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I was looking forward to writing about that crown that was stolen in Germany…but I guess we will have to wait until tomorrow to talk about stolen crowns. Today the President of the United States, the famous New York real estate conman Donald Trump, fired the Director of the FBI for investigating the extent to which the Trump electoral team colluded with the Russian effort to undermine or taint the American election. This was, of course, not the reason given for Comey’s summary dismissal, but it is exceedingly difficult to draw any other conclusion. Director Comey was a divisive and flawed figure in his own right. Some eminent neutral observers blame his strange behavior last year for Hilary Clinton’s shocking electoral loss. However, now that he has gone off to join Sally Yates, Preet Bharara, and everyone else who has investigated Trump, it is looking like he was the best FBI Director we are likely to get. Who knows what cartoonishly malevolent or benighted figure the administration will dig up to replace him?
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The whole episode paints a disturbing picture–but the dark image which is emerging is hardly unexpected to anyone who has any familiarity with Donald Trump.
Trump reminds me of a naked drunkard dancing on banana peels at the top of a tall slippery marble staircase with a huge ornate cake at the bottom. It seems like there is only one way this scenario could possibly end, and yet his comeuppance keeps on being deferred by the increasingly irrational and cowardly behavior of everyone else. Trump is an old man who lives on steak and hamburger and does not exercise, it is possible he will manage to escape falling into the cake (or, to be less allegorical: he might avoid impeachment and prison because of a massive coronary). Yet, as we all breathlessly await his tragicomic downfall, he is doing terrible damage to institutions the nation really needs, and he is undermining our faith in each other and ourselves.

A few years ago, I was talking once with my uncle about a colleague of his, a Chinese scientist who naturalized to America to work as a physicist. This colleague had a son who had excelled in school and otherwise had a life of great promise, however, when my uncle asked what career he had chosen, the Chinese-American physicist was reluctant to talk about it. My uncle thought that the promising son had fallen into drugs or crime and was happily astonished when the physicist confessed that his son had become a successful FBI agent. But to a Chinese person, being part of the national secret police was not a thing to talk about or be proud of. If we are not careful we could find ourselves in a similar situation here.
Most people do not think of the FBI as the internal police (although that is clearly what they are). The Bureau has its own checkered history (I bet Donald Trump would not have dared to fire J. Edgar Hoover) yet their bravery, zeal, and hard work are rightly famous. If a movie has an FBI agent, he is usually the hero. We don’t call dismissively call the FBI the secret police because if, goodness forbid, there were a crisis we would be happy to see them. They have a worldwide reputation as a bastion of upright cops. They are the good guys.
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And now, like affordable health care, or national parks, or basic scientific research, this too is under threat because of the corrosive awfulness of our executive branch. Are the FBI to become a bunch of goons who exist for the president’s narcissism and self-aggrandizement and to protect his crooked international business deals? Think of how awful it is to even suggest that!
Republicans are exulting over the unprecedented power they have garnered (in an election where they solidly lost the popular vote). They are passing immensely unpopular legislation and privatising big hunks of the government to their cronies. They are gleefully making it easy for the president to get away with anything he likes. It is difficult to see how they think it could possibly end for them. Do they imagine Trump will reign forever? Do they not see or care how bad he is for them and the things they claim to care about?
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The danger to democracies is that the institutions start to seem corrupt and nobody believes in them causing a feedback spiral. When I try to talk to hard-working and idealistic Millenials about politics they all seem SO cynical (and I am a world-weary Generation X person). Clearly, they have bought into the false equivalency of seeing all politicians as the same. It does not shock them to suggest that the FBI could be easily subalterned. They do not have illusions that the system is anything other than a rigged game of business cartels and their pet politicians. I find that sad. If they had just gone out and voted, none of this would be a problem. Their cynicism has deepened the problems they are cynical about.

There are good people at the FBI and among the Republicans (although it is hard to imagine that congressmen have a principled reason for letting little kids die so that giant crooked insurance companies can become more rich, I am sure they truly think it is for the best). But these good people need to step up and speak out. We need to keep concentrating on the fact that we are all on the same side. Not red versus blue, but Americans together against corruption, malfeasance, and iniquity. We need to celebrate bravery when it appears. I thought Sally Yates was superb this week. She was the attorney general just a few short months ago… We need to keep asking questions until we get real answers and not stupid malarkey.
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This post is a reminder that we need to keep believing in our institutions and trying to support them (even if it seems increasingly possible that the President of the United States could be a traitor and a criminal who is surrounding himself with white supremacists and weak minded yes-men).

