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Feature - Issue #14

My World Your World

Words by Keggie Carew
Photographs by Lech Wilczek

In an extract from her latest book, Beastly: A New History of Animals and Us, Keggie Carew unearths a remarkable tale of kinship between animals and humans in the Białowieża Forest.

© All Photographs are by Lech Wilczek, courtesy Ida Matysek.

May 2019. I am standing on the wooden verandah of an old forester’s lodge, in a sunlit glade deep in the heart of the ancient BiałowieŻa Forest in the far eastern corner of Poland. The nearest road is more than 8 kilometres away down a forest track. The grass has been cut around a bed of uncoiling young ferns and dotted clumps of blue iris, although no one has lived here for a decade. The smooth belly of a grey-pink granite boulder balances a perfectly round egg stone, just as they left it. This is a pilgrimage.

Two years ago, my agent, Patrick Walsh, sent me a black and white photograph. He is in the habit of emailing me snippets like: “Man looking like a mummy is rescued after surviving a month in a bear den in Russia”, or “Snowball, the dancing parakeet”. But this floored me. Centre stage, in a dining room crowded with 19th-century clocks and ornate brass lamps, was a giant boar standing on her hind legs with both front feet and hairy snout on a thick oak-ring table. The enormous boar - and she is enormous - snuffles at breadcrumbs scattered by a girl in long plaits sitting at the table. Behind the boar’s head a candelabra is precariously alight. The time is 12 o’clock. Like a parable or strange fairy story. For all the strangeness, there is something else going on. The dramatic quality is outlandish, yet somehow also entirely natural. It is as if one is spying through a private keyhole yet beholding a theatrical stage set. Surreal, yet real. Intimate yet inscrutable. I stared and I stared.

I clicked on the link. Three more photographs: the same girl curls up on a rug beside a bed in which the same boar and a large dog are fast asleep (note: boar head on pillow); to their right, an older woman sews lace with an owl perched asleep on the arm of her chair.

I scrolled down: same girl crouches in a forest clearing with a raven on her knee, the raven leans towards her, his beak slightly open, to whisper or kiss, as sunlight catches the white shine of his black feathers. Same girl walking through a snowy forest with a small band of young deer. With more looking comes more wonder.

She is not ‘a girl’. She is Simona Kossak and she is 27 years old. The year is 1970. The country is Poland. The place is the lodge, Dziedzinka, in the Białowieża Forest. As I feed Polish text into Google Translate, out come strange English sentences that give me the first disjointed fragments of her tale. Born into a famous old Polish family of painters and poets, Simona Kossak knew the moment she saw Dziedzinka in the snowy moonlight that it would become her home. The search for her future was over, “It’s here or nowhere,” she said. It had no electricity, just a well in the garden, and was only accessible by a forest track. Simona is at a point in her life when she wants to live simply, as far from humans as she possibly can. The forester’s lodge, divided into two apartments, has one irritation - the man from Warsaw who has rented the other half. He won’t last long, she thinks. He also wants to live simply and close to nature, as far from humans as he possibly can. He is not exercised about this tenant. It’s obvious that she won’t survive the winter. Kossak, a zoologist, is employed by the Forestry Research Institute to study the wild forest mammals and their ecological interrelations with the environment. Her position is controversial and gains her more enemies than friends. You will already have guessed that the irritating man becomes her life partner. He is Lech Wilczek, the wildlife photographer who brings home a one-day-old wild boar piglet.

© All Photographs are by Lech Wilczek, courtesy Ida Matysek.

‘Simona and Lech lived in the forester’s lodge with the rhythm of the forest, the seasons, and the animals: the deer, the badgers, the fox, the martens, a black stork, a white stork, two owls, their chickens, Korasek, Zabka the boar and their donkey, Hepunia.’

