It’s good to walk in a north-easterly direction just after sun-up, towards the end of April, if you have a big nose and ears. You turn yourself to the light so that it warms the right slope of your nose and spills over a little onto your left cheek, and so that it also falls not straight into your ear but onto the back of the lobe, and then you sense the direction like an old bullfinch, as if you were shooting along the course of a river or the shaft of the Plough. The fundus of the eye, with its sensitivity to the angle of the sun’s rays, is another useful instrument. All this proves crucial if you have to walk three or four kilometres in a forest as primeval as that east of Hajnówka, where there are dead and fallen trees and hollows everywhere, and you need your hands to make progress as much as your feet, which means you have no way of using your compass or your navigator.
That’s what this job was all about, searching for a rare breed of bird – that’s why they were paying me to be in that wilderness.Dendrocopos leucotos, the white-backed woodpecker, actually a Siberian breed, but it might be there, those few kilometres away, according to a mark on the map, and somebody had to check it out. This was a true skill, recognising woodpeckers by their calls, their appearance, their pecking – just like the skill of building houses or treating sick people; after all, someone was paying for it, for my ability to recognise birds by their calls, for my rare knowledge of a foreign language, the language of woodpeckers. What a profession, I thought, recalling the humiliations from childhood, and my ostensibly innocent but fundamentally anatomically-derived nickname: Birdie (this word, the diminutive of bird, is the equivalent of “willy” for “penis” in English – translator’s note).
It’s the drumming, the way they hammer the wood with their beaks. Woodpeckers drum to demarcate their nesting territory. They select dry trunks or large branches and hammer in long series that carry for several hundred metres. Each of the Polish species does it differently. The loudest drummer is the black woodpecker: it perforates the silence with sonorous salvoes of heavy blows that are unmistakable, slightly reminiscent of a machine gun. The smallest of the family, the lesser spotted woodpecker, also has a characteristic rattle, very delicate, although it carries a good distance. The great spotted woodpecker hammers in short, powerful series that seem nervous, angry, while the grey-headed woodpecker issues long series, two seconds at a time, like the black woodpecker, but they seem lighter and are not as clearly audible. The three-toed member of the family, in turn, makes a rattle that can be confused with that of its black relative, although it is not as loud or as strong, and is more reminiscent of a heavy-duty sewing machine than a machine gun. Greenhorns who hear woodpeckers for the first time say that this drumming is astounding, unbelievable, but that’s probably how it is with everything in this world.
But the white-backed woodpecker’s rattle is different: it is almost distinguished, refined, as if it had been working on the sound all night, to present it to the entire biocene at four in the morning, just before the explosion of the light. It starts slowly, clearly, in a bid to draw the attention of all that has ears to itself, and accelerates steadily, ending up its salvo with a series of rapid blows. All this lasts no longer than one and a half seconds, rarely two, so it is important to tread quietly and listen as you walk, so that the sounds do not drown each other out, obscure each other, as shrubs, bushes and trees obscure each other’s view. For the view is silent only from a distance. In fact, it is something that can be not only seen but also heard.
From close up in Białowieża Forest, you can hear an absolutely distinctivebyuk,which some say sounds like akik– an alarm call, but also a call of contact between the female and the male white-back. It can be confused with a blackbird or a middle spotted woodpecker, which has a similar alarm call, but there is a certain indefinable difference which, when you hear thatbyuk, makes you think white-back, not middle spotted. The art is defining it and then finding the right name for it.
The names of the spotted woodpeckers – large spotted, middle spotted and small – are an expression of man’s rather inept approach to the necessity of ordering and naming the world. You sense in them the same impotence as in respect of the space in Siberia, where for want of names, villages and railway halts are identified by numbers, or by the number of kilometres that separate them from the local centre. These three members of the woodpecker family are all characterised by black, white and red in a host of forms and constellations, and the only significant difference between them is their size. Their names have to have two or even three parts to sound credible: large spotted woodpecker. Likewise the rare white-backed woodpecker. How convincing the traditional name for the middle spotted woodpecker in the Mazovia region: “cardinal”, for the red cap sported by both the male and the female.
Dendrocopos leucotosoften lives in alder marshes or old deciduous woods. The view we call the alder marsh unexpectedly combines two environments: lake and woodland. The trees in it grow on little islands surrounded by dark water, which makes the landscape look like a collection of places dotted around a marsh and marked by the trees on their islands. The trees are usually alder or ash; either way, you have to jump. There are no roads or paths. Even if the water level falls and reveals the marshy valleys in the depressions between the islands, you won’t find a path between them, so you have to clamber and splash along the route, the map, the direction, and your employer tells you, because somewhere in that direction there might just be a white-back hollow and you have to check it out. The trunks of fallen alders tempt you to climb onto them and make your route march easier even for just a few metres, but it is very easy to fall off them. They often collapse, rotted away on the inside, fall into the oily gyttja, or turn out not to be there any more at all, like birches. Scrolls of white birch bark fool you in the same way: they retain the shape of a recumbent tree trunk, invite you to jump, but inside there is nothing there: the birch wood has long since been transformed into a muddy slime, into primal matter, and you wind up crotch-deep in slurry as slippery as the small-town gossip in my native region of Mazovia.