Jeremiad over: have a good night!

Oak-wood (Ivan Ivanovich Shishkin, 1887, oil on canvas)

Oak-wood (Ivan Ivanovich Shishkin, 1887, oil on canvas)

Ivan Ivanovich Shishkin (Ива́н Ива́нович Ши́шкин) was born in Yelabuga, in central Russia near the Volga in 1832.  His father was a free-thinking merchant who encouraged exploration of the world and supported young Ivan in his artistic studies.  Ivan became part of “the itinerants” a group of artists who chose to ignore the rigid rules of European art and doggedly pursue their own interests and subjects.  For Ivan this was the magnificent forests of Russia which he painted in all of their splendor with stupendously adroit realism.  He surely ranks as one of the greatest forest painters of all time.  Each of his canvases presents a living forest as its own world. Every tree is as distinct as a person and they are joined as a thriving whole within a larger ecosystem of plants, fungi, and living things.

Stream by a Forest Slope (Ivan I. Shishkin, 1880, oil on canvas)

Stream by a Forest Slope (Ivan I. Shishkin, 1880, oil on canvas)

Here are three of Ivan’s astonishing paintings.  The viewer can feel how each forest has a completely different character and mood.  The open meadows around the great oaks in the first painting are as different as possible from the brown stream running out of the firs…which is again as different as can be from the dark pine wood filled with woodears and mosses.

Wind-Fallen Trees (Ivan I. Shiskin, 1888, oil on canvas)

Wind-Fallen Trees (Ivan I. Shiskin, 1888, oil on canvas)

Yet, though they are different, each of his forests is a beautiful and sacred place—a transcendent slice of nature.  Ivan’s work is not as famous as it should be because he chose to take it directly to the Russian people rather than selling it to aristocrats or Europeans (an attitude which was part of the itinerant philosophy).  However his travels through rural Russia kept his mission pure and kept him close to his true love—the Russian woods.  Thanks to his life beyond the limelight we can now travel these erstwhile greenwoods by means of art and learn to see the breathtaking majesty of the forest.

An artist's rendition of a solar sail spacecraft!

An artist’s rendition of a solar sail spacecraft!

The Planetary Society is a club which believes we should spend more resources exploring space.  I used to be a member back in the halcyon days when I could afford their annual dues, but alas, I have merely been following their exploits lately.  Mostly they are a political action committee: they use their money to hire lobbyists to remind recalcitrant leaders of the many, many benefits of space exploration. Also they showcase celebrity explorers, scientists, and astronomers (or other famous folk) in order to popularize space research to the fickle and forgetful public.

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Well, that’s what they do most of the time…Sometimes they spearhead astonishing James Bond schemes of their own.  The most recent of these grand plans involved buying a converted Soviet ICBM and using it to launch a solar sail into outer space!  Sadly (yet somehow predictably) the Russians sold the Society a dodgy bum missile which failed after a minute and a half of flight and exploded over the Arctic Ocean.  This happened ten years ago, and despite the abysmal failure, I felt honored to be part of it!  When did you last cooperate on a project which would make Blowfeld jealous? (I exempt mention of my tax dollars which go to NASA—you federal scientists are awesome and I want you to keep it up, but I am talking about a private club right now).

A Delta-class Submarine Firing a SS-N-18 (of the sort that failed)

A Delta-class Submarine Firing a SS-N-18 (of the sort that failed)

Anyway I bring all of this up, because the Society has scraped together enough pocket change to try again (even without my annual $37.00 membership fee).   In five days they are launching a test flight which will pave the way for a full-fledged solar sail launch in 2016!  The Society learned certain things from the failure a decade ago, most notably “do not trust the Russians” (a lesson which is written upon the very landscapes of Eastern Europe and Central Asia to the extent that it is visible from space, but which was still somehow lost on the Planetary Society until they actually purchased an ICBM).

The Planetary Society's LightSail spacecraft, with its four sails deployed, undergoing tests in Sept. 2014. Credit: Justin Foley/The Planetary Society.

The Planetary Society’s LightSail spacecraft, with its four sails deployed, undergoing tests in Sept. 2014. Credit: Justin Foley/The Planetary Society.

