Poland has a hard, but sincere relationship with its natural environment and its protection. A great metaphor describing our current attitude to environment is a fact, that in 1999 the Ministry of Environmental Protection, Natural Resources and Forestry has changed its name to Ministry of Environment. Theoretically this purely administrative change brilliantly portrays how the „protection” of environment and climate has zoomed off our visual field and interest. The times of environmental protection has come to an end, and an era of its management has started. This is how we greeted the Anthropocene, a good decade before this term became popular.
Probably this fact wasn’t a simple coincidence, that this change had succeeded after more then two years of work of the controversial minister Jan Szyszko, lover of hunting and a climate skeptic. Among other things he exposed himself by issuing an approval for the construction of the Augustów ring road leading through the Rospuda Valley. He ratified an exceptionally damaging version for the unique environment of the biggest – in patches still untouched by human activity – wetland of Europe, starting by this an ongoing protest for the last 10 years. Environmentalists and activists were gathering in Rospuda to chain themselves to the trees, this act was still a much lesser anthropopressure, then enabling a construction of a ring road. Obviously, minister Szyszko has a problem with an environment that doesn’t carry undue trails of human activity, because during his next term he had issued an approval for an expanded logging of the last natural primeval forest of Europe, that is the Białowieża Forest. Harvesters and forwarders draw into the forest cutting out and taking away often more then hundred year old trees, irretrievably destructing the whole ecosystem. It is worth remembering that in the Forties, the Grand Hunter of the Reich, Hermann Göring had another mind-blowing plan to destroy the wilderness and turn it to a park, where the Nazis could have hunted great beasts. Unfortunately it was impossible to resurrect aurochs, so Jan Szyszko could only invite rich foreign tourist for bison hunting. What he certainly did in the guise of population control.
Jan Szyszko likes to justify his predatory environmental aspects with the biblical maxim “be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it”. Once he happened to claim, that “the carbon dioxide emitted in Poland is a gas of life for the living nature complexes to make them even better”. After all, he worked as an environmental minister all together serving through five cabinets, for 2545 days. However there is no way to deny his certain merits, including mainly his shoes and his arrogance. Some environmentalists consider even that a statue of Szyszko should be erected, as there was nobody else who had contributed that much to vivify people and to enhance interest in environmental protection, as he did.
Naturally, he is not the only Polish politician whose merits in the fight against natural environment are worth remembering. It is impossible to forget the appearance of Prime Minister, Ewa Kopacz at the traditional festivity of coal miners in Barbórka in a miners uniform. You can keep wondering, that as a Doctor of Medicine and an advocate for the right of smoking in public places, she didn’t appear at the Conference of the Tobacco Industry dressed as a pack of cigarettes. It would be more or less as reasonable as that. On the other hand the current Main Geologist of the Country, Mariusz Orion Jędrysek, moreover author of few volumes of limericks, quite recently said that „there is a lack of unambiguous relationship between concentration of gases and global temperature rise.” Admittedly, one had to sit fairly long time in a cave not to hear about the lack of this independence, but at the same time we know that writing poems requires concentration, preferably also a secluded place, so it can be excluded, that the minister has spent a lot of time under ground. Although Jędrysek believes that Poland has especially abundant natural resources, regardless he would like to set out on a miners conquest to the bottom of the Atlantic, against the European Union moratorium, against analysis of profitability, for the downfall of the marine environment protection and biodiversity. There are no means to debate rationally on the environment in a country, whose foresters are carting away trucks of dead wood from the forest. Ironically, passing by signs placed by themselves, which are actually educating tourists on the importance of this particular wood for the ecosystem of the wilderness.
Quotes and examples can be multiplied. It seems that predatory relationship towards nature is irrespective of party divisions and based on a deep belief, that man is the measure of all and nature owes him respect and obedience.
Obviously this is not the case. Wider and wider crowds of activists and artists eager to save the last patches of wild nature from human activity, are aware of this. The protection of the Białowieża Forest vivified actors and actresses, singers, poets and poetesses, and of course visual artists as well. Can art save the nature? I don’t know, if it can, but I know that it has to. Since it is impossible to act rationally, as in Poland substantive arguments are not enough, so maybe art will be able to create – not necessarily substantive, but effective and reaching out to people – emotions and energies.
I remember when I first came to the Wilderness Camp, which was erected by environmentalists to protect the Białowieża Forest, I had a chance to listen to different ideas on what can be done to stop the harvesters. Besides, chaining themselves to machines and blocking logging sites, also appeared ideas from the borderline of social performance. For example, there were ideas as follows, the forest should be patrolled by a man dressed up as a priest, or placing a crucifix, a Mother of God figure on the logging sites, or even creating somehow an appearance of the weeping Virgin Mary above the cut out trees. Provided that these ideas weren’t finally deployed, but quite similar ones were carried out. An artist experienced in protection of nature, Cecylia Malik has organised an action called “Polish Mothers on felling”, where women were breastfeeding children seated on the logs of cut out trees.
