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Under Poland’s forest canopy

8am on a spring morning, and I’m stuck in rush hour in Bia³owie¿a. Two men on bikes meander along the empty village road in the sun, easing to avoid a dog. The tinny bong from the bells at the Orthodox church carries along neat rows of houses done out in blues, yellows and ochres. An old lady, headscarfed and steady, draws water from a garden well. Small birds give barely-arsed swanny whistles. 
It’s unhurried stuff, and very apt. The village is just a few kilometres from the Belarus border and knows all about the slow passage of time. It sits on the edge of the 1260km2 Puszcza Bia³owieska, Europe’s last major tract of primeval forest, a place where nature is not so much boss as green-fingered ultra-dictator. UNESCO has long had the area safeguarded as a World Natural Heritage site. Almost half of it is off limits to anyone without a guide.  

It’s a far cry from my starting point, Warsaw, where crowds massed outside stations and a colossal hoarding of John Paul II gazed down at the clatter from the side of Stalin’s enormo-goth Palace of Culture. From there, three hours northeast by train to Bia³ystok, a drizzly industrial town with a sex shop in its ticketing hall (my train compartment was shared with a priest and two Mormon missionaries – the definition of a spiritual journey?). Then three more hours by bus past fields, farms and small hamlets with big churches. And finally the forest.

Its presence is palpable in the village. Not just from the trees crowding the roads, or the mounted antlers and carved bison heads dotted around town, but as a brooding sylvan bulk close by. It’s the kind of wood you read about in Tolkien books where elves get lost for months. In no rush, I arrange a trip to the ‘strict reserve’ for the following day, so today is taken up with nosing about in more accessible areas.

For centuries the forest was rich hunting ground for local nobility. The Palace Park on the village outskirts was once home to a luxurious lodge for Russia’s Tsar Alexander III (Poland’s borders and domestic regimes being historically on the changeable side). It still bears lovingly landscaped gardens, currently succeeding in shrugging off the last frosts and giving spring a proper shoo-in.

The surrounding countryside is postcard Poland. Windmills, barns, religious shrines and sleepy villages strung together by winding roads. I pass hares and hedges – little else. On a bike, it’s heaven. By the time I polish off thick pea soup and a few pints of the local, hops-y draught in the evening (I decide against the menu’s alluring ‘Boar Nuisance’), sleep comes easily. 

The next morning, I meet my guide, Maria. A wonderful, sturdy old Polish lady with walking boots under her skirt and fingers like sausages, she adores the forest. “Ah! Fine! Fine!” she sings, as a pair of storks, home after an African winter, come flapping slowly over from Belarus. “Ah! Fine!” she sighs again, as we take our first steps into the cool, quiet enormity of the strict reserve.

It’s humbling. The forest is effectively 4,000 years old, with the oldest standing oaks dating back six centuries. Trees grow, fall and in time are inhaled back into the earth again. Nothing today is doctored, forced or moved. Dead wood isn’t cleared. It is an organic, real-time forest. For the snorting, snuffling mass of species that live here – ranging from bison, wolves and lynxes to over 8,000 different types of insect – home is a timeless, tousled maze of spruce, oak, hornbeam and lime.

Everything tells a story. Toppled roots the size of horse-carts are criss-crossed with the weird, hieroglyphic patterns of beetles. Trunks, many of them over 50m tall, echo to the reggae-ish tap-tap of woodpeckers; others give titanic creaking farts as the wind sways them. Rivers of snowmelt run past rainbow-coloured plate fungus, peeked at by spring buds. During the war, the Nazis unearthed a partisan army that were using the forest as a hideout. Mossy graves stand testament.

Near us, a deer steps into an opening and, with a quick twig-snap, shoots back into the fold. Local fauna, unsurprisingly, tends to busy itself away from visitors – the boulder-headed, shaggy bison that are the forest’s pin-up boys are particularly shy. It’s less frustrating than I envisaged. This isn’t a zoo, after all. Only the hawks wheeling above us, the odd nervy squirrel and an endless birdsong chorus hint at the cathedral’s motley congregation. 

We walk for hours. The sense of being enveloped is almost overpowering. I wonder aloud whether the Polish and Belarusian authorities clash over manning the forest borders. “Yes,” says Maria. “But shush! Nature is better than politics.” She gives a wide arc with her wide arm, taking in dense, secret acres of boughs and beasts. Nothing in this age-old canopy raises objection.  

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