“I crossed the threshold and found myself on the side of the trees and animals. I therefore speak on their behalf. I finished my studies in biology, but it wasn’t until my years spent in the forest that I learned to understand the language of animals. And I know it so well now that I should be burnt at the stake as a witch,” Simona Kossak reminisced. In 1971, an envoy of “Przekrój” magazine visited Kossak and photographer Lech Wilczek at their sanctuary in the heart of the primeval Białowieża Forest.
Hidden in the heart of the forest, six kilometres from the town of Białowieża, is a nature reserve. It is now covered in fresh thick snow. They call this place Dziedzinka; sitting on a lovely clearing is a forest lodge with a barn next to a sprawling tree, along with roughly carved chair-like objects and a round table made of oak, at which one eats all meals during the warm season, accompanied by candlelight coming from an ancient candelabra. Running out from the inner hedge is Żabka (‘Froggy’), a sow playing the role of the domesticated ‘dangerous dog’. Lazily strolling out to welcome guests is Hepunia, a donkey seeking affection. A giant yet calm dog bolts out; it’s Troll, whose mum was a Boxer and whose dad was a German shepherd, and who is a creature of great beauty, intelligence and tenderness of heart. Before I even make it to the porch, Korasek the crow first pecks at my leg around my ankle and then proceeds to steal a pen from my pocket; fortunately, he is open to bribes and returns it in exchange for an egg. Greeting me in the door are my hosts, Simona Kossak, a zoologist, and the well-known photographer and author of many animal albums, Lech Wilczek. One half of the forest lodge houses part of the furnishings from Kossakówka (the Kossak’s family home in Kraków), including beautiful furniture, paintings and old weapons; the other half meanwhile holds a collection of clocks and lamps from Warsaw. The eyes of two owls penetrate the newcomer; maybe he has a mouse in his pocket... The clocks have come to a halt here in Dziedzinka; nobody is in any kind of hurry. An oasis of tranquillity; an asylum to calm your nerves and clear your lungs.
Two paths to Białowieża
Simona Kossak completed her degree in Zoology at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków in 1970, with a specialization in psychology and animal ethology (i.e. animal behaviour). Her dream was to settle down in the Bieszczady mountains, in the Hulski Valley, which was still wild at the time. She was promised the position of curator at a yet non-existent museum in a yet non-existent national park. As the matter was being constantly delayed, Simona, an admirer of the Bieszczady mountains (she had been spending her holidays there for the past 10 years) abruptly changed direction, packed her suitcase, and after several hours of train travel, got off in… Białowieża. It was the middle of winter, 1st February 1971, when she started a job at the Mammal Research Institute of the Polish Academy of Sciences there. She moved into a guest room, yet quietly still had dreams of Bieszczady. But one day, an acquaintance and later good friend, Barbara Ewa Wysmułek, who was a Polish language scholar and wife of a National Park and Palace Park forest ranger, said: “Simona dear, Dziedzinka would appeal to you. Perhaps the place is a bit haunted, but you are quite brave. You must go see this wonderful spot.”
When they arrived at the mysterious location, the evening was beautiful and the frost was biting. Simona jumped out of the sledge, ran up to the porch of the lodge, looked around at the trees covered in powder snow and yelled out those very famous words, which would later be associated with Pepsi-Cola in Poland: “This is it!”
The next day she showed up at the office of the director of Białowieża National Park, as the forest lodge was located within its boundaries, and proceeded to request that it be assigned to her as staff housing. The director at the time, engineer Józef Budzyń, interrogatively eyed the slender girl, who had this whim to commute six kilometres to work winter or summer, of her own free will; he agreed, yet noted that a prominent photographer from Warsaw, Lech Wilczek, was also making efforts to occupy Dziedzinka. On 24th March, on her own name day, Simona moved in. About a fortnight later, her neighbour moved into the second part of the house.
The first time Lech Wilczek came to Białowieża was in 1952; this was when the bison were set free into the forest after World War II. And that’s when he also saw Dziedzinka...
Ever since he was little (much like Simona Kossak in Kraków), he had bred birds and animals. As a student, he launched a series of albums in which he masterfully observed the animal world. His debutant album was advertised by “Przekrój”, which put one of his best pieces on the cover: a photo of a ladybird sitting on a poppyhead. The following albums came down in buckets: No Two Eggs Are Alike (Jajko jajku nierówne), A Whole Lot of Mushrooms (Grzybów jest w bród), Colourful Encounters (Kolorowe spotkania), Hamsters (Chomiki), Kuba (about the friendship and frolics of a small raccoon and a tawny owl), and The Beauty of Fish (Uroda ryb). In preparation for the latter album and out of his passion for fish, Lech constructed enormous aquariums in his Warsaw-based workshop; he didn’t change the water for 11 years and cared for the aquarium by thinning out the vegetation and adding water, which constantly evaporates. What’s interesting is that at the very same time, Simona was conducting an observation of fish in her own aquariums while preparing her Master’s thesis, although they didn’t even know each other yet. His next album was Spots and Stripes (W kropki i paski – about labybirds and potato beetles). Lech’s books are already educating the second generation of children, and he himself is now an employee of the University of Warsaw’s Białowieża Geobotanical Station.