This direct reference to Pieta became a strong visual gesture of the opposition against the politics of the National Forests and the Ministry of Environment, which are hurting not only us, but other animal species, plants or mushrooms as well.
Finally, after many months of fight and scramble in between forest rangers, and policemen on one hand and activists and scientists on the other; the logging of the Wilderness was stopped. Of key importance was the sentence of The Court of Justice of the European Union and the possible penalty amounting to 100 thousand euro per day, threatening Poland in case the harvesters carry on with their activity. Extreme amount of trees were saved thanks to the Wilderness Camp, the organised blockades, patrols, walks and artistic actions. At the same time, it is hard to refuse the Camp its indisputable merits. Artists are often those avant-gardes, who are turning the attention of the society towards the burning problems of environmental protection. I guess, for some time at each and every Polish table there was a discussion about the impact of the European spruce bark beetle on the condition of the forests ecosystem.
Another absurd and harmful idea of the right-wing power regarding the environment, is the plan of river regulation, to serve the inland shipping, including a construction of a dam on the Vistula River in Siarzewo, near Ciechocinek. The planned aquatic dam not only damages the breeding habitat of rare birds, which is theoretically protected within the confines of the Natura 2000 program, but also – in spite of what claims the Ministry of Environment – can increase the risk of floods. These plans are opposing the Save the River Coalition and the Sisters of the River project, which was invented by Cecylia Malik and the activists of the Polish Mothers collective. Since, unfortunately the only species who has a genuine impact on changing the world is still the human, artists and activists are choosing themselves names from their favourite Polish rivers and becoming their personifications. The rivers cannot defend themselves, so they need their water nymphs who will fight in their name.
Two artists, Ewa Ciepielewska and Agnieszka Brzeżańska, within the confines of the project Flow, are trying to engraft in people a similar love for the Vistula and other rivers. Sailing down on a replica of a 15th century raftsman boat called “Galar Solny” – which they turned into their mobile artistic residence – is supposed to be a lesson on mindfullness, as well as an exercise on alternative economy, on sharing and manufacturing without being a cog of financial circulation, nor institutional structures.
Contact with the water seems to be important for the duo Sirens too, that is to Ewelina Jarosz and to Zofia Nierodzińska. During the Camp for the good vibes they had organised for the eager ones an eco-sexual performance, marrying of the Wilczyńskie Lake. After reading the manifesto of the freshwater creatures, we took an oath of faith to the water and joined with her in an amorous kiss.
The first Climate Camp in Poland was organised in Swiętne, a village in the administrative district of Gmina Wilczyn, where open-cut mines are destructively operating since seventy years, destroying nature, lives of surrounding residents and our climate. The level of groundwater is dropping year by year, picturesque lakes are drying up and the scenery is decorated by unrestored post-apocalyptic spoil heaps. At the Camp apart from the lectures and workshops, practically each day some artistic actions were taking place. Dobrawa Borkała has written for this occasion a “Breathing score for the climate”, which was based on doing together a series of breathing exercises, what we have done so. Hubert Wińczyk organised an acoustic walk, within the confines of which, due to advanced technology, one could immerse in the sound of the surrounding nature. Diana Lelonek and Piotr Macha built a post-ironic and post-apocalyptic hut from branches, rubbish and other culls of capitalistic culture. Looking at the hut and at the handbooks thrown around it, one could have an impression, that probably exactly this is how the world will come to its end. Not by a smash, but by whimpering and cluttering.
Restoring open-cut mine sites became an inspiration for another project of Diana Lelonek. Since the ground of the open-cut sites is very barren, almost nothing grows on it, apart from species that are used to flower on sand. Such a plant is a sea buckthorn. Planted on the spoil heaps by the mine workers, it has created a genuine grove in this post-apocalyptic scenery. Although wells, lakes and forests are drying out in the neighbourhood, the residents can at least relish one positive thing: the easy excess they have to sea buckthorn, known for its health-promoting properties. Benefiting from this abundance the artist has decided to make a sea buckthorn juice, for selling it during the 24th Climate Change Conference held in Katowice.
Lelonek is turning our attention to nature of the Anthropocene age since a long time, including collecting objects found in the forest overgrown by moss, or making a photomontage showing the probable future look of the building of the Polish Ministry of Environment, if it will succeed in realising its openly not pronounced mission of the ultimate annihilation of the homo sapiens. Fifty years after humans go extinct, on the whole Earth a beautiful wilderness will come into bloom again. I guess, that from the approaching devastation only sirens and nymphs can save us, but is that really in their interest?
Translation from Polish: Irén Sós
The project is co-financed by the Governments of Czechia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia through Visegrad Grants from International Visegrad Fund. The mission of the fund is to advance ideas for sustainable regional cooperation in Central Europe.