Monday, July 31, 2017

Poland slide show

Earlier this year I went to Poland to visit my father. That was...gosh, it was almost two months ago. I do believe another slide show is in order.

A memorial in Pruszków's Park Potulickich. Monuments like this are everywhere around the Warsaw area, and from what I've been told they all tell pretty much the same story: "X Poles murdered in this spot by the Nazis in 1940–45." Even a cursory glance at Polish history makes Americans' histrionics about "border security" look like an infantile hissy fit. We have no concept, no inkling of what it's really like to have "bad hombres" coming onto our turf.

This was my fourth trip to Poland. The first was in the summer of 2009 when I visited for my father's wedding. The subsequent two visits were for Christmas. So I've seen Poland during the winter, and it's as cold and grey and grim as popular lore has it. Pruszków in December is fucking dreary. Pruszków in May, however, regards the mild green joy of the mid-Atlantic United States' effort at springtime with bemusement and says hold my beer. You want verdure? You want perfect temperatures? You want gentle breezes and blue skies? How about eighteen hours of daylight and green like you've never seen green? Central Europe, motherfucker. Get here (it says).

Anyway yeah, these are the steeples of the Catholic church (Katedra?) in the middle of Pruszków. I just remember snapping this while walking to my father's place and just feeling intoxicated with the springtime on a quiet Saturday morning. I sometimes envy my old man for ending up here.

Narcissus. Pruszków. 1 of 1. (My father's wedding was near this plaza, actually.)

Atlas. Warsaw. 1 of 4.

I regret not taking a photograph of this guy's leaves because now I'm having a hard time identifying it. Adducing the way it shimmered in the breeze, I'll say it was a probably an aspen. (I wish my camera could take videos.)

Park Potulickich is full of very old, very large trees. From the Polish-language Wikipedia page, machine-translated via Google:
The park was established on the order of hr. Antoni Potulicki in the second half of the 19th century as a neighborhood of the classicist Potulicki palace, the designer was German architect Karol Sparman . According to trends prevailing at the time, the composition included the existing terrain and the natural water system consisting of the river bed of the Utrata river and four ponds with a total area of ​​8.5 hectares. In their area there are alders , as well as ash , birch and lime , while in the former river channel a wetland complex of rush and sedge. ... The unique nature of the Potulicki Park is highlighted by valuable ancient trees, consisting of white and gray poplar , European larch , black alder , elm elm , ash, and monuments of nature. Existing natural conditions have made it an area of ​​natural habitat and breeding sites for numerous fauna, especially birds.
[sic] where appropriate.

The park's western edge runs parallel to a road called Prusa Bolesława (yes, named for the author of Lalka), which we (my sister Beth, her partner Scot, and myself) followed during our frequent walks between my father's home and the hotel we were staying at. We might have saved a few seconds cleaving to the sidewalk along the street and taking a more direct route, but we invariably veered into Potulickich. It seemed a waste not to.

A wood pigeon (Columba palumbus) in situ. Similar in appearance but genetically distinct from the rock dove (Columba palumbus), which was introduced to North America in 1606 and is technically a feral animal here, as the entire population is descended from domesticated stock. It was strange and wonderful seeing a truly wild pigeon, and in a setting where it looked and acted like a definite bird instead of appearing so much like a feathered rat pecking at human refuse. (Not that I dislike urban pigeons; I'm glad they're around, but they're not my favorite.)

There's an island in Park Potulickich's pond, and there's a statue on that island. Look closely. Can you see it? Better yet, can you tell what it is? I sure can't. Who puts a monument in a place nobody can reach, and where it's too far away for anyone to identify? There's a Polish joke in here somewhere, I'm sure.

(I'm told it's a statue of the Virgin Mary. Go figure.)

Did I mention I got a new camera? I got a new camera. To a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. To a man with a new camera, every object looks aglow with an ineffable and secret significance that demands to be preserved in memory and pondered for all time. Hence this photograph of a dead and rotting fish in the pond. (Related: did you notice the link to my new Instagram page in the top-right corner?!)

