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The European wilderness rises from the dead

It is difficult for us to imagine the feelings of the first Europeans who stepped on the American continent. At that time, herds of millions of bisons and pronghorns, followed by huge amount of wolves and giant grizzly bears were living on prairies. For the civilized Europeans the endless and impenetrable forests with gigantic trees had to be frightening. This country evoked admiration and awe, as well as fear. It was a real wilderness, “a place without the God”, a place which had to be conquered on behalf of the civilization.

It is interesting how the experiences of the first Europeans in America are similar to the descriptions of the ancient Romans who, at the beginning of AD, crossed the border of the Roman Empire and arrived in the area of the Hercynian Forest. This forest did not have an exact borderline, though, it lay somewhere between the rivers Danube, Elbe and Rhine. According to Pliny the Elder, the Hercynian oak forest was “coeval with the world, surpassing all marvels by its almost immortal destiny. He also writes: „it was an untouched wilderness, full of ancient, almost immortal oaks. Some rotten-away ones are falling to the ground, others are rising high, propping each other or create arches by interweaving curved branches, almost like and open gateways, under which squadrons of cavalry may pass. All the trees are heavy with acorns and the Romans value them high.“ The Roman historian Tacitus described the Hercynian forest even more impressively and, according to him, this forest was practically prehistoric, or precisely said: „as old as the world itself, standing above all miracles by its almost immortal destiny.“ If this forest was able to impress the Romans so massively, it must have been really amazing. It is difficult to imagine, how massive and especially ancient must have been the trees of those days. Since then nearly 2000 years have passed, during which the man tried to conquer the wild nature. It was not only about “cultivating” the land on behalf of agriculture. The exchange of cultures brought with it a change in religion as well. The pagan gods residing in the sacred groves had to be expelled and replaced by the Christian god. Part of this struggle was destruction of sacred groves, cutting down of old trees and killing of thousands of bears or wolves, which from revered animals have became the symbols of evil. This destruction was so thorough that the majority of European wilderness has not even survived until the beginning of the industrial revolution. And yet, even 200 – 300 years ago sporadic ancient oaks were growing in Central Europe. A Polish poet, Adam Bernard Mickiewicz (1798 – 1855) wrote about one of them:

”Does great Baublis survive yet, within whose huge womb
By centuries drilled hollow, as in a good room,
A supper for a dozen could easily be set?”

That tree had to be at least four meters thick! Even if we do find 1000 – 1500 years old oaks in Europe, in the past such trees had to be much more common. There might have been whole forests formed by such old oaks, limes, elms,…

Our landscape was unbelievably diverse. In those times, as well as during the Medieval Ages the forest did not just mean an area covered by trees, as it does nowadays. “Forest” meant something like a wilderness. Besides large forests, this wilderness included also steppes and forest steppes, swamps and bogs, deserts and salt marshes. When the Danube river overflew near Bratislava, the water extended for tens of kilometres on both sides; and when it fell back an impassable system of dead river arms and wetlands remained. It was a land of fish, frogs, turtles, snakes and birds. Even the Jurský Šúr near Bratislava (an amazing alder forest flooded with water, which nowadays has about 330 ha) had at that times the size of several hundred square kilometres, about the size of today’s TANAP (Tatra National Park). Nearby, in Záhorie region, sand dunes were pouring as somewhere in Sahara. In lowlands, where the climate was drier, steppes were created. In places with high evaporation and where the soil was supplied with underground water, salt marshes arose (something like salt semi-deserts). It had to be an amazing mosaic of diverse habitats. That land was literally soaked with life.

In those days, wisent, aurochs, wild horses and moose were common here. Rivers were full of fish. While we were successful in eradicating the large animals during the Medieval Ages, the wealth of fish has been preserved almost until to present times. Even 200 years ago an amazing show was enacted on the Danube’s riverbanks – the beluga run. These largest freshwater fish in the world were running upstream in large schools and Bratislava citizens were gazing at their backs sticking out of water with their mouths open. The beluga were usually 2-6 metres long, however, some are said to have reached the length of up to 10 metres. Can you imagine this? And this was not very long ago. The last beluga swam in Danube in the 1950s.

I don’t know, whether people in Roman times dared fishing for belugas, they did, however, fish for other fish, hunt for water birds, beavers and large animals as well. Although the people of those days had known agriculture for several thousands of years by then, they still subsisted to a large degree on hunting. According to the descriptions of ancient Romans these people were not much into cultivating the land. They preferred hunting and gathering wild fruits for their subsistence. They did also keep cattle, which grazed in the forest together with their wild relatives. These wild people were as little liked by the Romans as the “lazy” Indians , who neither wanted to cultivate the land.

It may seem that in those days Europe was an almost untouched continent, but that is far from the truth. The first century AD is the period when the last European lions and leopards probably became extinct. Neolithic revolution was marked by an increase in the number of people and the change of their lifestyle. The large animals were getting chewed up long before the creation of the Roman Empire and during its existence only wretched remnants of the once numerous herds were surviving. Southern Europe had already been largely deforested and adapted to the needs of man by that time.

If we were able to travel further back in time, to the times of pre-Neolithic people, we probably would see here also herds of millions of large herbivores, as it was just 500 years ago in North America. Meeting of nowadays rare species of carnivores, such as bears and wolves would be perfectly normal and in the area of present Slovakia we might have met lions and leopards as well.

But we live in a different age. The world has changed and we cannot go back. However, it is important to know what we have done to our nature and land. Someone smart once said that if we know where we came from, we also know what we are heading for… However, I don’t want to evoke depressive mood. I, paradoxically, take it positively. History may inspire us. If our land was able to create such amazing miracles in the past, it will manage to do it again. If we create really large protected areas and leave them on their own, we will experience things, we dare not even dream of today.

Author: Erik Baláž