Discovering the Woodwork of Poland

I entered the room and rekindled the night fire; coals small, but glowing. Smoke thickened and rose as the newly added wood felt the heat below and within a few seconds, that gentle-sounding whoomph, soft and unspellable, announced the arrival of flame. I sat and watched the golden sinews of fresh flame, wicker and flow up and around the rough split logs. How many mornings have I sat just so in this house, with a fire to warm me? How often have I looked at these timbered walls, the brown, horizontal boards with their milling scars like small, parallel waves, travelling, yet somehow still, along the timber’s grain? I thought I knew something about timber, about wood, from a life lived in the Australian bush, particularly after thirty-five years in Tasmania.

But it was in Poland that I came to glimpse the full blessing of wood, a forest’s heart. Travelling there in 2014, I went from the embrace of newly-discovered family and through city scapes; seeing towns, churches, castles and museums; walking old streets, laneways and old cemeteries. I think of that country’s vast forests, how once they might have formed a giant green girdle through central Europe, woven from a blend of spruce and larch, oak and hornbeam, birch and pine. My short Springtime foray into the old, now reserved forest region of Bialowesia in N.E. Poland, impressed upon me, not only the natural ‘collective’ state for these northern hemisphere trees – grown back home as singular ‘ornamentals’ – but also the historical legacy that this once immense forest has given to its people.

It was a visit to a skansen* in Lublin, that really opened my eyes to the close connection a people and its culture can have to trees, and the sum of all its parts. I wandered around and through the centuries-old buildings, many of which were rural homes, with densely-thatched roofs, hemmed closely by barn, chook-shed, hay-loft and wood store. It was the theme of wood that united all things and it was in these very buildings and structures that again and again, the grain and strength and sap of wood flowed onward and throughout every single built thing.

There, on one wooden table, stood a jug, its straight but tapered staves, designed to hold any liquid, perhaps once pouring milk. And all around me as I walked, the steady silent presence of wood, revealing a constant and intimate connection between plant and person. A spoon for the stirring; a table, a crib, a coffin……a carpenter’s bench, a rake, a wagon…..a water trough, a drill-plough, a weaving loom….a plate, a bed, a staircase…..a cup, a wind-mill, a scoop….a castle’s framing, a pickling barrel, a milker’s stool……a wash-tub, a window-frame, a gate…..a bath, a carving, a potter’s wheel…….a church statue, a church itself, a boat…..a toy, a door knob, a window’s shutter or a cross……all made from wood, all come from fibre of the forest.

Everywhere you chose to look, there was wood, laid bare, carved, polished or painted; capable of lasting centuries or disappearing in a moment’s flame. This most immediate and useful material, guided and altered by the crafter’s hand, able to be grown again. Linking the needs and imagination of people, to an intimate understanding of a trees individual, own woody nature. From all manner of woods, all manner of things were created.

Here in Australia, though indigenous people have long evolved an intimate knowledge of bush and country, our European imprint has only a two hundred year’s time-line. Places such as Poland, can trace a defined ancestry back over a thousand years or more, considering the fluid nature of borders; a land infused with a mosaic of cultural influences, through invasions, migration and wars, that still displays a direct and personal connection to wood.

Everywhere I travelled, mostly in southern and south-eastern Poland, trees grew in gardens, along railway edges, in plantations and parkways. Small copses of trees, often birch, were staggered around orchard and cropland, and many a high-rise area had well established deciduous trees or surrounding park-lands, to let in a Winter’s light and shade all creatures during a Summer’s heat; a forest recreated. I noticed too, the way people moved through these urban areas, responding with a natural take upon the land, their footsteps forming tracks and trails much like any other animal travelling through a forest. Not there, the misguided bureaucrat’s plan for a city’s park, with straight paths and geometric guidance, but rather a display of people’s affinity with the lay of the land and how best to traverse it. Some city parks left areas of grass unmown, a sense of ‘wild’ forest for the town-dweller.

In rural areas, I sometimes came across forests that may have been communal, as in my father’s early childhood. He told me that each family in his small town, was allotted an area of forest from which to harvest wood for fires and building. I was told that people are still permitted to collect fungi from forests, including some protected reserves, such is the time-honoured tradition, where the forest is not far from a people’s cultural consciousness. Perhaps with younger generations, removed from any direct physical link to forests, this connection and honouring of wood may be diminishing.

When I think of all the travelling I did, the train journeys, the mile upon mile I passed of cultivated land, all tilled and sown into rows of contoured crops, with the curved-edge of pasture, I have to wonder at how large the original forests must have been. Viewed from the sky, the land seemed like some colourful, floral mosaic, spreading in all directions. These vast and seemingly endless swathes of cultivated land must once have been clothed and covered in all manner of foliage, frond and trunk. Of course, when one considers the passage of human history in Poland, the need for wood has been constant: timber for homes, towns and castles; to transport and sustain armies; for fuel to cook and be warm for a winter’s survival. When one thinks of the wars and their destructive mark upon the land and its people, and the renewed need for wood in all the many town and city reconstructions – especially from the damage due to the Second World War – then is there any wonder that so much area of original forest has been cleared?

My trip to Poland brought home to me the valuable legacy of a forest, on both a personal and a cultural level. When I look to my own country and see our collective relationship with our own forests, I cannot help but think how tenuous is our understanding of earthly matters. I am grateful to Poland, the land of my father, for the glimpse it has given me, into my own heritage as well as a ‘middle distance’ view over a grand, exotic forest of trees, with its inherent wealth and cultural store. Allowing me to see how people may travel through generations, and in seeking sustenance and safety from their surrounds, evolve an intimate knowledge and appreciation of what grows around them. This we can all learn from, and be encouraged.

*Skansen: an outdoor, cultural museum, set with garden or simple, open spaces, featuring old buildings, either domestic, religious or civic; a type of living documentary of Polish ‘architecture’, either transplanted, reconstructed or restored.