Wilczek’s photographs are compulsive. I download as many as I can find. Meet Korasek. Ruler of the roost, possibly the biggest character of all. A smarter, more scheming, more guileful, treacherous, magnificent, mercenary raven one could not imagine. Here he is with his glittering eye, his coal mirror wings slicking the light, his beak ready to steal. Look at him upside down on his back, feet akimbo, rolling in a nest of grass with a flower in his beak, eyeing you. All wickedness and anticipation. Rough him up a bit, try to steal the flower, and he will fly away, Cwwwarrrk! Cwwwwwwrk! Then back for more. Korasek tugging Simona’s plaits. Korasek riding on the back of Lech’s motorbike. Korasek pulling the dog’s tail. Korasek pulling the boar’s tail. Korasek untying Lech’s shoelace. Korasek dive-bombing a stork. Korasek’s beak latched onto the rear end of a white chicken. Korasek peering over Simona’s shoulder as she fixes her moped. Korasek flying straight at the camera, eyes blazing, beak zeroing in. Hitchcock would have sold his cine-arm for Korasek. I peer into his staggering eye. He has the gait of a comedian. In courting mood he ruffs his dashing black coat into a feathered boa. Cute as Satan.

The boar is called Zabka. Simona lies in the long summer grass, her head resting on Zabka’s shoulder, her palms cupped beneath her snout. Zabka wears a smile on her bristly face. The sun warming their faces. Sweet dreams. The eternal lie of Time. This was once. This is no more. The mingling musky humus smell of boar, girl’s hair and leaf litter. Sprite, goblin, sylph. A girl asleep in the forest with a boar. These damn photographs.

For two years Simona has been on my mind. Now here we are. In the forest garden where the badger cubs played, where Korasek chased the donkey, where Zabka snoozed, where the fox curled in the sun, where elk came, where deer wandered as if humans did not live here. Simona died in 2007. Lech died in December, 2018. I baffle my face to the window; I can see the dusty wallpaper, the nails where coats once hung, the door connecting the apartments which Lech put in after years of living together.

Tomorrow we will meet Simona’s niece, Joanna. I feel a nervous anticipation. I sit cross-legged on the grass by the boulder and cup my hand over the egg stone.

© All Photographs are by Lech Wilczek, courtesy Ida Matysek.

‘A smarter, more scheming, more guileful, treacherous, magnificent, mercenary raven one could not imagine. Here he is with his glittering eye, his coal mirror wings slicking the light, his beak ready to steal.’

The evolutionary biologist E O Wilson used the word biophilia, love of life, to describe what he believed is our deep connection with the natural world and its other inhabitants. An innate and fundamental affinity rooted in our distant evolutionary past, when our existence alongside other creatures was closer and more intimate. It manifests in our desire, or need, to watch and be close to other forms of life, and is rewarded by uncomplicated feelings of peace, joy and well-being. It is the motor and the heartbeat of our story.

I have one dog sitting on me and another panting down the back of my neck. Joanna Kossak is driving like a demon. We are 6 miles deep into the Białowieża Forest, still no sign of her house. My relief is boundless for she is like a naughty school friend and stories pour out of her in an English with Polish decoration. We swerve off the dirt road, stones spitting, through a gateway, and here we are in front of a tumbledown Goldilocks house. Wooden roof shingles curling, patches of corrugated iron sliding, pink paint flaking, long grass up to our knees. More animals come out to greet us. I am bewitched.

“The moment he could fly he spent every single moment tormenting every other creature.” Joanna dives behind the couch to emerge with a pile of photographs. “Here, look! There, and there!” Korasek, the raven brought to Lech and Simona as a chick from a storm-damaged tree, was the only animal Joanna wanted ‘to terminate’.

“He pecked the dogs’ noses when they were asleep - this is a raven’s beak, remember, a beak to break bones! Look, look at the poor donkey!”

We stare at Korasek pecking the donkey’s rump and clinging on for the gallop.

“Because he liked going for a ride?”

“What else do you think? Here, riding the donkey. Here, fighting the cock. Look!”

The only creature who could stand up to Korasek was the stork, Joanna says, showing us a photograph of fully fledged battle, wings out, aggressive posturing.

“He drove Zabka to within an inch of insanity.”

“The boar?”

“Oh, yes. She never gave up trying to get the raven. He would pretend he was interested in some crumbs on the ground and she would charge, but just 3 inches from her open mouth he would fly up and jab her on the nose. Lech and Simona were his only gods, everyone else was to be terminated. I hid from him. He would attack from the air. Honestly! Look, there, I had to wear wellington boots and Lech’s crash helmet to go outside.” A photo of young Joanna in a helmet wielding a big stick.