This time they are buying aerospace capacity from more reputable sources—the US Air Force (for the upcoming test flight) and SpaceX for the full mission.  I mention all of this in order to direct your attention to the test flight on May 20th (EDT) which Ferrebeekeeper will definitely revisit and to also point you toward the Kickstarter funding project for next year’s full fledge flight!  If you have some money burning a hole in your pocket, you could always spend it launching a high tech sail the size of a New York apartment into space (well, maybe the actual spacecraft will be larger than that once it unfurls from its breadbox size cubesat).  Aside from buying stunning original artwork, what could be a better use of your petty cash?

The crown of the King of Finland and Karelia, Duke of Åland, Grand Prince of Lapland, Lord of Kaleva and the North

The crown of the King of Finland and Karelia, Duke of Åland, Grand Prince of Lapland, Lord of Kaleva and the North

This awful-looking thing appears to be a bad prop left over from the Lord of the Rings movies, but it turns out to be the “actual” crown of the Kingdom of Finland. Further research revealed that it isn’t even as real as a movie prop and it has a horrible history to boot.

At some point Imperial Russia swallowed Finland—a fate which often happens to neighbors of that aggressive nation. The Finns chafed under the incompetent rule of the Tsars (also common) and when the Bolshevik revolution came in 1918, Finland quickly proclaimed independence. Suddenly though there was a problem: the Finnish parliament could not determine whether the new state should be a republic or a monarchy. These choices were politically tied to the ongoing First World War and the Russian Revolution. The conflict for the future of the Finnish state devolved into a short but entirely vicious civil war between “Reds” (Russian-backed social democrats, largely based in Finland’s southern cities) and “Whites” aristocrats and farmers based in the North who favored monarchy and Germany. The civil war lasted from January to May of 1918. Both sides relied heavily on terror acts and death squads. Defeated enemies who were not killed were held in deadly prison camps. One percent of the population perished in the war (including an oversize chunk of the 14 to 25 year-old men). In May of 1918, the white faction decisively won and Finland entered the German Empire’s sphere of power. Enthusiastic monarchists designed a bold crown for the new Finnish king. In October of 1918 they picked out a German prince Frederick Charles Louis Constantine of Hesse for the job. Finland had essentially been annexed by Germany.

Tampere's in ruins after the Finnish civil war.

Tampere’s in ruins after the Finnish civil war.

In November of 1918, Germany lost the First World War and the German Empire was dissolved. Finland had been destroyed from within by civil war and poor choices. The king of Finland renounced his throne without ever arriving in Finland, much less assuming the throne or taking the crown (which was never even made). It was a complete and utter disaster. In the resulting power vacuum, both Germany and Russia were too busy with their own problems to pursue their proxy conflict in Finland (which sort of by default and weariness became a stable moderate democracy).

So what is that monstrosity up at the top? How do we have a photo of a crown that was never made for a king who never ruled? Apparently in the 1990s a Finnish goldsmith Teuvo Ypyä crafted the crown as a novelty item based on the original drawings from 1918. The crown is made out of silver gilt and enamel (i.e. tinfoil and spray paint) and is kept in a museum in Kepi, where you can visit it to this day. What a proud and heroic historical object!

A ramshackle Russian dacha

A ramshackle Russian dacha

This week the G8 shrank down to the G7. The other powerful nations threw Russia out of the club due to its extremely naughty behavior. This was a good choice: you would never see, say, Canada behaving in such a fashion. In fact, if Canada found Crimea just lying around–on a park bench or in a bathroom lavatory or something—Canada would probably take the wayward peninsula to lost and found (I won’t speak about France, Great Britain, or the United States: we can have sticky fingers sometimes). Anyway, now that Russia is no longer in the club, I have been reminiscing about all the Russian things which we will miss: ineffable literature, banyas, the unsafe (but vibrant) space program, and Russian architecture—particularly dachas, which are among the prettiest of all the world’s cottages.