Where a wild boar can be everyone’s darling
Simona already had an owl and three buzzards when Lech brought four more owls in a basket. And that’s how their joint menagerie began. Simona became so occupied with organizing the animal farm, not to mention her productive work at the Mammal Research Institute, that she no longer had time for trips to the Bieszczady mountains, let alone to visit her hometown of Kraków. She had to make do with visits from her mother, Elżbieta Kossak, who would come out for a few months every summer. Lech, on the other hand, confessed to the reporter that he wasn’t tired of Warsaw, and therefore to him Białowieża wasn’t any kind of retreat, so to speak. Unlike many others, he didn’t conjure up any kind of additional philosophy to his life decision. He quite simply wanted to breed wild animals in their natural surroundings, observe and document them in photographs, while Simona had oddly enough been seeking the same.
In a previous period, meaning two or three years earlier, a white tawny owl plus four of Lech’s tawny owls made their way through Dziedzinka (incidentally, one night all five of them went off into the nature reserve and never returned). Then there were three buzzards, which had a very hard time adapting, so one day Simona let them go, but they came back. They would escort their caretaker to and from Dziedzinka, but they finally became independent one day and flew away. At the same time, a small hedgehog brought up in a sleeve resided there as well, along with a young grackle brought over from Kraków.
Yet all this wasn’t enough for Lech. One day, he left, as he had claimed, for Warsaw. Then on the first day of spring 1972, he invited Simona to his half of Dziedzinka. When something suddenly started to snort at their feet, it turned out that Lech didn’t actually go to Warsaw, but rather to Dziekanów Leśny near Warsaw, to the Institute of Ecology of the Polish Academy of Sciences, where he was given a one-day old sow. The lovely little boar was named Żabka (‘Froggy’) and the neighbours would share her every other night; the little one would sleep at the foot of the bed, as that spring was rather cold. Żabka would be terribly unhappy if she was left alone. As she grew up, she would steal things just for fun, and tease her owners as she ran away. Like a dog, she would heel, go for walks in the forest, and more and more often, she would cuddle up to her owners and demand they caress her just the same in return! Żabka grew up very quickly; today, as an animal of large proportions, she is still of course gentle towards her owners. She is rather reserved towards guests in the presence of her owners, but I would not recommend simply stepping into the territory of Dziedzinka without having made a previous appointment. Żabka is the guardian extradordinaire of the reserve and is devilishly hostile towards strangers, especially women.
In April 1973, Janusz Kocięcki, head of breeding at the Poznań Zoo, came to Dziedzinka and declared: “I’m sure you need a donkey.”
Therefore, when some bison were transported to Poznań, a donkey was loaded onto the lorry there to take back. Well, when she arrived – and still didn’t know that she would be called Hepunia (due to the strange sounds she would make when walking, something like ‘hep-hep’) – she immediately had a row with Żabka, who ran to Leszek to defend her. To this day, the two ‘ladies’ are not too fond of each other. The donkey loved to travel from the very start. First, she tried hard to return to Poznań, and Leszek was forced to catch Hepunia with a lasso. But then she longed for trips abroad. The donkey tried to flee to the Soviet Union twice. Each time, the friendly soldiers from the Soviet border patrol, in line with good neighbourly relations (animals from both sides, and especially cows, are not overly concerned with borders) would turn Hepunia over in a nearly ceremonious manner, while the donkey would condescendingly agree to return. The second time round, she was standing on ‘no man’s land’ and had no intention of moving forward or back. So Simona leaned over, grabbed the donkey by the ears and had to slap her over her rather sizeable head; in the end, the animal returned. And all this happened to take place on International Women’s Day.
The most pleasant memory of the 1973/74 season was Peapenka the deer (when she was little she would make a ‘pea-pea’ sound). She would constantly be at Simona’s side, as soon as the lady of Dziedzinka returned from work. She was also a rather gracious object for the camera lens. Following a period of observation, they let her out into the forest. She would come back at times.