Damselflies. I've mentioned a couple times that they're one of my favorite things about living on this planet. During my visit to Poland (late May, early July) the banks of the Utrata River (really more of a creek) were literally swarming with them. These weren't the type of damselfly with which I've become familiar, though. In my Jersey stomping grounds I follow around ebony jewelwings (Calopteryx maculata), while their Polish cousins by the Utrata are beautiful demoiselles (Calopteryx virgo). The species are similar in appearance: demoiselles are about 1.25 times larger than jewelwings, their wings are more of a deep midnight blue as opposed to the jewelwings' ebony (and more translucent), and although their iridescent colors vary with their surroundings, the hue of the male demoiselle never reaches quite the pure emerald green or deep cerulean pitches as the male jewelwing's. They behave pretty much the same, though, and I'd get up early just to go out and watch them doing what they do (flitting, flirting, fighting, feeding, fucking; the five F's of odonate life) for 30–40 minutes at a time.

I took so many god damn pictures of these things.

The Utraga River [Creek], viewed from Prusa Bolesława. The proufuse foliage around this utility "pole" somehow reminded me of the way Fragonard painted the vegetation of his rococo gardens. It doesn't really come through in the photograph, though—proof that I really don't know what I'm doing. But being able to peer at this now and recall the impression it made on me then is precisely why I thought I should take up shutterbugging again.

We piled into a car with my father and his wife Dorota and took a road trip to the Białowieża Forest on the border between Poland and Belarus. During our two-night visit, we spent a little time exploring the village of Białowieża at the edge of the woods. Its character reminds me a bit of the area about Fenwick Island, Delaware: even though tourism is the main pillar of the economy, its permanent residents are basically small-town folk. We walked along lanes lined with dozens of houses identical to this one. Interesting to note that the "front door" is usually on the side of the building. Lately I find myself wishing I knew more about architecture.

Is this house older than the ones around it? Or newer? Considering Poland's coercion into Soviet socialism for nearly half the twentieth century, I'm guessing it was probably built prior to 1940 or sometime after 1990. (Disclaimer: I don't really know what I'm talking about.)

Cool roof, though.

An antique. Didn't have much time to examine it.

Poland is predominately Catholic, but I'm to understand that the Orthodox Church (here the Polish Orthodox Church, or just the Church of Poland) has a few isolated strongholds, most of them towards the eastern border. Evidently Białowieża lies in one of those strongholds.

A Jesus lawn shrine/ornament. It might not be totally unfair to analogize this area to the United States' Bible Belt. Eastern Poland is the wellspring of support for the ruling Law and Justice Party, which earlier this year officially instated Jesus Christ as the King of Poland

Not that I'm not grateful for the privilege of coming here to begin with, but I would have counted myself exceptionally blessed to have had an obligation, a destination somewhere farther down this road.

I wasn't exaggerating when I said Poland is greener in the springtime than the Mid-Atlantic United States. If I spoke Polish well enough to be employable there, I'd have probably already packed my shit and moved to Białowieża. The insurmountable language barrier is my only excuse.

A local fellow goin' fishing.

...and here he is again, two hours later. The fact that he's certainly never written a book about how to live well is proof that this man is an expert in living well.

I don't need to know what this translates to. I can guess the gist. Cat People and their eccentricities defy all borders, geographical and cultural. Lucky for us.

The English-language Wikipedia entry for Białowieża calls this "Hunter's manor - the oldest surviving building in Białowieża." It was built in 1845. We were fairly convinced it was haunted.

A white wagtail (Motacilla alba) on the driveway outside Hunter's Manor. Pretty sure it was haunted, too.

