Friday, December 21, 2012
The Forest Primeval
Puszcza, an old Polish word, means "forest primeval." Straddling the border between Poland and Belarus, the half-million acres of the Białowieża 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 Białowieża, the profusion of life owes much to all that is dead. Almost a quarter of the organic mass above ground 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 Białowieża Puszcza is simply a relic of what once stretched east to Siberia and west to Ireland.
Related post: An Ocean of Green.