As the monkey shines intellectually among mammals, so does the crow among birds. With one small difference: the crow converts all that intelligence into malice. In the wild, crows are rather timid; but Korasek, Lech’s favourite pet, is a fully-domesticated thief and steals quite literally anything he sees and can reach; he destroys and annoys. Guests of Dziedzinka who imprudently neglect to cover their cars find their windshield wipers and rubber seals torn out by the crow’s beak. He once stole some colour film from a film crew from England and carried it high up onto the barn roof, thus providing the production manager with the additional opportunity to see the sights by way of ladder. The devious Korasek loves to sneak into nearby trouser legs, pick up the trousers with his beak, promptly peck at the leg and fly off. He terrorizes all the animals, with the exception of Żabka, whom he is afraid of. He torments the chickens and rides on Hepunia’s back. All the lumberjacks and sawmen in the area need to constantly keep an eye on their power saws; otherwise Korasek nicks the screws and spark plug boots and steals their lunches. In spite of it all, people like him, because there are good people around here. A winged bandit like that would most likely not last too long in any other place. Whenever his caretaker rides her motorbike to Białowieża, Korasek always sits on her head or on the back seat, and quite simply, sees her off, be it summer or winter.
It’s a wonderful sight when Lech walks down the main street of Białowieża and Korasek happens to fly by. The locals have gotten used to this scene: the crow lowers altitude, sits on Lech’s shoulder and cuddles up to his face. And when the photographer goes out into the Białowieża Forest for some nature watching, he looks just like St. Francis: running at his side is Żabka, followed by Hepunia, while Korasek swirls over the three of them.
Troll is one of the gentlest dogs on this planet; a giant, of the ‘shepbox’ (Polish: ‘willboks’) breed, as Simona puts it, he launched his career as a bird lover by eating a small parrot when he was just a pup, back at the Kossak family home in Kraków. He got a light spanking and since that time, he’s mellowed to exaggeration. And when the foolish rooster attacks Troll, it takes a punishing from the dog; that happens about once a quarter, then all turns into an idyll. Troll feels better once again when he regains his dignity.
At dinner, Simona says jokingly: “Lech loves our animals, but I think he likes me a bit too, because I’m the only woman within a range of five kilometres.”
“But I have a motorcycle, love, and besides, I have plenty of other women only four kilometres away,” retorts Lech.
What are the two of them working on? Lech is working on albums – one about the crow (Ballad of the Crow / Ballada o kruku), and the second about the most beautiful of all boars, of course. In addition, he has a number of materials collected with a monumental album in mind called The Białowieża Forest (Puszcza Białowieska). His observations made through a lens and recorded by pen will help create a comprehensive piece of work entitled On People, Forests and Animals (O ludziach, lasach i zwierzętach). Meanwhile, in addition to her many other works, Simona is preparing an extremely interesting scientific discourse on the self-healing abilities of animals, which will certainly have an influence on changes in certain methods of treatment for humans.
Christmas Eve at Dziedzinka
Every Christmas Eve, the two of them decorate the spruce tree that grows in the clearing in front of the house. They adorn the branches with everything that birds and wild animals are fond of: rowanberries, lard, apples and dried fruit. They also set out a pile of hay for the deer that pass through Dziedzinka as they venture deep into the primeval forest.
At the table, the now giant Żabka receives (while standing on her hind paws like a dog) a loaf of bread (see photo!), acorns, and apples in a basket decorated with pine branches. Hepunia receives a couple pounds more of apples and lots of carrots and oats, as much as she can eat. There are two mice for the owl, and Korasek the crow receives eggs with mayonnaise and a tap on the head so it doesn’t get too big. On the other hand, Troll is a fully-fledged participant of the Christmas Eve feast; he can have anything that’s on the table.
What does this group of animal friends dream of on Christmas Eve night in Dziedzinka? It’s hard for us to know all of their dreams. Korasek is probably waiting for summer to come – eggs will be cheaper then. That’s what I read in his eyes at the very moment when in exchange for an egg, he was returning my car keys, which I had recklessly left on the table.
This text was published in issue 1550–1551/1974, and you can read the Polish version in our digital archive.
Biologist, Professor of Forestry Science. A legendary defender of the flora and fauna in the Białowieża Forest and champion of a more in-depth awareness of nature. Daughter, granddaughter and great-granddaughter of the famous Kossak family. Resident at Dziedzinka, from where she would commute to her job at the Mammal Research Institute of the Polish Academy of Sciences and the Forest Research Institute in Białowieża, first on a Komar motorbike, then in a small Fiat. She was born in 1943 and died in 2007.
Photographer and naturalist. Author of books and picture albums about a tawny owl and a raccoon, a jackdaw and cats, mushrooms, Syrian hamsters, aquarium fish, a crow and badgers, the Białowieża Forest, of course, and many others. He was born in 1930 and has been a resident of Dziedzinka since 1971.
Translated from the Polish by Mark Ordon