An ornate dacha

An ornate dacha

A dacha is a country vacation house. They are usually located in the exurbs just outside of towns and major cities on tiny 600 square meter [0.15 acre] land plots, where the Russian middle class plants little gardens and enjoys playing at country simplicity. Originally dachas were gifts from the tsars to loyal or interesting Russian subjects. In fact the word dacha (да́ча) meant “something given”. These tsarist-era dachas were country estates which could be princely chalets or manor houses. After the civil war, the era of landed country estates was over and having a dacha could get a person sent to Siberia or killed (although, of course party luminaries had magnificent dachas, like Stalin’s great green hall). During the later Soviet era, however, dachas made a comeback among urban professionals. The concept was changed though: the little vacation houses could only have a tiny amount of living space and plot sizes were similarly regulated by central authority. This meant that clever dacha-owners had to push the boundaries with mansard roofs, architectural flourishes, and elegance (as opposed to sheer size).

Stalin's Dacha at Kuntsevo (by Gordon Abben)

Stalin’s Dacha at Kuntsevo (by Gordon Abben)

After the fall of communism, the rules all went in the scrap bin. Oligarchs began to build huge whimsical monstrosities (below is a contemporary dacha with one of the oligarch’s toys parked beside it).

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Dachas have actually come to New York with the recent wave of Russian immigration. A number of Russian-born Brooklynites have pretty Russian-style dachas in the forests and mountains upstate. Although I am not Russian, I love ornate little cottages in the forest and I have been enviously looking over these fretwork masterpieces. Unfortunately I do not currently have a Soviet level of personal prosperity, so my project to build a dacha back in my native mountains may have to be put on hold until I learn to manipulate the system and ruthlessly crush my enemies.

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In the mean time here is a gallery of lovely dachas for you to enjoy. Maybe it will inspire you to put some onion domes and scrollwork on your own vacation cottage. It has been a long rough winter and we could use some fru-fru ornamentation, some bright colors, and some time out of the city…

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Say what you like about Putin and the Russians, but these are the best balloons ever!

Say what you like about Putin and the Russians, but these are the best balloons ever!

The Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia have commenced! Now I love the Olympics in all their forms, but, sadly, I have no strengths at winter sports (unless you count hilariously falling down on icy surfaces as a strength—in which case I am the comic equal of any silent movie star).  Because of my lack of knowledge about sliding down icy mountains on sticks, I have been trying to find something to write about the Sochi games which does not involve winter sports.

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Fortunately the history of Sochi is quite interesting (albeit somewhat dark).  After being a contested territory during the Russo-Turkish War (1828–1829), the Crimean War of 1853–1856, and the long-lasting Russian Circassian War of 1817–1864, the Sochi area was somewhat…denuded of local population.  In 1866, the Tsar’s government pronounced a decree was promoting relocation and colonization of Russians to Sochi.  But what would these peasant farmers do for a living in the strange semi-tropical mountains by the Black Sea Coast?

Tea Plantations of Sochi

Tea Plantations of Sochi

The solution arrived in the early 1900s when a Ukrainian peasant farmer named Judas Antonovich Koshman introduced a new strain of tea to Sochi.  Tea was then the most popular (non-alcoholic) beverage in Russia, but its cost was prohibitively high.  A series of tea plantations had been planted in the Sochi area during the 1870s and 1880s but they had all failed because of the cold (or they produced bitter disappointing harvests).  Koshman’s tea, however, was different: the plants were more tolerant of the cold and they had a rich unique flavor which appealed to the Russian palate.  And thus the great tea plantations of the Black Sea came into being.  Throughout the tumult of World War I, the Soviet Revolution, Stalinism, World War II, the Cold War, and the painful birth of modern Russia, the tea has grown along the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains in scenes reminiscent of Assam.  Krasnodar tea is one of the world’s northernmost varieties of tea.  It is said to have a pleasant fragrance and an appealing tart flavor.  It also contains a very high level of caffeine so that Russian tea parties stay lively and awake around the Samovar!

Family Portrait (T. Myagkov)

Family Portrait (T. Myagkov)

Sochi, Russia

Sochi, Russia

The 2014 Winter Olympics will be held in Sochi, Russia which is a city on the Black Sea near the Georgia border.   The games will be the first winter games to feature medals competitions in “Slopestyle” snowboard and skiing as well as snowboard parallel slalom.

Parallel Snowboard Slalom

Parallel Snowboard Slalom

Of course the real competitions have already been held: namely the insane International competition to host the Olympics (which came down to a choice between Sochi, Salzburg, and Pyeongchang) and, more importantly, the competition to choose the official Olympic mascots.   You will no doubt recall that the 2012 summer Olympics mascots were “Wenlock and Mandeville”, two cyclopean alien robot monsters.

