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The White Tower

Updated: Mar 12

In the Beginning: Genesis 

The Białowieża Forest stretches across eastern Poland and western Belarus (Białowieża means "White Tower" in Polish, in reference to a white wooden hunting-manor established in the nearby village of that name). It remains Europe's last vestige of primeval woodlands that once draped the continent from the Iberian Peninsula to the Ural Mountains. As political boundaries have ebbed and flowed through history, the commitment to the forest's preservation has remained unwavering.

Drawn to Białowieża in my quest to understand ancient oaks, I encountered a realm emblematic of Europe's dwindling untouched landscapes. Within Poland, the forest's vastness fuels local narratives. Stories of ancestors planting trees intertwine with accounts of trees being felled, prompting contemplation about the truly undisturbed portions of the woods.

At the heart of Białowieża in Poland lies an area that remains pristine, recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Shielded from loggers, entrance to this enclave mandates a certified guide and specific permissions, guiding visitors along a delineated path. It offers an evocative window into a time of minimal human intrusion, beckoning nature aficionados and scholars.

Białowieża Forest is a living testament to the primeval lowland forests of yore, a kaleidoscope of biodiversity and ecological richness. Here, the regal European bison (Bison bonasus), the continent's heaviest land mammal and Białowieża’s emblem, coexists with enigmatic wolves (Canis lupus), lithe lynxes (Lynx lynx), and the lofting white-tailed eagles (Haliaeetus albicilla). Deer (Capreolus capreolus and Cervus elaphus) and wild boars (Sus scrofa) etch their tales into the undergrowth, while still moments might reveal a cavorting stoat (Mustela erminea) or resonate with the unique call of the three-toed woodpecker (Picoides tridactylus). Serene water bodies capture heron silhouettes (the grey heron, Ardea cinerea) and occasionally play host to rarities like the fire-bellied toad (Bombina bombina). Amidst this splendor, towering oaks (Quercus robur) that have borne witness to time stand alongside a diverse tapestry of trees—spruces (Picea abies), pines (Pinus sylvestris), lindens (Tilia cordata), ashes (Fraxinus excelsior), hornbeams (Carpinus betulus), and alders (Alnus glutinosa). This complex mosaic sustains myriad fungi, mosses, and lichens, many exclusive to Białowieża. Beyond its beauty, the forest emerges as an emblem of nature's endurance and a beacon of conservation in our ever-transforming world.

Traversing Białowieża is a voyage through diverse habitats, each defined by its distinct tableau and predominant trees. Meandering through swampy realms, dense thickets stamped by specific tree species, I witnessed nature's grandeur unfolding as landscapes transformed. The forest's essence is encapsulated in its mixed groves. Here, the vulnerability of spruce trees to climatic whims is juxtaposed against the robust resilience of oak trees, manifesting nature's ceaseless constant rhythm and cycle.

While my pilgrimage was anchored in an academic fascination with oaks, Białowieża unfurled layers of personal resonance. As a European Ashkenazi Jew from Israel, the soil whispered of familial roots. A poignant detour to my grandmother's erstwhile village unveiled the remnants of the town's Jewish lineage, from architectural imprints to stone-carved memorials, chronicling tales from an epoch long past.

Białowieża 's beauty is intertwined with profound historical tapestries, making my sojourn both enchanting and emotionally intense. Delving into Poland unearthed emotions buried across lifetimes. On the verge of being overcome by melancholy, the third day dawned with an unexpected revelation: a presence from the forest that defied any description I knew.

The Third Day: A Revelation

And God said, "Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, upon the earth." And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day. (Genesis 1:11-13)

Stepping into the heart of Białowieża Forest's protected zone is akin to traveling through epochs. This space, devoid of human footprints like discarded cans or power lines, is a sanctuary for the natural progression of life. From the birth of saplings to their decay, the forest embodies a cyclical dance of existence that crafts myriad habitats. Deadwood, rather than being seen as debris, is celebrated as a foundation for flourishing fungi, insects, and birds. Amidst this untouched terrain, trees not only grow but age gracefully, a testament to nature's undisturbed rhythm. Disturbances such as storms and pestilences sculpt the woods in distinct patterns, reinforcing the organic essence of this enclave, increasingly scarce in our era.

