

There was an animated film that was made based on this book by Frederick Back in 1987, which was also quite good.

When I was reading this I was strangely reminded of another story narrated by Alan Weisman in his book ‘The World Without Us’. This is a story of how the Polish forest ministry tries to ‘protect/manage’ a forest as opposed to an individual growing a forest like in Giono’s story.

You MAY NEVER have heard of the Bialowieza Puszcza. But if you were raised somewhere in the temperate swathe that crosses much of North America, Japan, Korea, Russia, several former Soviet republics, parts of China, Turkey, and Eastern and Western Europe—including the British Isles—something within you remembers it. If instead you were born to tundra or desert, subtropics or tropics, pampas or savannas, there are still places on Earth kindred to this puszcza to stir your memory, too.

Puszcza, an old Polish word, means “forest primeval.” Straddling the border between Poland and Belarus, the half-million acres of the Bialowieza Puszcza contain Europe’s last remaining fragment of old-growth, lowland wilderness. Think of the misty, brooding forest that loomed behind your eyelids when, as a child, someone read you the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales. Here, ash and linden trees tower nearly 150 feet, their huge canopies shading a moist, tangled understory of hornbeams, ferns, swamp alders and crockery-sized fungi. Oaks, shrouded with half a millennium of moss, grow so immense here that great spotted woodpeckers store spruce cones in their three-inch-deep bark furrows. The air, thick and cool, is draped with silence that parts briefly for a nutcracker’s croak, a pygmy owl’s low whistle, or a wolf’s wail, then returns to stillness.

The fragrance that wafts from eons of accumulated mulch in the forest’s core hearkens to fertility’s very origins. In the Bialowieza, the profusion of life owes much to all that is dead. Almost a quarter of the organic mass aboveground is in assorted stages of decay—more than 50 cubic yards of decomposing trunks and fallen branches on every acre, nourishing thousands of species of mushrooms, lichens, bark beetles, grubs, and microbes that are missing from the orderly, managed woodlands that pass as forests elsewhere. Together those species stock a sylvan larder that provides for weasels, pine martens, raccoons, badgers, otters, fox, lynx, wolves, roe deer, elk, and eagles. More kinds of life are found here than anywhere else on the continent—yet there are no surrounding mountains or sheltering valleys to form unique niches for endemic species. The Bialowieza Puszcza is simply a relic of what once stretched east to Siberia and west to Ireland.

The existence in Europe of such a legacy of unbroken biological antiquity owes, unsurprisingly, to high privilege. During the 14th century, aLithuanian duke named Wladyslaw Jagielîo, having successfully allied his grand duchy with the Kingdom of Poland, declared the forest a royal hunting preserve. For centuries, it stayed that way. When the Polish-Lithuanian union was finally subsumed by Russia, the Bialowieza became the private domain of the tsars. Although occupying Germans took lumber and slaughtered game during World War I, a pristine core was left intact, which in 1921 became a Polish national park. The timber pillaging resumed briefly under the Soviets, but when the Nazis invaded, a nature fanatic named Hermann Goring decreed the entire preserve off-limits, except by his pleasure.

Following World War II, a reportedly drunken Josef Stalin agreed one evening in Warsaw to let Poland retain two-fifths of the forest. Little else changed under communist rule, except for construction of some elite hunting dachas—in one of which, Viskuli, an agreement was signed in 1991 dissolving the Soviet Union into free states. Yet, as it turns out, this ancient sanctuary is more threatened under Polish democracy and Belarusian independence than it was during seven centuries of monarchs and dictators. Forestry ministries in both countries tout increased management to preserve the Puszcza’s health. Management, however, often turns out to be a euphemism for culling—and selling—mature hardwoods that otherwise would one day return a windfall of nutrients to the forest.

IT IS STARTLING to think that all Europe once looked like this Puszcza. To enter it is to realize that most of us were bred to a pale copy of what nature intended. Seeing elders with trunks seven feet wide, or walking through stands of the tallest trees here—gigantic Norway spruce, shaggy as Methuselah—should seem as exotic as the Amazon or Antarctica to someone raised among the comparatively puny, second-growth woodlands found throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Instead, what’s astonishing is how primally familiar it feels. And, on some cellular level, how complete.

Andrzej Bobiec recognized it instantly. As a forestry student in Krakow, he’d been trained to manage forests for maximum productivity, which included removing “excess” organic litter lest it harbor pests like bark beetles. Then, on a visit here he was stunned to discover 1 0 times more biodiversity than in any forest he’d ever seen. It was the only place left with all nine European woodpecker species, because, he realized, some of them only nest in hollow, dying trees. “They can’t survive in managed forests,” he argued to his forestry professors. “The Bialowieza Puszcza has managed itself perfectly well for millennia.” The husky, bearded young Polish forester became instead a forest ecologist. He was hired by the Polish national park service. Eventually, he was fired for protesting management plans that chipped ever closer to the pristine core of the Puszcza. In various international journals, he blistered official policies that asserted that “forests will die without our thoughtful help,” or that justified cutting timber in the Bialowieza’s surrounding buffer to “reestablish the primeval character of stands.” Such convoluted thinking, he accused, was rampant among Europeans who have hardly any memory of forested wilderness.

To keep his own memory connected, for years he daily laced his leather boots and hiked through his beloved Puszcza. Yet although he ferociously defends those parts of this forest still undisturbed by man, Andrzej Bobiec can’t help being seduced by his own human nature. Alone in the woods, Bobiec enters into communion with fellow Homo sapiens through the ages. A wilderness this pure is a blank slate to record human passage: a record he has learned to read. Charcoal layers in the soil show him where gamesmen once used fire to clear parts of the forest for browse. Stands of birch and trembling aspen attest to a time when Jagiello’s descendants were distracted from hunting, perhaps by war, long enough for these sun-seeking species to recolonize game clearings. In their shade grow telltale seedlings of the hardwoods that were here before them. Gradually, these will crowd out the birch and aspen, until it will be as if they were never gone.

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