Wenlock and Mandeville

Wenlock and Mandeville (sigh)

In an attempt to end up with less appalling mascots, Russia turned to the time honored Russian solution of…democracy (?).  Wow! The world really is changing.  A list of vetted candidates was drawn up and submitted to the public for consideration.  Some of the shortlisted design ideas included Matryoshka dolls, Dolphins, Bullfinches, snow leopards, hares, bears, a tiny anthropomorphized sun, and Ded Moroz (the Russian “Father Frost” who acts as Santa).

The shortlist of 2014 Olympic mascot candidates

The shortlist of 2014 Olympic mascot candidates

Zoich, the counter culture mascot of the 2014 Olympics

Zoich, the counter culture mascot of the 2014 Olympics

Zoich, the anti-establishment furry crowned toad (who was modeled after Futurama’s hypnotoad) was quietly omitted from the final list of candidates as was Ded Moroz, when it was discovered that, if he won, he would become the intellectual property of the International Olympic Committee.

Sorry Ded, you must belong to the children of Russia

Sorry Ded, you already belong to the children of Russia

A telephone voting competition was held between the final mascot candidates and the three winners (the snow leopard, hare, and bear) became the official Olympic mascots.  Unfortunately the election was tainted with scandal when Russia’s elected leader and perennial strongman, Vladimir Putin announced that his favorite candidate was the snow leopard.  Subsequent to this proclamation, an immense number of phonecalls were immediately tallied for the snow leopard, which has led to charges of vote-rigging (so maybe the world hasn’t changed so much after all).

The winners

The winners

The designer of the 1980 Moscow Games mascot Misha (a bear which nobody saw because of the U.S. boycott) has accused the designer of the Sochi bear mascot of plagiarizing his bear expression.  Certain political groups have also darkly hinted that the bear was chosen because it resembles the mascot of the United Russia political party (which is the dominant force in Russian politics).

The Sochi 2014 mascot bear, Misha, the 1980 mascot bear, and the United Russia bear

The Sochi 2014 mascot bear, Misha, the 1980 mascot bear, and the United Russia bear

So it seems only the snow hare and the Paralympic mascots (a snowflake girl and fireboy) are untainted by controversy.  I dislike admitting it, but to my eye, Putin was right and the snow leopard, although not native to Sochi, is the most compelling figure.  They are all pretty cute, so maybe this whole democracy thing actually works (despite the ghastly results we have been getting lately in America).

Better than Congress!

Better than Congress by a lot!

The Barclays Center as seen from above (against the larger NY cityscape)

I hope my non-New York audience will bear with me through this post.  Even though it concerns contemporary Brooklyn (my home), it also touches on larger topics.  Today is the grand opening of the much-anticipated Barclays Center, a multi-purpose indoor sporting/concert venue, which lies at the center of a five billion dollar restoration/remake of the Vanderbilt Train Yards at Atlantic Avenue (where Ebbets Field once stood and where most of the city’s trains meet at a huge terminal).  The devilish development work which went into creating the complex took a decade or longer and required lots of high finance deals and acrimonious court cases (which, in turn, involved crushing and annexing lots of little guys via eminent domain).   The final structure involves an unholy business alliance between billionaire developer, Bruce Ratner; Russian oligarch and kleptocrat,Mikhail Prokhorov; British investment bank, Barclays PLC; hip-hop mogul, rapper, and accused stabber, Jay-Z; and, of course, New York’s hapless taxpayers who got foisted with big portions of the tab.  The stadium will be the home arena for the boringly-named Brooklyn Nets (a basketball franchise), the stage for mega concerts by the likes of Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, & Jay-Z, as well as the sight of large scale attractions like the circus, Disney-on-ice, and professional boxing.

Looking at the above paragraph, one might be somewhat inclined to disparage the project (or, indeed, to despair of humanity), but we are not here for that: instead this post is meant as aesthetic contemplation of the architecture of Barclays Center and of the changing directions of megacities at large.

