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A Polish bison near Białowieża

I first heard about Poland’s Białowieża forest almost eight years ago. It’s regarded as the last significant piece of primeval woodland in Europe, and it sounded to me like a fantasyland. It’s reckoned that nothing has changed there since the last Ice Age, but for all I was thrilled by the idea of wolves and bison, I could only imagine how the wilderness would look in reality.

Having finally mustered the momentum to go, I spent the last three days in Białowieża. It will take months to fully process everything I saw and heard in the forest which lies along the border with Belarus, but I’ve come home with a mountain of notes and ideas. So much more will follow on this blog and elsewhere, but for now it’s worth recording a simple idea:

“Wild” is often pitched as the antonym of “human”; and from that, people say that a landscape can only be one or the other. I dislike this approach, not least because drawing a line between nature and humanity is misleading. Humans are part of nature – even as we split the atom or walk on the moon, we’re just being ourselves. So it’s unhelpful to think of “wilderness” as the absence of humanity. And while there are few places wilder than Białowieża, human stories are written all over the “wild forest”. It makes no sense to cut people out of the picture – you end up lying to yourself and deliberately averting your eyes from a far more complex and challenging reality.

I went on this trip with “Wild Poland”, a tour company which operates under the motto “If you only saw what you wanted, you probably missed a lot”. It’s clunky and twee and probably suffered in translation from the original Polish. I cringed when I first saw it, but then I began to realise that if you erase man from the wilderness, you lose some the most interesting stuff.

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