An extract from the ‘Ecological Grief’ chapter of Lucy Jones’s Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need the Wild, our Book of the Month for February.
Of all habitats on Earth, forests contain the most abundant assemblage of organisms and complex and rich structures. Of all forests in Europe, Białowieża on the Polish–Belarusian border is the largest and best preserved semi-natural ancient forest, the last vestige of the primeval lowland wildwood that covered Europe 10,000 years ago. Wolves, lynx and European bison still live there. In total, the area is 1,500 km², with 40 per cent (580 km²) spreading into Poland and 60 per cent (870 km²) spreading eastwards into Belarus. The Polish part is a mixture of managed forest, looked after by the forest administration, and Białowieża National Park, and comprises roughly a sixth of the area, which is protected. Within Białowieża, the ‘strict reserve’ is the largest area on the European continent where nature has been mostly left to its own devices for thousands of years. This most valuable part of the forest is at its core and has been protected since 1979 as a trans-boundary Polish–Belarusian World Heritage Site. You can only enter with a licensed guide, which I was lucky enough to do in February 2018.
Hornbeams twisted and stretched next to tall, slender, light- seeking oaks. Silver birches had fallen next to long-dead limes that dominoed into the perfect moment of decay that would trigger a new stage of life for the lichen and fungi, and send them sprouting and shaping and waxing. Lichen splattered the dull bark; duck-egg blue splurges, as if a child had flicked paint from a brush. Other filigrees were chartreuse-green, bile-yellow, cool-jade and chewing-gum white. Some trees dripped with lichen. On others it looked like fur. The organisms were abundant, I learned, because the air was so clean and unpolluted. In February, it was freezing and I struggled to smell the trees or the earth. Giant clams and space-ships of bracket fungi grew around the trees, fairy stairways to the canopy where globose clouds of mistletoe nested in crooks. Smaller conks of fungi and curled ears of soft brown bracken decorated the fallen ends, splayed around the heartwood. Some fungi were see-through black and jelly-like; others were white, like spilt PVA glue. The pinkish Fomitopsis rosea spread like an over-baked cake.
The forest is an important site for scientific and ecological study. It has an abundance of bird, reptile and mammal species: wolf, lynx, fox, badger, otter, bison, elk, roe deer, snowy hare, Eurasian water shrew, as well as 400 species of lichen, 4,000 species of fungi and more than 260 species of moss. Modern-day hunters are mainly scientists who live here to truffle out a variety of answers, from the selection process of wolves’ rendezvous sites to the habitat preference of the noctule bat; the details of tawny owl predation to the influence of earthworms on badger densities. Ecologists travel from far and wide to study the long-term dynamics of a regenerating deciduous temperate forest in order to bring the knowledge back to their own depleted landscapes. Others look at the potential medicinal properties of forest species.
Three mushrooms in particular were the focus of promising research by Jordan K. Zjawiony, Professor of Pharmacognosy at the University of Mississippi. He and his team had collected large amounts of Phellinus igniarius, Phellinus robustus and Phellinus punctatus from the forest. The first two species looked like elephant hooves made from ash or charcoal, and made their homes on the side of tree trunks. The latter resembled a large, brown burn on the arm of a branch, or a spill of caramel. Back at the lab, they dried out the fungi, ground them up and used methanol to extract and examine pharmacologically active secondary metabolites produced by the mushrooms. They found significant immunostimulatory activity which could act indirectly against cancer as biological response modifiers and inhibit human genes involved in cancer proliferation.
‘As the last primeval forest in Europe, Białowieża Forest is the “treasure chest” that may let us discover new interactions between species, understand biodiversity and have importance for the health of all of us,’ Zjawiony wrote to me. Of the 3,000 plants there that are known to contain anti-cancer compounds, 70 per cent are of tropical origin, which makes fears that the deforestation of the Amazon – the largest stretch of tropical rainforest on Earth – will increase under Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro even more acute.
In Białowieża, leaves from various different seasons and years lay softly waiting to disintegrate and turn to mulch and then soil. A fritter of leaf-litter drifted as far as our eyes could see. Underneath the ground, worms nudged their way down desire lines to feel how the layers were disintegrating through receptors in their wet pink skin. I couldn’t hear the chthonic hullabaloo, but I could imagine its crackling, the microorganisms and ants and beetles and soil-dwellers roiling around in the particles of life. The air was cold and the ground was hard and snowflakes billowed around the trees. We kept to the special paths laid out through the forest. The trees on either side were both dead and full of life, literally and figuratively. Rows of hornbeam, lime, alder, oak were more sparsely spaced than I had expected, but even the dead trees had character. One resembled the skeleton of a whale, with a perfect ribcage splayed open. Another bent over backwards like an old lady fainting before the smelling salts reached her.
