Telling Tales

The Białowieża Forest in Poland is still the kind of place, one of the last in Europe, which looks like it is truly straight out of a fairy tale. And when European fairy tales were being written about forests in all their vast complexity, forests still looked like Białowieża Forest.

Several months ago, I wrote about the Polish government’s plans to log large amounts of ancient woodland in the protected Białowieża Forest. In spite of considerable opposition and lawsuits from conservationists, scientists, and European government agencies, the logging went ahead.

Now that the logging has been underway since early summer, the European Union has slapped sanctions on Poland in the amount of €100,000/day (USD 119,000/day) for violating EU law.

The Woodcutter’s Hut (2008)
Artist: Su Blackwell

The government insists on cutting trees against a background falling timber prices, and in spite of the gains in eco-tourism in and around the forest – not to mention the scientific importance of a forest still home to astounding biodiversity. The undertaking certainly raises the question as to how much money is being made on the sales, and by whom. It’s bad enough to watch Poland log Białowieża, Europe’s largest remaining primeval forest and a UNESCO World Heritage site, for old-growth wood and short-term profits.

It’s worse to see Poland’s environment minister, Jan Szyszko, use spurious claims to justify the straightforward gain and greed of the plan. In a similar vein to the Japanese government easily refuted assertion that whaling is still necessary for scientific research while it sells off the resulting whale meat at high prices, Poland’s government claims that the felling of old trees is required to control a spruce bark beetle outbreak.

In the habit of many of today’s governments, any media or scientific coverage that contradicts official plans is simply labelled as fake news. As the truth become more uncomfortable, the lies become more implausible.

The Snow Queen (2008)
Artist: Su Blackwell

The government’s odd argument that the forest isn’t really worth declaring ‘primeval’ because “it was made by local people, and we have facts and books that show that people were there from the beginning,” says less about the forest and more about a spokesperson grasping at a narrative straw.

Fairy tales were written to guide listeners and readers through moral dilemmas, to instruct on dark impulses and their consequences. The issues at the heart of the Polish government’s current tale are the ones we know so well: Greed, and the stories people tell to get what they want.

Full Bloom

Kew Gardens, UNESCO World Heritage site, on a perfect Sunday, the fulfillment of a bucket list dream. There is so much more to the gardens than my few pictures show, and days could be spent wandering the further reaches of the massive site. This is just a snapshot of one day during one season.

The spring flowers beneath trees fringed in new green.

The lanes of rhododendrons and azaleas.

From a Kew Garden post on Monumental Trees: Lots of plants were discovered and described for the first time by British botanists, so many of the oldest planted specimens of a large number of plant species can be found in Kew.

In Kew living specimens of species that are critically endangered or already have become extinct in the wild, are grown and so Kew can be seen as a true Ark of Noah.

Daffodils, luminous against the morning sun.


The Hive, a large, walk-in structure that puts visitors inside a architectural version of a beehive: “The Hive is an immersive sound and visual experience. The lights you see and the sounds you hear inside the Hive are triggered by bee activity in a real beehive at Kew. The intensity of the sounds and light change constantly, echoing that of the real beehive. The multi award-winning Hive was inspired by scientific research into the health of honeybees. It is a visual symbol of the pollinators’ role in feeding the planet and the challenges facing bees today.”

The Hive from the outside:

I am so happy we got to see this early in the day when it was empty. We could hear the hum of activity, see the lights blinking in response to sensors embedded in a real beehive and activated by bees at work there.

The Hive from the inside:

And The Hive from below:


Kew Gardens supports over a dozen species of bees native to the UK.

The 18th-century Japanese Pagoda tree (Styphnolobium japonicum) that looks like there should be a fairy tale door within the brick wall that holds up the tree’s trunk.

And finally, nothing so beautiful as a sunny day, a pristine magnolia, and excellent company. Thanks to my daughter for a perfect UK Mother’s Day excursion.


Felling Heritage

People used to intimately know places like the Bialowieza Forest, the last primeval forest in Europe, the wild places that made us what we are.

Now these place are relegated to small corners. They mainly inhabit our stories, little bits of baggage we carry with our culture through the millennia.

Traveling Landscapes.
Artist: Kathleen Vance

Spanning the border between Poland and Belarus, the Bialowieza forest is home to the Europe’s tallest trees and is a refuge to countless species of birds, mammals and invertebrates. Although not unaffected by war, especially during and after WWI when most of its native bison were exterminated, the forest has remained largely intact and untouched for over 10,000 years.

This is the kind of mixed forest and rich ecosystem that once covered most of Europe, and this last remnant of 140,000 hectares (540 sq. m.) was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1979.

It’s a living museum piece, a sprawling natural monument to the world as it was when humanity was young.

Traveling Landscapes.
Artist: Kathleen Vance

Now that humanity is more mature, we have nation-states and borders, and the forest that was once a free-roaming thing is considered the territory of one place or another, whether or not UNESCO, or the European Union, or environmental activists, consider it to belong to all of humanity and the world.