The islands are grown over with forest undergrowth: mosses, ferns, lichens, wood sorrel, while between them, on the marsh, there are wetland plants: caltha, hawksbeard, nightshade and flag. When the water recedes, the alder marsh takes on its characteristic form, revealing expanses of silt and humus where you can go in up to your armpits. Forest meets marsh, habitats merge and mingle, and this creates a new place – the alder marsh. Liquid, muddy, it spills out as far as you can see, often sprawling and seeping over into nearby spruce woods, making this forest in places look like one great borderland of environments. Ecologists call this an ecotone. Syncretism, eclecticism, muddle.
And everywhere water.
“Theoretically, the motor organs of tetrapods should have evolved through gradual transformation of fins into dactyl limbs in amphibious creatures which alternately crawled on land or swam in shallow water,” a sentence from an exhibition at Warsaw’s Museum of the Earth ran through my head as I was wading through the alder marsh that morning and I was arrested by a small, nameless creature, an insect, that was drowning. And then: “Some believe that the digits developed in the water and originally served to grasp and hold aquatic vegetation, and only later evolved to provide support for the limbs when walking,” I repeated aloud, wiggling my fingers. I rescued the small black whatever-it-was, and went on my way.
And a moment later I caught life in the act. A male middle spotted woodpecker landed on a female, a terminal willow bud popped in my mouth, and beneath my feet I noticed a chrysosplenium alternifolium in flower. That’s how it was. Copulation in middle woodpeckers lasts less than two seconds, so it was easy to gauge the length of that moment. And directly afterwards I caught death in the act: a pygmy owl – an owl smaller than your hand – was hauling something that was still alive back to its hollow, and the trunk of a massive oak boomed under my weight, releasing an explosion of rotten wood and dust, and with it the stench of rot, marsh and decay. And that’s how it was, life straight between the eyes alternating with death in my nostrils, for the weeks of that strange commission. It was easy enough to get used to, to so many deaths and lives, to so much devouring and reproducing. Every spring you have to relearn that art – the art of indifference to those deaths and lives.
When at last you get out of the alder marsh, you can see that no species of tree creates place in space as unequivocally as an old spruce with its pendulous spreading lower branches, beneath which one can take shelter from the snow and rain. Its only equals are the oak and the ash, and perhaps also larger alders on their islands in the alder marshes. Beneath the spruces it is so dry as to be warm, and your most fundamental needs are satisfied at once, as at home: you can read your map, empty the water out of your boot, extract a tick, and even sit down a while on the dry needle carpet. From beneath the spruce one has a splendid view of the falling March snow, and you can see too that when the flakes are falling, everything that happens happens for longer, and many places – topography – simply cease to exist. This feeling is so overpowering that it is hard to leave the spruce, because there is nothing beyond it.
My first picture of that spring was a great tit,Parus major, hunting for common brimstone, butterflies from theGonepteryksgenus. The wings of the common brimstone are yellow, and if you can catch them and smell them they have a lemony smell (their Polish name translates as “lemon summer-leaf”). But the tit was after substance – the butterfly’s abdomen, its body – and it caught it, and, holding it in its beak, disappeared amid the still bare alder branches. The butterfly’s wings protruded from its beak; it was still moving, because I could see it still moving through my binoculars. I went after them, and I even found one of the wings. I rubbed it between my fingers, and it really did smell lemony, just as it had way back when I discovered that for the first time.
How did it come to be here in this alder marsh surrounded by spruce forest? Common brimstones winter in leaves, hence the second part of their Polish name, although this might be more closely derived from the fact that they not only hibernate but also estivate – fall into a summer sleep, when their metabolism slows and they simply sit quietly in the leaves, giving us a fine example of restraint and moderation. But in the waterlogged alder marshes, leaves decompose and it is wet, so where could the lemony leaf-dweller dwell? Perhaps on the dry islands around the alder and ash trunks? On fallen stumps? And around the edges, yes, on that broad strip of borderland between the alder marshes and the spruce woods, that band of neither this nor that, that non-place, neither forest nor alder marsh, where amid the needles in the miserable undergrowth there are also black alder leaves. They like it there. But what a habit, sleeping in the summer. Sometimes butterflies choose as their summer resting-place hollows originally made by woodpeckers.
Fewlocushave such a primal, archaic, gloomy character as the hollow tree. It is rivalled as a hideaway only by places such as the shuck, the nest or perhaps the pocket; anywhere else seems pitifully obvious and open, within reach, described, even trivial. The hollow tree combines the functions of opening, entrance and place, being at once the one and the other, expressing some archaic, evolutionary, palaeological, ontogenetic relationship that benefits woodpeckers, owls, spiders, insects, and among them bumble bees and forest bees. And probably – certainly – at one time we also. When one comes across fallen oak trunks, hollowed of their matter and spacious as prison cells, it becomes clear that we too once lived like this. For when you come across an empty, felled oak, you can see, like the white on a black wing, that here is a superbly secure shelter from the four winds – east, west, north and south, that this is an old place. I used to go inside sometimes, and look for the spot where, five hundred years previously, the acorn fell, but it seemed like a frivolous act, doomed from the outset to failure.
So I walked on again, along the band between the alder marsh and the spruce wood. The sun was high when, from the edge of the wood, a movement lashed out, big and fast, and flew after a small movement, belated and defenceless, and then the first movement swallowed up the smaller one, obliterated it, but in doing so, itself slowed and faded. It all happened very close, but so fast and kinetically that I saw not a single colour, wing shape or even tail. Not a sound was audible. A long, long time afterwards I recalled having seen a sparrowhawk kill a starling.
And that the end, which I forget very easily, is not only a concept from spatial geometry.
Translated from the Polish by Jessica Taylor-Kucia