Within moments of entering this preserved realm, I felt submerged in an ethereal aquarium, a world aglow in varying hues of green. The forest canopy's dappled tapestry filtered sunlight, crafting an interplay of shadow and light. My steps took me through a primordial world that felt both alien and familiar, a tableau from which European lineages sprouted. My very being, woven intricately with these woods, felt the resounding heartbeat of the earth.

The profound connection, perhaps imprinted in DNA or whispered tales, resonated with a deep harmony between man and wilderness. Nature's sanctum revealed the Divine—in every rustling leaf, the sway of wildflowers, and the kaleidoscope of critters—offering an embrace that murmured, "Welcome home." Confronted by such unadulterated beauty, I was rendered breathless, my eyes moistening, realizing this paradise was neither a distant exotic locale nor a fantastical realm. It was here, in Poland, the bedrock of my ancestry.

Upon this revelation, my camera succumbed, its battery drained. It seemed the forest itself implored a moment of raw, undistracted presence. Yet the tranquility was occasionally pierced by echoes of contemporary struggles and historical scars. Refugees' desperate footfalls, the remnants of Jewish pasts, and the haunting remnants of wartime atrocities melded into the landscape. Each vista, steeped in tales of resilience and tragedy, echoed stories my forbearers might have hesitated to voice.

Gazing upon the relics of Jewish settlements and the trees that bore silent witness to unspeakable horrors, I grappled with a harrowing query: How did such terror unfurl under nature's tranquil embrace? Perhaps the trees, with their timeless wisdom, whispered that within every expanse of luminosity lurks a contrasting void. The same human who revered these woods, exploiting their grandeur for varied endeavors, was the one who, upon forsaking nature's sanctity, embarked on a path of devastation.

Yet, within these musings resides an ember of hope. Białowieża 's resilience shines forth, with avian homes nestled closer to the ground, undeterred by human proximity. It is humanity, after all, that continues to be captivated by the forest's allure, drawing sustenance and wisdom from its embrace. And in this mutual reverence lies a lesson—as the forest awakens first within each individual, and later within our collective consciousness, it beckons a return to origins and unity.

Closing the Journey and Sealing the Portal

The day after visiting the protected area of Białowieża, I part ways with the guide after she drives me to the Belarus border. I start a day of walking in the forest. I plan to walk about 20 km to the hotel where I'm staying. On my way, I pass through changing landscapes: tall trees, marshy areas teeming with mosquitoes, abandoned railway tracks, dark groves. A Polish border patrol checks my identity, and as I enter new sections, birds herald my arrival.

Yet, as the evening's embrace seemed hours away and my strength unwavering, I was beckoned by an untouched path. This route, unknown to me at the moment, was laden with the footprints of a tsar. Meandering through the groves, memories seeped into my consciousness—of grandmother Tova, a reflection of innocence and joy, running freely among these forests. This landscape wasn’t merely a backdrop; it was a tapestry of her childhood stories.

However, as I delved deeper into the woods, I chanced upon a sacred grove, dominated by three colossal oaks standing sentinel around a clearing. Their silent majesty was punctuated by a humble rain hut. Bathed in the golden rays filtering through the canopy, I was compelled to converse with these ancient beings, questioning their existence during the era of atrocities. Their response was a palpable resonance.

“We witnessed the pain, the screams, and the unspoken stories. We remain, resilient and steadfast. Now, release, Amit. Let go and find solace."

Like a lightning strike, existence unfurls in my consciousness as a cascade of all that's incomprehensible. Horrific images erupt from the subconscious, a rapid sequence of all horror films, all sights of pain and trembling, and the entire loss of Tova's family. The flash burns within me, and the oaks beside me hold support, and from the sanctuary instruct: to the earth.

Hand on the soil, breathe, allow the pain to drain.

Amidst the vastness, the oaks stood tall, acting as conduits between heaven and earth, embodying the divine. They signaled the path forward, lit by hope's radiant glow. Even as challenges loomed, the steadfast lighthouse remained, encouraging us to cross boundaries, radiate compassion, and embrace our innate creative essence. The revelation was profound: the true lighthouse isn't some remote structure but is found within—manifested as the golden warmth in one's heart, the ethereal sunset over peaceful waters, and the resilient spirit of the natural world. In the harmonious interplay of shadow and light, the oak stands as our guide, as our white tower.

First published at International Oak Society.


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