White storks (Ciconia ciconia) migrate from Africa to Central Europe during spring to breed. Apparently 25% of them end up in Poland. They build gigantic nests, which they return to during subsequent migrations—and which Polish law forbids people from destroying. I'm told this makes the stork unpopular with certain folks in rural Poland, namely those without central heating systems. A giant bird setting up a permanent homestead at the top of their chimney must be an unwelcome sight indeed. (This mother and chick resided on top of a utility pole near a restaurant patio in Białowieża village, though.)

I know I shouldn't have looked twice at an Adventure Time plush hanging in somebody's upstairs window; it's not like American cartoons are a global niche product. But since I was reading Lost Territories Wordbook (a series of mirco-essays on the little curiosities and unpublicized particularities of life in Soviet and post-Soviet Central and Eastern Europe) at the time, I was imagining an alternate history where Finn became a subversive icon of pro-Western sentiment or a kind of cultural crocus, a symbol of Glasnost in a Soviet Union that somehow took three decades longer to implode.

The hotel we stayed in was an appendage of the "Museum of Nature and Forest," which occupies the former site of King Augustus III's palace (ripped down by the Soviets in 1944). The fields spreading out from the main building were once the palace grounds. I spent a lot of time out here by myself, and it was here that I realized that the older I get, the younger spring inspires me to feel, the more it seems to renew me. It's one of the few times I feel grateful for my age rather than anxious about it.

Doesn't capture the flowers' colors as I saw them that afternoon. Sigh.

Most of the white-barked trees in my neck of the woods are grey birch. It's a fast-growing and relatively short-lived tree, which may account for why most of the specimens I see in my hometown are already on the ground, and why the standing ones always appear a little stymied, never entirely healthy. Having come to associate silver trunks with decrepitness, I was scarcely able to believe a scene like this. (I'm guessing these are aspen or alder, but can't be certain.)

This was also new to me: when we looked into the Białowieża forest from the outside on a cloudy day, the interior actually appeared dark. It went a little ways in explaining why perhaps the woods beyond the village are traditionally invested with mystery, fear, and mystic possibility in European folklore.

Obviously a dandelion, but not the kind of dandelion I know. My prima facie guess was that this was a European dandelion of a different strain than the ones native to the American continent—and I was wrong. There are no "native" dandelions in North America. They're a European import, but it's hard to say when they arrived, or which contingent brought them over. It follows that every species of dandelion in the United States must also exist in Europe. So what kind of dandelion is this?

From what I've browsed, the only dandelion in the United States that exhibits such coloring in its immature florets is the desert dandelion. Is that what this is? Don't know. Can't say. Googling "malacothrix glabrata europe" doesn't turn up any useful results. Searches for "european dandelion species" and "poland dandelion species" have been equally unhelpful. Next time I'll smuggle back specimens in a shampoo bottle.

From the forest's interior: my sister Beth and a very large tree.

To the right: Scot, my father, Beth. To the left: João, our guide. (Your intuition is correct: "João" is not a Polish name. He's from Portugal.) There are different layers of accessibility in the primeval Białowieża Forest. There are outer areas that are open to the public, inner areas that require an authorized guide, and the deepest places are only open to scientists who have received permission from the authorities. (Incidentally, those same Polish politicians who coronated Jesus Christ as Poland's king are hellbent on logging Białowieża. We were half-expecting to see Greenpeaceniks chaining themselves to tress during our visit, and I was half-expecting I'd end up joining them.)

Within twenty minutes of listening to João talk about natural cycles, networks of interrelation, the follies of industrial agriculture complex, and the absurdity of the urbanist lifestyle, I knew he was into permaculture. When I asked him about it, it was only for the sake of confirmation. Permaculture heads are easy to spot, I've found—not just for their interests and worldview, but their temperament is a dead giveaway. They're critical of authority and "conventional wisdom." Having done what they can to disconnect themselves from the late-capitalist production/consumption mechanisms, and eschewing its typical vocations, they tend to condescend, if only slightly, to those who have not. They're totally convinced of their own brilliance and savvy, and are bit self-congratulatory, even smug. But it's hard to hold it against them when they're pretty much always as smart and competent as they believe themselves to be.