A multitude of organisms lived and breathed and had sex under the dead wood, but the forest was winter-quiet. The deadness of the wood was crucial to the forest’s vitality. It had ten times as much dead wood as an ordinary forest, which provided an abundance of ecological niches and microsites. A reddish bank vole popped out of a decayed log like a champagne cork. Enormous piles of dung, each the size of a significant birthday cake, suggested a band of European bison had trudged through the area that morning, heaving bulky shoulders, breathing clouds of hot air into the mute grey dawn. Over the centuries, animals in the surrounding area had retreated into the forest as the people of Europe spread their lives into the lowlands.
But it was so cold I couldn’t smell the animals. I couldn’t smell anything. It would be so different in a few months. Apart from the occasional generic winter song of a woodpecker and a nuthatch, life seemed to be suspended. Somewhere, there would be wolves: it was their breeding season and the forest was home to two packs. Our guide said that 14 February was the busiest day for mating. Badgers, martens, stoats and weasels were hiding underground from the cold and predators such as wolves and lynx. It was hard to imagine there were more than 12,000 recorded species of animals in the forest and an estimated 20,000, although just knowing it and being there was precious and calming. But it also made me feel sad and angry. After years of protection, the forest was in danger. It was substantially logged in the mid 2010s, and its future is still not secure. It is the ultimate natural area in Europe under threat; the woodland equivalent of the Great Barrier Reef. Significant areas have been mown down, leaving just stumps where there were once habitats for warblers and hoopoes and nightjars; the trees, some over 100 years old, ripped out and taken off, piled high on lorries, to be sold to private companies for firewood, wiping out complex ecological webs of life and habitats.
In March 2016, the then Environment Minister of Poland, Jan Szyszko, altered the forest laws and allowed logging to increase threefold. A bitter conflict ensued. He, and his supporters, argued that a bark beetle infestation was wrecking the forest, and intensive human management and control was needed, including the use of heavy machinery, to destroy areas in order to kill the infested spruces. Scientists, ecologists and activists believed that the bark beetle infestation was just a pretext, and that the minister and others wanted to prove that the forest needed human intervention. ‘They want people to think the forest can’t be left alone, that it has to be managed,’ a local guide explained. Bark beetle infestations had happened numerous times in the twentieth century, some much more intense than this outbreak. It was absurd and ridiculous to claim the forest was unsafe, the forest scientist and dendroecologist Ewa Zin told me, and simply a ruse to log the forest. Nature will sort itself out, the forest-protectors said. But the Environment Minister, advised by his personal priest, Tomasz Duszkiewicz, who claimed that the Bible said man should ‘subdue’ the land, sanctioned the continuing logging activity, even after the European Commission threatened to fine the Polish government and filed a case with the European Court of Justice.
There is an urgency about protecting a forest like Białowieża. When it is gone, the specific dynamics, the complex interconnectedness of a multitude of different species, are gone for the rest of time. ‘At some point there will be a collapse, and if and when it happens, it’s gone forever – no amount of money in the universe can bring it back,’ Professor Tomasz Wesołowski, a forest biologist at the University of Wrocław who had researched the forest for forty-three years, said. ‘With every tree cut, we are closer to this point of no return.’
It is a microcosm of what is happening on a much larger scale. Life on Earth is, as far as we know, the only life in the universe. Once it is gone, that’s it: life is gone. So ecologists, scientists, activists and NGOs such as Greenpeace mobilized against the logging. With their bodies, they tried to prevent the machinery from being used, which led to violent clashes. Most effectively, they patrolled the area every day and reported their findings back to the European Commission, which eventually found the Polish government guilty of violating European environmental law and threatened to impose a fine. Thousands of trees had already been felled, however; bone, skin and muscle isn’t much good against industrial machines. Estimates of the numbers vary between 10,000 trees and 180,000 trees. Plots were logged throughout the forest, apart from in the strict reserve and national park, removing habitats for the rare three-toed woodpecker, white-beaked woodpecker, white-necked flycatcher and species of owl that are protected by EU law. Thousands of trees, hundreds of years old, were wiped out with the signature of a man who didn’t understand the science of biodiversity, or didn’t care what it meant, as well as the animals that lived in them, fed from them, and breathed the oxygen they produced, and thousands of other species of organism that had lived in various sites since the Pleistocene. It reminded me of the super-capitalists of this world, the oil barons, the climate-change deniers, in positions of immense political and economic power who have wilfully destroyed and damaged the make-up of the planet and the lives of many for their short-term political goals. In Poland, the nationalist politics of a conservative government that despised the trans-national EU trumped the rights of the rest of nature.