Poland's wild woods
Sinclair drives me to a ‘high seat’ – a raised shelter where hunters stake out their prey, now often used by wildlife enthusiasts who spend long nights peering into the darkness through infra-red binoculars. It looks like a garden shed mounted precariously on six-metre-high stilts, and the ladder wobbles as I climb. Up here, human scent should go undetected by the residents of the forest floor – although Sinclair mentions a German hunter who spent a night on a high seat looking out across an empty meadow, later glancing behind to see a lynx waiting patiently at the bottom of the ladder. “Some people prefer to get picked up before the night is out. Of course, it’s not my place to ask them why,” Sinclair says, raising his eyebrows cryptically, before climbing back into the car and speeding back to the warmth of the lodge. Gradually, a chorus of grunts, thuds, snorts and belches can be heard from all directions. Listening too closely can be deceptive. It’s easy to mistake your own heartbeat for the footfalls of an animal approaching, or to jump at the cackle-like snap of a branch breaking somewhere far away in the forest. By the milky light of the full moon, Romincka Forest looks even more like the enchanted woods of European folklore. Sinewy roots stretch above the snowline and the skeletal frames of leafless birch trees tremble in the wind. Stories like Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel might be fantasy, but in the days when wolves and outlaws patrolled the forest, they were a warning for children to keep out of the woods. After a few hours, a small roe deer trots into the clearing ahead before abruptly turning and running, as if having suddenly recalled an appointment elsewhere in the forest. The real reason soon becomes clear – a gang of boar emerge from the shadows and barge their way towards a feeding station, knocking the trough around and gorging on its contents. They briefly jostle in the moonlight, guzzling loutishly, before losing interest and scuttling back into the undergrowth. Once gone, only distant owl calls interrupt the sound of wind rushing through the treetops.
Morning comes, and the boar tracks are buried beneath a fresh layer of thick, pristine snow. The forest is perfectly still – icicles sparkle in the first rays of the morning sun, and only a solitary red squirrel stirs. Soon, the rattle of a chainsaw fills the air and the staccato sound of chopping wood echoes around the forest. For foresters, these few hours of daylight are a brief opportunity to make their own mark on the landscape and to tame the wilderness as much as they can. Yet for most residents of the forest, daylight will only mean a few hours’ rest – a chance to recuperate before one more big night out.