In this case, the fact that some of the Bialowieza Forest is on the Polish side of an international border is critical. After decades of protection and management, the Polish government approved a massive increase in logging in the forest. This logging would go far beyond forest management activities meant to control pests or promote growth – 180,000 cubic metres (6.4m cubic feet) of wood over ten years.

Bialowieza Forest.
Photo: Emily Sun

Ignoring arguments put forth by environmentalists, scientists, universities, NGOs and a petition signed by 160,000 Polish citizens, the Polish government won a victory this week in a court challenge that would have granted environmental NGOs the legal status to challenge decisions made by the Polish Environment Minister, and to demand further environmental impact reports.

The next step will be charges brought by the European Union and possible sanctions for the violation of Poland’s agreements under the Natura 2000 program.

But, as with all such procedures, these things take time. And any pristine area where logging commences is an area that will be irretrievably altered. Bit by bit, what was a rampant cathedral to pre-humanity wildness becomes a memory, a smaller place, diminished by our hunt for resources and the money they bring.

Will the Bialowieza Forest become just one more living place packed away and stored our collective human memory?

Traveling Landscapes.
Artist: Kathleen Vance

International Flow

The Source d’Allondon, the head of the Allondon River in France. The ruins are of a former 19th-century mill.
Image: Florence Bourjas/Wikipedia

The Allondon River, a brief little slip as rivers go, starts as run-off from the Jura mountains, courses 22 km (14 m) through the area of France where I live, across the border into Switzerland, where it flows into the Rhône River on the Swiss side of the border before the Rhône itself flows into France. Considering its brevity, it’s quite the international traveler.

On calm days I can hear it from the back of our house, and it traces part of my running path. The name is of pre-Celtic origin and means ‘water of life’.

It’s also one of the sources of our drinking water, along with several reservoirs and two lakes. One of those lakes is Lake Geneva, across the border.

The water supply of our region is a trans-frontier affair, automatically rendering water issues a subject of international relations and negotiations. Fortunately, thus far the French and Swiss authorities seem in agreement on local water issues and how to approach them.

The proposed Gibe III hydroelectric dam in Ethiopia could size up a bit differently. The dam would be built on the River Omo in Ethiopia, which flows into Kenya, where it is the water source for Lake Turkana, the fourth largest lake in Africa and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Omo also provides water further downstream to Egypt and Sudan.

A section of the Blue Nile is diverted in May as Ethiopia prepares to construct a hydro-electric power dam. Source: Business Daily Africa

A section of the Blue Nile is diverted in May as Ethiopia prepares to construct a hydro-electric power dam.
Source: Business Daily Africa

The Kenyan government states that it isn’t interested in preventing the construction of the dam, but wants to ensure that the dammed water won’t be diverted for irrigation in Ethiopia, rather than released from time to time to feed Lake Turkana.

I read a reader’s comment on one of the articles. It said, “Don’t expect someone to tell us what to do with the water, it is our natural resource, we can do whatever we want. Our history show(s) that we are a nation that are willing to share our resources…” I’m assuming this was from an Ethiopian reader.

If, by the luck of the geographical draw, a country is rich with water resources that would, if left unhindered, flow through other countries downstream, who owns the water? If France and Switzerland were to develop a contentious relationship, or if resources became too scarce to share, just how generously would we be willing to share the Allondon with people across the border?

2013 is the United Nations International Year of Water Cooperation. Not a particularly sexy title, but as stated on the International Water Law site, “it’s an important reminder that cooperation is needed at all levels – among individual and corporate users, districts and provinces within the country, and more importantly among states – to manage, share, protect and conserve the most vital heritage of mankind, its water resources.”

Do you know the source of your water?

Source d’Allondon


Lake of Superlatives

Lake Baikal. Panorama of the Maloye Morye, Island of Olkhon, the Olkhonskiye Vorota Straits, and Mukhor Cove Image: Magic Baikal

Lake Baikal. Panorama of the Maloye Morye, Island of Olkhon, the Olkhonskiye Vorota Straits, and Mukhor Cove
Image: Magic Baikal

Deepest, largest, oldest – Lake Baikal in Siberia is unique. Formed an estimated 25 million years ago in an ancient rift valley, it holds 20% of the world’s unfrozen freshwater, more than all the North American Great Lakes combined. At 5,371 ft (1,637 m) deep, it is the deepest. It is 395.2 miles (636 km) long and home to 1700 species of plants and animals, two-thirds of which don’t exist anywhere else. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.

Lake Baikal Map via

Lake Baikal
Map via

Lake Baikal has much to offer. One thing it will no longer have, however, is the Baikal Pulp and Paper Mill.

Baikal Pulp and Paper Mill Image:

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has stated that the environmental concerns of the lake outweigh those of the paper mill, which was opened in the industrial heydey of the the mid 1960s. It is estimated that the process of shutting down the plant will take two years – the liquidation of plant waste will take 4-6 years. Future plans include developing the area for tourism.

Medvedev was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying.”It’s time to muster up the courage and make responsible decisions.”

Lake Baikal in winter Source: satorifoto via ILTWMT

More: article – Russia will spend $437.4 million closing down Baikal paper mill

AP article – Russia to close paper mill on Lake Baikal