So here are some sundry photographs from inside the primeval forest (both the public and guide-only areas):

Just for comparison, here are the woods I haunt in Jersey, snapped a day or two after my return to the States:

Not that I don't and won't always love Hidden Valley Park, but the difference made by centuries upon centuries of uninterrupted natural growth and complexification is eminently clear.

What really astonished me, much more than Białowieża's giant trees, was its lush understory—not just its density, but its diversity. I've never seen anything like this in the States. The ground cover in the woods I'm used to wandering is almost never so dense that it completely obscures the dirt and fallen leaves, but it usually consists of only a handful of different species. If I'd stopped to count the number of distinct plant varieties here, I'd have been left behind.

More ground cover. I thought these star-shaped guys were so neat. We don't have anything like them on the East Coast.

Dragon bones. Quiet—I know what I saw here. This was my third encounter with Earth's dragons, and the first in which psychoactive drugs weren't at all implicated in the experience.

The conspicuous familiarity of this maple sapling amid such otherworldly [sic] surroundings was arresting. I suddenly remembered meandering through Tokyo during my first night in Japan and spotting another white person on the sidewalk across the street.

Somewhere in the public areas of the forest is a sort of "display reserve" where native species are kept in large pens. Here was a boar (Sus scrofa?). We were glad to have only encountered them here and on local restaurant menus.

The Białowieża forest is home to the endangered European bison (Bison bonasus), which was hunted nearly to local extinction in the first half of the twentieth century. We didn't see any of these out in the field either, but spent a good hour or so gawking at them through wire fences at the display reserve. This was a drowsing female whose eyelashes, of all things, caught my attention. The first time I read the Iliad, Homer's frequent description of the goddess Hera as "ox-eyed" struck me as something much less than a compliment to the Queen of Olympus. During subsequent readings over the years I accepted that the Greeks perceived something in bovine eyes that the modern American doesn't. Strange to say, after meeting this bison up close, I think maybe I caught a glimpse of it myself.

My father, Scot, and Beth in Warsaw. It's a real chill city.

Warsaw monument to the Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz (1798–1855). My father sent me a English translation of his epic poem Pan Tadeusz as a Christmas gift last year. "EVERY H.S. STUDENT IN POLAND MUST READ IT," he wrote (my old man's handwriting is always caps locked), "AND APPARENTLY EVERY H.S. STUDENT HATES IT." His wife Dorota said pretty much the same thing about Lalka, which both of us love. Teaching literature seems to be the most effective way of ruining literature on either side of the pond.

Warsaw's Old Town. Not really that old—it was systematically leveled by the Nazis (with much of the rest of the city) after the failed Warsaw Uprising in 1944. What stands today is a reconstruction. Apparently Old Town is to Warsaw what Times Square is to New York: converged on by tourists but avoided by locals, who have better things to do and know better places to go.

In the Museum of Warsaw: Kuchie Kos [Forging the Scythes] by Wojciech Fangor, 1954. An exemplar of socialist realism. The aesthetic is still so exotic to me.

Speaking of socialist realism, here it is again: The Palace of Culture and Science. Little known fact: what's visible from the street is only about 30% of the entire structure. It's actually the head and shoulders of a titanic battle mech developed on-site by the Soviets to defend their investment in Poland in case the Nazis ever came back or if the Americans and their stooges tried anything funny. The mech was never finished; the exigencies of keeping pace with the West in the nuclear arms and space races forced the USSR to reallocate its funds and leave the mech's weapons and control systems incomplete.

A digital simulation of what its deployment might have looked like:

Some of the Warsaw buildings to have survived World War II are still riddled with bullet holes. A kindly street artist has taken it upon him/herself to aid time in healing the city's wounds.

And that's all I got.

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