Nations and Nature

All people everywhere live within the borders of nation states. The web of life, however, knows no such frontiers. Mountain ranges, rivers and glaciers span such man-made lines on the map. Animals, fish and birds walk, swim or fly over them, as the case may be.

Yet, the human impulse to label certain animals or lands as distinctive to a culture is powerful, often irresistible. Some animals are specific to one remnant of their habitat, making this common place.
But what happens when borders shift and the custodianship of a population of a species with powerful cultural imagery changes hands? The forest of Bialoweiza straddles the frontier of Poland and Russia. Over the centuries that border has shifted, sometimes to the west and other times to the east.
Victory or defeat on the field of battle spelt a new master for the forest. This became of ecological import as species once found over large swathes of Europe died out elsewhere. The European bison, made its last stand in this great forest.
The herds came to an inglorious end in 1918, when German soldiers shot for the pot. Lots of bison steak meant no more bison were left. A casualty of the First World War, which contemporaries called the Great War, the species was snuffed out of existence in this, its last home in the boreal forests of Europe.
They had been known as the European bison or the wisent, with a history going back to Julius Caesar’s hunts. The great Roman conqueror knew very well the difference between the bearded bison and the humped wild cattle, the auroch. The latter had vanished by the 17th century.
Bison were now rechristened as distinctively Polish beasts. Simon Schama in his epic Landscape and Memory traces the rebirth of the wild bison herd to the re-birth of the Polish nation after 1918. Poland was reborn as a child of the post-war Treaty of Versailles, the bison experiment a result of new concerns in an Age of Extinction.
Bison were still available in collections scattered across the world and these were re-assembled. Polish military dictator Marshall Pilsudski had fought against the Russians, and the bison, a huge wild vertebrate, seemed to symbolise best the will of the Polish people.
Its muscle and brawn were nature’s version of a small but proud country. For 200 years, Poland had been a large, powerful country and the bison was a major quarry of its rulers. Its aristocrats had estimated of how many bison lived in the woods, and had trackers to protect them from poachers.
Of course, there was a dark side to the story, for Poland’s military rulers were deeply anti-Semitic. They persecuted citizens who were not Polish enough. In the Second World War, when the country was occupied by the armies of the Reich, Marshal Goering hunted bison in the Bialowieza.
That as not all. With the help and cooperation of anti-Jewish Poles, the Jewish foresters whose families had tended the forest were sent off to the gas chambers.
The idea of nature being integral to a nation could unify as well as divide people. The Nazis took over the hunt but purged the forest of people not seen as native to Europe. Earlier, Polish nationalists had restocked the forest with zoo-bred bison to reclaim their sense of a country with a history rooted in nature.
As Schama writes, “A certain idea of landscape, a myth, a vision establishes itself in an actual places”, becoming “part of the scenery”. Animals can embody more than their forest or mountain home, being imbued with all too human features. They could be symbols that appealed to some but left others out.
This is graphically brought out in western India in the wild boar preserves of local princes. In Ghatiyali, the Sawar Raj still evoked memories among peasants and herders of being a time of “pleasure mingled with pain”. Ann Grodzins Gold, the Syracuse University anthropologist and her co-author Bhoju Ram Gujjar, have records of a difficult and not so distant past.
Villagers were subject to many taxes, including forced labour. But none was more dreaded that the ban on self-defence against the great sounders of wild boar that could cause havoc in their fields. The boars lived in open scrub, a place of berries and fruits, a source of wood for the hearth and fodder for goats.
But the pleasure of the open lands could not be seen apart for the suffering and pain the princes’ boars inflicted on the crops and those who lived on them. No wonder the boars and the open lands mostly vanished soon after the accession in 1947.
Can nature and nation combine in more wholesome and just ways than in Poland of the past or the Ghatiyali of the princes? It matters and not just to the bison and boars. To give nature a future, we need to overcome the ghosts of our own pasts.

Mahesh Rangarajan is an environmental historian and co-editor of The Environmental History of India (Permanent Black, In Press).

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