© All Photographs are by Lech Wilczek, courtesy Ida Matysek.

Simona and Lech lived in the forester’s lodge with the rhythm of the forest, the seasons, and the animals: the deer, the badgers, the fox, the martens, a black stork, a white stork, two owls, their chickens, Korasek, Zabka the boar and their donkey, Hepunia. And the host of injured and orphaned creatures brought to their door, who once nursed back to health were free to come and go, and some, like Zabka and Korasek, remained resident. Dziedzinka was part hospital, part home, part observational laboratory, and all of these at one of those rare times in life when everything comes fleetingly together. In Białowieża the locals became used to seeing Lech’s bike whizzing by with Korasek gripping onto the back. When they saw Lech in the forest with Zabka walking by his side, Hepunia behind him and Korasek circling over the three of them, they called him St Francis.

Simona raised a small band of young deer who followed her on walks through the snowy forest. One day they were suddenly terrified, ears raised, hair standing up on the hind quarters; they would not enter the wood. Simona stopped, looked back, then went ahead to investigate, but as she did so a loud chorus of warning barks from the deer broke out behind her. She turned again, they continued to bark, standing tall and stiff. Simona pressed on slowly. A few feet away she came across fresh lynx prints and faeces. In that moment, as her deer warned her of danger, Simona felt she had crossed the bounds that divide the animal world from humans. That she was a member of the herd.

Joanna Kossak remembers how the first visits she made to her aunt, Simona, at six years old, were imprinted with a deep enmity for Lech Wilczek, Simona’s neighbour. How he and Simona fought! Joanna recalls Simona complaining about Lech’s polluting motorbike, and how he trampled her garden declaring her plants alien species and a danger to the genetic stability of the ecosystem. But the following year Joanna found that things were very different.

The impasse had been broken with the arrival of Zabka, a one-day-old wild boar piglet Lech had been given to look after by Warsaw Zoo. Zabka needed feeding every two hours, so Lech was compelled to ask Simona to help. Lech’s photographs track Zabka growing up: tiny Zabka asleep with the dogs; little Zabka with the chicks sharing the mash; a bigger Zabka following Simona in the snow; an enormous Zabka licking Lech’s face and snuffling up the crumbs on the oak table.

This clever Carpathian boar (and versatile omnivore) quickly learnt that if she left a few crumbs on the ground, the chickens would come pecking. Her trick was to lie in wait, quietly snoozing . . . peck, peck, chicken or turkey, bwaak, bwaaak, pukaaak, beaks like bell hammers, peck, peck . . . when Zabka would explode from her slumber and grab the nearest unsuspecting fowl. Feathers flying, survivors squawking, the hapless victim down in one. Simona and Lech had no idea where the chickens were disappearing to until the day Zabka got caught.

Every Christmas Eve, Lech and Simona decorated the spruce tree in the clearing in front of the house with a feast. The branches were festooned with rowanberries, lard, apples and dried fruit - the wild birds’ favourite food. They left a stack of hay for the deer who might pass by Dziedzinka on their way through the forest. Zabka would get a loaf of bread, bowls of acorns and a basket of apples garnished with fir branches.

Zabka lived with Simona and Lech at Dziedzinka for 21 years. Going for walks in the woods, snoozing in the sun, being terrorised by Korasek, following the donkey, luring chickens to their doom. When the time came for her, she went in search of Lech and Simona. She led them to her place, looking behind to make sure they were following. She lay down in her nest of hay bedding in the garden where she had lived all her life. They crouched down beside her, stroking her, talking gently. They all knew. And then Zabka died.

I linger at Dziedzinka. I know it is unlikely I will ever return. I think about all the loved creatures who have rolled in this grass. The wooden verandah where Simona and Lech sat, where Korasek perched, where Zabka slept, where Lech played with the badger cubs, somersaulting them into the sky, where the deer came to rest their noses, where a fox walked on Simona’s shoulders, where the lynx, Agatha, rolled sun-dazed, claws stretching to the sun.

This is an edited excerpt from Beastly: A New History of Animals and Us by Keggie Carew. Published by Canongate (£20).

© All Photographs are by Lech Wilczek, courtesy Ida Matysek.

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