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The Witch of Bialowieza Forest

This is a long post, but I found this woman captivating. Thanks to my friend Sarah S. for introducing her to me. I just love her. A Polish Beatrix Potter and then some. I hope you enjoy.

A lynx slept in her bed. She shared her home and life with a pet boar. She conversed with animals. She owned a terrorist -crow (or it owned her) who was known for stealing shiny things, especially gold and who attached bicyclists. Simona Kossak was a scientist, ecologist and authored award winning films as well as radio broadcasts.

She earned a PhD in forestry and was a tireless activist who fought to protect the oldest forest in Europe, spending more than 30 years in a wooden hut in the Bialowieza Forest without electricity or running water. That is dedication! Simona believed that one ought to live simply, and close to nature. Among animals she found that which she never found with humans.

Her home was primitive but she liked it that way. When she first saw it on a moonlight night she commented: “…the little hut hidden in the little clearing all covered with snow, an abandoned house that no one had lived in for two years. In the middle room, there were not floors; it was generally in ruins. And I looked at this house, all silvered by the moon as it was, romantic, and I said, ‘it’s finished, it’s here or nowhere else!’ “

Obviously it required much rehabilitation before she moved in. The joists were replaced, a floor laid, the roof fixed and the fungus that had accumulated over the years the cabin had been abandoned was mitigated. A large, old style stove was nestled into the corner and a large table was in the center. This was her workshop and study. She labored here with the light of an oil lamp. She plastered the walls with wallpaper, washed the windows and placed a sofa and bench beside upholstered armchairs. She brought lace tablecloths, window curtains, books, oil lamps, an antique iron, a collection of weapons, ebony jewelry chests, glassware porcelain, cupboards and an oak bed with her when she moved in. By the door, she hung a shotgun.

It wasn’t long before she had company. A one day old female boar was brought to her. The little one slept in her bed but didn’t stay little for long. The boar, named Zabka (froggy), grew to become an extra, extra large boar. They lived together for 17 years. They went on walks together and in many ways she was like a dog, staying close and protecting her mistress. Zabka often cuddled up next to her and guests, demanding to be petted.

Then there was the terrorist crow who made its home with Simona. The crow was known as a tamed villain and a thief. He terrorized most everyone and everything in the area. He stole cigarette cases, hair brushes, mouse traps, scissors, and notepads. He would attach people and tear up bicycle seats. He stole important documents, pay checks and permits to be in the woods. He stole lumberjacks’ sausage lunches and made holes in grocery bags, clung to men’s pant legs and pulled at women’s skirts pricking legs. He even stole car keys. When a friend of Simone’s threatened him with raised fist, he flew back and dropped them on the table!

More and more animals began to find Simona. A doe who approached the window and ate sugar. A black storm made her nest in a chest in Simona’s bedroom.. A female lynx, a female dachshund and some peacocks, slept in the same bed with Simona. I think that bed must be getting pretty crowded by now.

Simona rode a motorbike, sometimes a tractor, and she also swept through the landscape on cross-country skis.A hunter recalled, “Once I saw this phenomenon advancing on a komar – wind in the hair, a pilot-cap, rabbit pants, and eye goggles. It passed me by and I had to turn around, because I didn’t know what it was”.

Professor Kajetan Perzowski, a colleague of Simona’s from her university years in Kraków says, “We were once going across the Białowieża Forest with a friend in a small truck. We suddenly see someone pushing through the snowdrifts carrying a motorbike on the back. It was Simona. We packed her together with this motorbike onto our truck. She made us a big pot of stew at Dziedzinka (her hut).”

Her home was quickly becoming not only a laboratory, but a zoo and a hospital for sick animals. She loved, healed, hugged and observe them. She was mother to Pepsi and Cola, two moose twins she raised. Kanalia, a female rat, lived in her sleeve. The little rat panicked in open spaces. She let the sugar eating doe bite birth on her patio and took in orphan lambs to raise as well. Crickets lived on her table in a glass jar. A momma sheep and her lambs were also part of the menagerie. There were five owl and three buzzards living in a basket in the house. She checked on the weather by observing bats in the basement. The menagerie grew with each year. Hers was a life lived in accordance with the rhythms of nature. She kept hens, spun wool and read by the light of oil lamps. Her constant companion was the chime of clocks she kept wound.

Simona recalled: “One day, the pack of my deer, which I raised and fed with a bottle, and which I later followed across the woods for many years, manifested signs of fright, and did not want to go out onto the forest field to graze. And I started to approach the young forest, because this was the direction in which the deer started, their ears raised, and the hair standing up on their buttocks, apparently something very threatening had to be there in the young forest. I crossed about half of this open space, and I stopped, because I heard a choir of terrified barking behind me, so I turned around, and what did I see? […] Five of my deer stood up on their stiffly straightened legs, looking at me, and calling with this bark: don’t go there, don’t go there, there’s death over there! I must admit, I was dumbstruck, and then finally I did go. And what did I find? It turned out that there were fresh traces of a lynx that had crossed the young forest. I went in deeper, and I found lynx feces; it was indeed warm, because I touched it. What did that mean? It meant that a carnivore had entered the farm, the deer noticed him, then ran and they were scared, and what did they see? They saw their mother going unto death, completely unaware, she had to be warned, and for me, I will honestly admit, this day was a breakthrough. I crossed the border that divides the human world from that of the animals. If there was a glass that divided us from humans, a wall impossible to knock down, then the animals would not care about me. We are deer, she is human, what do we care for her? If they did warn me […], it meant one thing and one thing only: you are a member of our pack, we don’t want you to get hurt. I honestly admit, I relived this event for many days, and in fact today, when I think about it, there is sense of warmth around my heart. It proves how one can befriend the world of wild animals."

In 1993 she set about on a crusade to save the wolves and lynxes from perdition. She came across two metal jaw traps set by a research team. She took them and refused to return them. She was accused by the research team of stealing research apparatus. There was a hearing in the Regional Court and in response to the Prosecution when asked just what kind of a threat such ‘research apparatus’ posed to animals, she said:

“In my opinion, it was a lethal threat not only to the animals, but also the guards. […] Each animal that falls into the trap is potentially condemned to die, if the wound to the paws is heavy. With a population that numbers 12 specimen, and including poaching and chance deaths of wild animals, it is a lethal threat to the continuity of the lowland lynx type, whose genetic scope is unique across all of Europe, because there are no more lowland lynxes in Europe. It is a disgrace to the world of science for us to have contributed to this.”

Simona often enjoyed the company of a human companion as well, Lech Wilczek. They had similar goals, philosophies and enjoyed the same lifestyle. He was a photographer, naturalist and writer. He documented much of their work together. They both dreamed of loneliness and silence, but it turned out that they found a common language, and that they complemented each other. Simona Kossak would conduct scientific research, make broadcasts on the radio and write books. Lech Wilczek would take photographs and work on improving the home.

"They were one of the most beautiful and creative couples I know. Although the beginnings of their relationships were harsh, this extremely strong, beautiful relationship lasted 36 years, until the death of Simona,” Joanna Kossak, a niece of Simona Kossak recalled.

Lech Wilczek found a constant source of artistic inspiration while living in the forest. He captured life around the cottage in his photographs. Both he and Simona Kossak would bring home sick or orphaned animals, many of which became permanent residents of the village. There were, among others, birds of prey, capercaillie, many deer, badgers, foxes and martens, which once vandalized the house. In addition, there was a moose, doe, black stork and a white stork who put its beak into a bucket with green paint, and it remained covered in paint for half a year since it turned out to be very durable. Last but not least, there was also a donkey and a cow.

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