The Finished Barclays Center

A timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus)

The arena was designed by architectural firm Ellerbe Becket and features three bands of pre-weathered (i.e. rusted) steel plates latticed together around a futuristic glass curtain wall.  Apparently the juxtaposition of glass and rusted steel was meant to evoke Brooklyn’s famous brownstone townhouses, but the effect is more jarring than traditional.  So far critical reaction has been mixed, with local critics comparing the building to a giant coiled rattlesnake.  As the building took shape, it made me think of a science-fiction movie where the heroes crash on a supposedly deserted planet—and then discover monstrous corroded alien ruins of a shape so sinister that it foreshadows horrible events to come.  However when I walked by the finished building last night it struck me that the building actually does look like a timber rattlesnake—and I like rattlesnakes (though not in a way that makes me want to be close to them).  The sinuous curves and non-euclidean light projections gave a futuristic impression.  The employees of Modells sporting store were working overtime stripping the store’s featureless onyx mannequins naked so that they could be dressed in all-black “Nets” gear. The proud blue and white space eagle of Barclays glowed on its tri-lobed bizarro-shield. For the first time since the recession began so many years ago, I felt like Brooklyn was stepping into a prosperous (albeit authoritarian) future.

Still scene from “Bladerunner” (1982)

I have heard from concert-promoters (who were allowed early access) that the inside is stunning.  Although there are many extra boxes–and super-boxes–for the extremely well-healed, the space is said to put other similarly sized venues to shame.  The line-up of sports events and acts, though tawdry, will undoubtedly create huge business (probably surpassing that of Madison Square Garden).  Urban life is meant to be flashy, fast-paced, and busy with different people from different places who like different things.  If one loved beauty, quiet, and meaning, one would move to the country.

Gradiva’s Fourth Wall (Diana Al Hadid, 2011, steel, polymer gypsum, wood, fiberglass, paint)

Cities should be bigger than life—that is why lots of people come here.  I prefer the idea of a growing & dynamic Brooklyn to a changeless 1950s concrete jungle (which is what the railyards were) or, goodness help us, a dying city returning to wasteland, like Detroit.  Cities which are dynamic and changing require big bold risks, like the Empire State Building in the 1930s or the Centre Pompidou in the 1980s.  I am happy to see that Brooklyn is taking such chances–even if it does mean some toes get stepped on or a few giant space rattlesnakes get built.

I foresee a great shining future for the Barclays Center, although you might not see me there anytime soon.  Also be very careful crossing the street near the monstrous thing.  The one element preserved from the fifties was a disregard for the lives of people not rich enough to travel by car.

Białowieża Forest

Long ago Eastern Europe was covered by vast virgin forests.  Almost all of these woodlands have long ago been cut down to make way for agriculture, roads, or towns, but in the northeast corner of Poland one of these ancient forests still survives.

Until late in the 14th century, Białowieża forest located at the junction of the Baltic Sea watershed and the Black Sea watershed was a primeval forest so thick that travelers could pass through the region only by river. Even in the fifteenth century roads and bridges were rare in the ancient woodlands of eastern Poland and the human population remained sparse to non-existent.  Because the lands were so empty of people but full of animals, the kings of Poland adopted Białowieża forest as a royal game preserve.  The Polish monarchy also used the forest as a wilderness retreat: it was in the dark fastness of his forest hunting lodge that King Władysław holed up to escape the Black Death.

Hunters returing to Białowieża Hill (1820, print)

The region remained a pristine royal forest until the partition of Poland delivered the forest to Russian hands.  Even the Russian tsars were beguiled by Białowieża forest, for it was one of the last wild preserves for the largest land animal in Europe, the mighty wisent.  In 1801 Tsar Alexander I was moved by the plight of wisent herds (which had swiftly dwindled due to poaching). The tsar reintroduced a hunting ban and hired a small number of peasants as game rangers.  Alexander II reinstated the ban in 1860 and in 1888 the tsars assumed direct ownership of the entire forest.

Great Gray Owl

During World War I the forest fell under German control and, from 1915 to 1918, the occupying army rushed to cut down Białowieża’s timber and hunt down all remaining wildlife. But even the Germans had their hands full during those tumultuous years and they lost World War I before they could despoil the entire forest.  Białowieża came under Soviet control and during Stalin’s era, all Polish inhabitants were “deported to remote parts of the Soviet Union” and replaced by Soviet forest workers.  When German troops again retook Białowieża in World War II, the Soviet forest workers in turn disappeared. Hermann Göring harbored ambitious plans to create the world’s biggest hunting reserve at Białowieża, but, in the end, the Nazis predictably used the remote location as a grave for resistance fighters.  When the Germans retreated they destroyed the ancient hunting lodges of the Polish throne, but they did not destroy the forest itself. After the war the forest was divided between Poland and the Belarusian State of the Soviet Union. Both regions became protected wilderness areas.

