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Let history inspire us

August 15, 2012

It is difficult to imagine the feelings of the first Europeans who stepped on the American continent. In that time, herds of millions of bison and pronghorn, followed by huge amount of wolves and giant grizzly bears lived on prairies. For cultivated Europeans 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 degraded 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 exact borderline, though, it lay somewhere between the rivers Danube, Elbe and Rhine. According to Pliny the Elder, the Hercynian oak forest was untouched by the ages and coeval with the world, which surpasses all marvels by its almost immortal destiny. To omit other facts that would lack credence, it is well known that the collision of the roots encountering each other raises up hillocks of earth, or, where the ground has not kept up to them, their arches in their struggle with one another rise as high as the branches, and curve over in the shape of open gateways, so as to afford a passage to squadrons of cavalry.

A Roman historian Tacitus described the Hercynian Forest even more impressively and, according to him, this forest was practically prehistoric, “as old as the world itself, standing above all miracles by its almost immortal destiny”.

Almost 2,000 years elapsed since man had tried to manage wild nature. It was not only about “making the country more cultured” to the prejudice of agriculture. A civilization exchange brought along a religion exchange. Pagan gods, settled in holy groves or cultic trees, had to be replaced with the Christian god. Destroying the holy groves, logging the old trees and killing thousands of bears and wolves – adored animals which had become symbols of evil – was a part of this struggle. This destruction was so consequent that most of the European wilderness did not survive until the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

Nevertheless, even 200–300 years ago single primeval oaks grew in Central Europe. A Polish poet, Adam Bernard Mickiewicz (1798–1855), wrote about one of them:

“Shall I find you again? Are you living this while?
You, among whose trunks I once crawled as a child:
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 have 4 meters in diameter at least! If we are able to find oaks as old as 1,000–1,500 years in Europe now, such trees could be found much more often in the past. Suppose whole forests consisted of these old oaks, lindens, elms, …

Our continent was unbelievably diverse. In those times, as well as during the Middle Ages, the forest did not just mean an area covered by trees, as nowadays. The “forest” meant something like a wasteland. This wasteland included not only vast forests, but also steppes and forest steppes, swamps and fens, deserts and salt meadows. When the Danube river overflew near Bratislava, the water extended tens of kilometres on both sides and when it withdrew an impassable system of dead river channels and wetlands remained. It was a country of fish, frogs, turtles, snakes, and birds. Near Bratislava, in Záhorie region, sand dunes moved much like somewhere in Sahara. In lowland, where climate conditions were drier, steppes were created. In places with high evaporation and soil supplied with underground water, salt meadows originated (something like a salt semi-desert). It had to be an amazing mosaic of various types of habitats.

That area was literally saturated with life. Large animals such as bison, aurochs, wild horses, moose, bears and wolves were still common. Rivers were full of fish. Whereas we were successful in eradication of large animals during the Middle Ages, a wealth of fish is almost preserved until today. Even 200 years ago an amazing show was enacted on the Danube’s banks – beluga shoal. The largest riparian fish in the world swam upstream in huge shoals and Bratislava citizens stared with open mouths, as their backs sticked out of the water. Belugas were usually 2–6 metres long but some of them grew up to 10 metres long. Can you imagine it?

It could seem that 2,000 years ago Europe was almost an untouched continent but it was not true. The first century AD is probably the period when the last European lions and leopards became extinct. The Neolithic Revolution resulted in an increase of human population as well as a change of their lifestyle. Large animals were suppressed long before the origination of the Roman Empire and during it, only a small amount of formerly numerous herds survived. Already at that time, the Southern Europe was mainly deforested and adapted to man’s needs.

If we would be able to travel back to the pre-Neolithic times, we would probably also see millions of herds of large herbivores here, as it was just 500 years ago in Northern America and still is in several parts of Africa nowadays.

But we live in a different age. The world has changed and we cannot go back. 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 where we are going to… I do not want to evoke depressive mood. I, paradoxically, apprehend it in a positive way. History can inspire us. If our continent was able to create such amazing miracles in the past, it will manage it again. If we will create really large protected areas and leave them on their own, we will experience things, which we cannot even dream of.

