Behold the forest bison; see him bathe in a pool of his own hot coughing. There’s nothing spare or useless about this animal. Every inch of him is lithe and front-loaded for action – he’s stacked and ribby as a steel bar. I daresay his horns have some peaceful purpose, but from where I’m standing it looks like they were custom built to hook under your ribs and pull out your pluck.

In himself, he’s a grand and edgy brute with every ball in his court. But when he stands in the forest with his own trees about him? Well, it’s enough to weaken your knees.

A bison comes to British folk as sight unseen – we have no equivalent animal in this country, so it’s hard to make sense of him. If we catch a glimpse of his body as he canters through a forest ride, we measure the sight against things we know. I say he looks like a taxi. When he sleeps, he’s a silage bale.

But then we know him better and begin to love him a little. We start to wonder if we could have bison of our own. That’s when I begin to feel uneasy, because these animals cannot be loaded up and hauled around like cattle. I’ve seen bison in captivity. I thought they were fine, but that was just a small feeling with a fence around it. You have to discover them at full draft to grasp them; to see how they depend upon complexities which are sorely hard to find. And that’s not all, because they’re anchored to the soil by human stories too.

The story of bison is the story of Poland itself, from ancient times to conquest, partition and annihilation. It’s a blend of tragedy and triumph, and it’s so heavily swaddled in human emotion that it defies objective scrutiny. Bison are a source of terrific pride in a nation which has an unusually clear sense of itself. And they’re ubiquitous in imagery and iconography – they’re just as well suited to heraldry as they are to pub signs and beer bottles. Visitors look at a bison and see a grand, hairy beast. The Poles see something of themselves.

You can study these animals in scientific terms. Trim off the humanity and slaver at his wilderness. But the purity of that pedigree looks a little flaky at close quarters. Bison were extinct in the wild and have been reintroduced from captive animals. Their numbers are buoyed and managed by culling and supplementary feeding. They emerge from the forest to feed in hay fields and around the suburbs of towns. In Bialowieza, cars are parked on ul. Zubrowa (bison street), and mounds of dung on the tarmac suggest that tyres and hooves share the same asphalt.

Even the bison’s “pristine, primeval, unspoiled” home has been deeply scored by human stories. Men have come and gone from the trees like leaves and eaten themselves and rolled forward like a surging tide. Balts and Teutons filled this place with bodies, and their battle-songs blur bison with dragons and kobolds. Think of the Tsars who slew these animals with pomp and grandeur, only to be slain themselves in a guttery, dayless basement. And more evident still in a thousand tiny crosses which lie throughout the forest – picture the countless people who were shot and discarded by Nazis. In time their bodies were reimagined as leaves to browse.

Bison have accrued more than mere stories in this place. Tales swirl around them like steam until it becomes hard to see where hooves end and roots begin. They’re a full and walking mythology, so it’s mad to think they could ever be transplanted. Do we really understand what we’re asking for when we call for British bison? Poles have something we don’t – should we envy them, or is it better to accept that heritage as unmistakably theirs? Besides, these bison were never present in Britain anyway – an older species made it here for a time, but that was so long ago as to be meaningless now.

There’s plenty we can do to edge a little closer to the wild in this country. But the reality is that even if every single one of us abandoned Britain today, it would take ten thousand years to produce anything like a Polish forest – and little like it even then. We’re a rich and busy nation, and that’s come at the cost of our wilderness. We can’t touch it or measure the loss, but it has certainly gone.

So when we reach for bison, it has nothing to do with the animals. We’re trying to touch something older and bigger that we lack in ourselves – and that takes us on a whole new tangent. Sometimes the wilderness will tingle on your fingertips for a moment in a way that feels true and vital – it happened for me in the bound of a wolf. But it’s only ever a moment, quashed again soon after with the recollection of some nagging responsibility. Even in the heart of the Polish forest, you can still hear an ambulance siren and the rumble of aeroplanes.

I begin to worry that wilderness has nearly gone for us who live in cosy modernity. Another cost of wealth and busy-ness is that our heads are full of noise and we find it hard to occupy a moment. Even if we do stumble upon some way to hear the world, it’s desperately hard to sustain. People say that if only we could only surround ourselves with wilderness, we’d soon reconnect – but I think that’s the wrong way round. If we can’t remember how to savour them, we could fill the world with bison and still never be satisfied.



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