People say you should see Białowieża in the summer – that’s when the place is shining. But I went in December and it shone for me.
Because everything that is done in summer must be undone sooner or later. There’s progress to reverse; death to finalize and then subvert. The forest is differently bright in winter; life is only half the wheel. Things that are now rotting will soon be fresh again and climbing up some tube or vein to be laid down as fat and new fibre. And this work will not do itself.
But what a mess they make, these trees; a mulch that’s ankle deep in aspen leaves and the crinkled shells of hornbeam litter. It’s carnage between the trunks; a bomb site of gone and fallen life. I’m shown an oak tree which died a decade before I was born. You could park a car inside its hollow tube, and the walls are blazing with rot like an abandoned house. It’s wet and dry all at once; flakes of it have been flung about the place by birds and fraying deer. Even the toadstools have toadstools in brackets and bunches like rubbery lugs, and elsewhere there are trees which have been dead for a century and more. They’ve become sleeping policemen, so low they’d hardly trip you.
You can almost feel this rot in action. It smells like a book and sounds like a chewing bug. Hear it beneath the hiss of wind in the twigs and the endless, mindless, morse-code tapping of woodpeckers. There are seven different kinds of woodpecker in Białowieża, but there are many more than seven different kinds of wood to peck. One of the birds is black and big as a crow. Another is small with a beak like a needle. They tap and pause and listen.
Leaves lies in a thousand textures. In some places they are deep and flat like a kerbside mattress. In other parts they’re scored with the trailing tracks of bison; each print as big as a pub ashtray. And there’s a rising stubble of tiny trees which goes to show that in a forest of rotten wood, the world is fit and growing on.
Of course this young growth comes thickest where an old tree has died and left a vacancy in the canopy. Light beckons up the youngsters around the wreckage of fallen timber. In a British wood, this greening would be a magnet for deer; they’d hammer the new growth into nonexistence. But here the young trees grow thick and well because wolves walk in this forest. They’re deer-hunting wolves; canny wolves who know that fallen logs are the perfect place for an ambush. Rush your prey and watch for it to trip and fall in the tangled branches. It’s dangerous for deer to be found around dead timber, so they avoid it. And the young trees can rise in safety with a wolf to thank for their straightness.
I stand and chew over this mechanism at the foot of a tall ash tree. There’s a crackle of twigs and then I’m looking up into the eyes of a wolf himself. We were told not to expect a wolf. They’re here but never seen, and this is extraordinary. It’s too soon to feel fortunate; there are other things to feel first.
He’s grey and brief and wholly empty. I wish I could say that he means something to me. I wish I could tell you that we share some connection. But I see nothing at all. He is blank as a tribal mask; blank as a vee sign or a sheet of bare stone. Forty yards of leafmould stand between us; forty yards of numbly swelling air.
Then he turns and shows me a second wolf behind him. They run together, and that’s when I come round because they’re big; bigger than the grandest dog you ever saw. And they run as if they’ve been running all their lives; a steady, knowing bound which could last forever. They grasp the land and throw it inexhaustibly behind them.
And as they run, the floodgates open – a rising shriek of fear in my skull. I didn’t recognise the still face, but my God I know this. Trees begin to flicker around their bodies like cracks in a magic lantern. All of my childhood nightmares flash into me; tales of a Cossack sleigh stuck bellied in the snow and the ponies rolling their eyes at the rising howl; the brassy sneer of Prokofiev’s Wolf on a crackling LP; the lusting chase of Tolstoy’s borzois – all of this in shallow proxy for the terrible, awesome reality.
Four days have passed. I close my eyes and all I can see is the way they ran. I see the join between leg and spine and tail on the leading wolf. That movement, so familiar as to be stomach turning writ large in pale and thickened fur. That’s how dogs move, and yet no dog in the world moves like that.
And they’re between the trees – the guide shouts that he has not seen this in twenty years
Between the trees – branches dash and crackle as they run
Between the trees – find your nails buried in your palms and then it’s over.
Breathe between the trees.
Wolves are the smallest part of this forest. By weight and mass they’re nothing at all. But tell that to the forest.