In July, I was fortunate to travel to the Suwalki Region, which is known as the Green Lungs of Poland. In Northeastern Poland, near the Lithuanian Border, there are 85 nature areas and 15 protected areas. It is one of the most ecologically clean areas I have traveled to. In the less developed parts of Poland, away from big cities or larger scale farms, the water is much cleaner and there is an abundance of biodiverse native vegetation and zooplankton.
Polish farmers across Poland only use pesticides when absolutely necessary, and smaller farms rather than big farms are the norm in this region. The country has been one of the biggest recipients of EU subsidies and organic farms are the fastest growing food market, increasing by about 20 percent per year. They are poised to become one of Europe’s largest food producers and with a tendency not to use chemicals and fertilizers, they could become one of the largest organic producers. Additionally, Poland is one of 14 European nations to ban GMO foods. Farmers are being educated on the on the dangers of nitrogen runoff, and local governments are planting trees along streams and creeks as biological barriers. https://www.nationsencyclopedia.com/economies/Europe/Poland-AGRICULTURE.html#ixzz5xj1aATjB; http://www.food-exhibitions.com/Market-Insights/Poland/Organic-food-Poland’s-fastest-growing-food-market
Iwona Sliczny, who owns an organic farm with her husband said the following to a reporter when being interviewed about that differences between small and big farms, “As an organic farm we have birds and insects around and healthy soils with a lot of animals living in it. Soils are vitally important to all of us. My favourite days are when I can just focus on the ground under my feet and count the worms.” In this region, there were many wildflowers (albeit a bit dry from the drought this summer) and insects right next to farms and the rivers and lakes were quite healthy, with huge species richness in terms of rotifers, cladoceran and crustaceans as will be covered in the subsequent blog.
Yet, not everywhere is Poland is farming such a rosy picture and in fact, Poland is one of the biggest contributors to algae pollution in the Baltic Sea. According to scientists working on the Soils2Sea Project, “Polish rivers transfer 25 to 50% of all nitrates and phosphorus that reach the Baltic Sea, roughly 60% of all nitrogen and 40% of all phosphorus delivered originate from factory farms.” One of the reasons for this is Poland’s poor soil quality, which makes it very permeable and prevents it from stopping or decomposing biological and industrial waste. Additionally, a great deal of the water pollution Poland is dealing with in more developed parts of the country is the result of farming practices from the 1970s and 1980s, before they became so enlightened about the consequences of the dangers of fertilization and chemicals. http://scienceinpoland.pap.pl/en/news/news%2C27913%2Cdr-wachniew-polish-waters-will-remain-polluted-several-decades.html
My host, biologist and photographer Marek Mis, found it somewhat comical that I kept referring to the corn and other crops as happy, but these non GMO, un-chemically treated fields did seem to produce food that look healthier if not happier. And I know is wife is an amazing cook, but some of the credit must be due to the delish food Poland produces. Marek’s son told me when people move away, it’s the food they miss most! This particular field was right below the walking trail to Cisowa Mountain, the view from which is shown below.
The pristine Suwalki Landscape Park is the oldest landscape park in Poland. After taking in the sweeping vista of rolling hills, valleys, and lakes that were formed in the Late Ice Age, we drove on to Turtul Lake, which is actually a reservoir for the Turtle village in the Suwalki Landscape Park that was created by damming the Czarna Hancza River. This water body was one of the places where we went to sample for microscopic photography, which will be the subject of the next blog. The concentration of nutrients that can contribute to algae blooms here is much less, mainly because the phosphate load is so low. The lake has abundant ciliate, rotifer, and crustacean communities. There were also fields of wildflowers surrounding the lake and many native grasses.
The knapweed growing by the edge of the reservoir and shown close up in the image above is a highly beneficial plant for bees and butterflies, including the marbled white butterfly. It is also the only known food for caterpillars of the case-bearer moth Coleophora didymella.
The sound of the grasses rustling as we basked in 70 degree weather at the edge of this long and beautiful lake was absolutely mesmerizing, and I had little doubt why this region has been named the Green Lungs of Poland.
There are other lake-filled areas in the region and I was fortunate to go daily to the Wigry National Park. It was astounding to see the water in the midst of an old growth forest where nothing has been disturbed. There is a serenity that cannot be described but only experienced, especially since there are so few old growth forests left in the world.
The more encompassing views of these lakes are quite remarkable, but I became even more astounded as I looked closer and closer. There are so many species of grasses and plants and aquatic vegetation, and the majority of it is native. The area is teeming with life, and all these plants also serve as a buffer between the waterways here and the surrounding landscape. Pollution is very difficult to find here..
Then scene below was unlike anything I have witnessed since I began water work. There are reflections of trees, pine needles, ferns, and other vegetation, but if you look closer you can see rich biofilm and all kinds of creatures that are more visible microscopically. Ever square inch oozes life and there is healthy surface tension in the water. Sadly, in the United States our water equality is deteriorating so rapidly that it is often difficult to see any signs of life, especially on the surface of the water.
Below are some images of biodiversity in this land of lakes. There are so many types of grasses and wildflowers. Cow wheat (the second image) was plentiful, but it is of no known food value and has been described as parasitic, possibly of trees which is likely why we saw a lot of it. The third image is beside a dirt road next to a field by the edge of the park.
It was interesting to see the old and new course of the Czarna Hancza, as it has naturally meandered over time. I was shocked to see so many native grasses underwater, fresh and green and not cloaked in algae. It made me think back to the springs and rivers of North Florida . They too were beautiful like this once.
Deep in the Wigry National Forest, you can find ancient plants like Puzzlegrass, the only known species that reproduces by spores instead of seeds. Equisetum proliferated in their greatest numbers during the Devonian Era more than 350 million years ago. It is always astonishing to me to come across these plants who have survived so many climactic and geological changes.
In the Suwalki Landscape Park, there is also a boardwalk through some very wild forest habitat where wolves still roam.
One evening we went to the Camaldolese Monastery in Wigry. It was located on a peninsula and I will post photos of it in a future blog. The image above and below are of Wigry Lake, the largest lake in the park. It is a prime tourist destination, but at dusk we had it pretty much to ourselves and were able to delight in the peace and calm it exuded as dusk settled in.
Couldn’t end the blog without posting this photo of Polish ponies that we saw on our way home on one of the days we were testing water. The baby was particularly cute.
So grateful to my spectacular hosts, Marek, Ania, and Tomak for showing me their beautiful country and making me feel so welcome. At times I felt like I was living in another age, one before we started decimating clean water and air on this planet. There are still corners in the world like this and when you go there, you feel instantly healthier and more balanced. It is important to preserve such places, so we can remember what it was like before. Though it is impossible for areas to return to this state, as old growth forests do not arise over night, but see ecosystems in balance like this can teach us a lot and perhaps even provide direction for preservation efforts.