The brickwork Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas on the outskirts of Białowieża

Because of this history, Białowieża Primeval Forest is now the last remaining primary deciduous and mixed forest of the European lowlands.  The land is a refuge for pine, beech, alder, spruce, and towering oaks which have never known the axe. Just as the forest lies in the place where two watersheds meet, it also straddles the boreal and temperate zone: plants and animals from south and north live wild in the park.

The World Heritage Convention website enumerates the many wildlife species which currently live in the forest writing, “these wilderness areas are inhabited by European bison, a species reintroduced into the park in 1929, elk, stag, roe deer, wild boar, lynx, wolf, fox, marten, badger, otter, ermine, beaver and numerous bats. It is also a showplace reserve for tarpan (Polish wild forest horse). The avifauna includes corncrake, white-tailed eagle, white stork, peregrine falcon and eagle owl.”

A Wisent Flees into Bialowieza Forest

Wisent (Bison bonasus)

The magnificent American Bison (Bison bison) was very nearly exterminated by hunters, soldiers, and politicians, but the bison did not come nearly as close to extinction as its closest relative, the wisent (Bison bonasus).  Wisents are the largest native land animal in Europe today; an average wisent measures 1.8 to 2.2 m (6 to 7 ft) tall, and weighs up to 1000 kg (more than a ton). Although similar to American bison, the wisent is slightly smaller with larger horns and a hairier tail.  Whereas bison graze grass, wisents browse the forest–and the two animals therefore have different postures and necks. Wisents once roamed Eurasia from England to far eastwards of the Volga River where they were hunted by Caspian Tigers and Asiatic Lions.  The wisent herds also ranged north as far as northern Sweden and south to Italy.

Cave painting of a Wisent (from Altamira, Spain, from the Palaeolithic Age ca. 21,000 BC to 13,000 BC)

In prehistoric times, wisents were a mainstay of European megafauna and beautiful cave paintings (among the first known artistic achievements of humankind) often portray the mighty creatures, but, as humanity burgeoned in Europe, the wisent declined.  Starting in Gaul in the 8th century, whole populations of the shaggy giants gradually disappeared.  The creature vanished from northern Sweden in the 11th century, and then from England in the 12th. Tiny herds survived in the Ardennes forest and the Vosges Mountains until Frenchmen finished off these remnants in the 15th century.

A Wisent Hunt Depicted on a Hungarian Stamp

The wisents’ best friends turned out to be the kings of Poland, devoted big game hunters who proclaimed a death sentence on anyone poaching the mighty ruminants within the kingdom. Sadly though, the Polish Crown suffered…setbacks in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  Although the Russian tsars (who seized the Eastern forests of Poland) tried to keep the last herds of wisent alive, by the twentieth century, the animals survived only in zoos, the remote Caucasus, and in the primeval depths of Poland’s Białowieża Forest.  The ancient trees of Białowieża (and the animals living under them) remained largely untouched until World War I, when the region was captured by Germans, who built a railroad and timber mills there.  Within four years the remaining herd of 600 wisents was slaughtered.  When the Germans left only 9 of the beasts remained and the last of this tiny herd was killed in 1919 (probably by Soviet poachers).  The last wild wisent was slaughtered less than a decade later in the Western Caucasus, where a few hardy individuals had somehow managed to survive.

In the late twenties only about 50 wisents remained alive, all of which lived in various zoos. Fortunately an early pioneer of wildlife conservation stepped in to save the dying species.  Heinz Heck, the director of the Munich Zoo, established the first studbook for non-domestic animals and organized a groundbreaking breeding program to bring the wisent back from the brink (Heck was a determined and far-sighted man who also tried to personally resurrect several species of extinct megafauna—but we’ll deal with that quixotic quest another time).  Thanks to Heck’s ongoing efforts, captured populations of wisents started to grow and the animals were reintroduced into Białowieża in 1951.  The reintroduced wisents burgeoned and the forest is now home to more than 800 European bison. Wisents have also been reintroduced to protected parks in Russia (including the western Caucasus) and herds can now be found in Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Latvia, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, and Spain.  Germany and the Netherlands hope to reintroduce the animal in the near future—perhaps someday the wisent will find its way back to Scandinavia, France, and even Great Britain.

Wisent herd in Caucasian mountains (Photo by Sergej Trepet)

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

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