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Let history inspire us

Posted by Erik Baláž on 15 August 2012  –  It is difficult to imagine the feelings of the first Europeans who stepped on the American continent. In that time, herds of millions of bison and pronghorn, followed by huge amount of wolves and giant grizzly bears lived on prairies. For cultivated Europeans 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 degraded 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 exact borderline, though, it lay somewhere between the rivers Danube, Elbe and Rhine. According to Pliny the Elder, the Hercynian oak forest was untouched by the ages and coeval with the world, which surpasses all marvels by its almost immortal destiny. To omit other facts that would lack credence, it is well known that the collision of the roots encountering each other raises up hillocks of earth, or, where the ground has not kept up to them, their arches in their struggle with one another rise as high as the branches, and curve over in the shape of open gateways, so as to afford a passage to squadrons of cavalry.

A Roman historian Tacitus described the Hercynian Forest even more impressively and, according to him, this forest was practically prehistoric, “as old as the world itself, standing above all miracles by its almost immortal destiny”.

Almost 2,000 years elapsed since man had tried to manage wild nature. It was not only about “making the country more cultured” to the prejudice of agriculture. A civilization exchange brought along a religion exchange. Pagan gods, settled in holy groves or cultic trees, had to be replaced with the Christian god. Destroying the holy groves, logging the old trees and killing thousands of bears and wolves – adored animals which had become symbols of evil – was a part of this struggle. This destruction was so consequent that most of the European wilderness did not survive until the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

Nevertheless, even 200–300 years ago single primeval oaks grew in Central Europe. A Polish poet, Adam Bernard Mickiewicz (1798–1855), wrote about one of them:

“Shall I find you again? Are you living this while?
You, among whose trunks I once crawled as a child:
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 have 4 meters in diameter at least! If we are able to find oaks as old as 1,000–1,500 years in Europe now, such trees could be found much more often in the past. Suppose whole forests consisted of these old oaks, lindens, elms, …

Our continent was unbelievably diverse. In those times, as well as during the Middle Ages, the forest did not just mean an area covered by trees, as nowadays. The “forest” meant something like a wasteland. This wasteland included not only vast forests, but also steppes and forest steppes, swamps and fens, deserts and salt meadows. When the Danube river overflew near Bratislava, the water extended tens of kilometres on both sides and when it withdrew an impassable system of dead river channels and wetlands remained. It was a country of fish, frogs, turtles, snakes, and birds. Near Bratislava, in Záhorie region, sand dunes moved much like somewhere in Sahara. In lowland, where climate conditions were drier, steppes were created. In places with high evaporation and soil supplied with underground water, salt meadows originated (something like a salt semi-desert). It had to be an amazing mosaic of various types of habitats.

That area was literally saturated with life. Large animals such as bison, aurochs, wild horses, moose, bears and wolves were still common. Rivers were full of fish. Whereas we were successful in eradication of large animals during the Middle Ages, a wealth of fish is almost preserved until today. Even 200 years ago an amazing show was enacted on the Danube’s banks – beluga shoal. The largest riparian fish in the world swam upstream in huge shoals and Bratislava citizens stared with open mouths, as their backs sticked out of the water. Belugas were usually 2–6 metres long but some of them grew up to 10 metres long. Can you imagine it?

It could seem that 2,000 years ago Europe was almost an untouched continent but it was not true. The first century AD is probably the period when the last European lions and leopards became extinct. The Neolithic Revolution resulted in an increase of human population as well as a change of their lifestyle. Large animals were suppressed long before the origination of the Roman Empire and during it, only a small amount of formerly numerous herds survived. Already at that time, the Southern Europe was mainly deforested and adapted to man’s needs.

If we would be able to travel back to the pre-Neolithic times, we would probably also see millions of herds of large herbivores here, as it was just 500 years ago in Northern America and still is in several parts of Africa nowadays.

But we live in a different age. The world has changed and we cannot go back. 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 where we are going to… I do not want to evoke depressive mood. I, paradoxically, apprehend it in a positive way. History can inspire us. If our continent was able to create such amazing miracles in the past, it will manage it again. If we will create really large protected areas and leave them on their own, we will experience things, which we cannot even dream of.

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