Naliboki Forest as a part of my life
Updated: Mar 31
One of the posts of this blog about Naliboki Forest and subitem of the introduction in the respective book about this terrain is a rather interesting for the main author part telling about his unity with Naliboki Forest. It will definitely help the reader to imagine how this own book project about Naliboki Forest came out. That means that I would like to tell the readers about the events of the author’s life that connected him with Naliboki Forest and also to say some words about what inspired the author to attain completing and publishing this book in which a lot of work and resources had been put. Some people may think that this almost autobiographical chapter does not necessarily have to exist in a book about Naliboki Forest. If so, I apologize in advance because I think that it could be of some interest to the readers. If I were not the author, but just a reader of that book, such a short story about the author’s bonds to the infor-mational, ideological and emotional orienta-tion of the book would be interesting to me.
People, who know that I have been persistently working on the book about Naliboki Forest for a lot of years, have been frequently asking me whether I come from there myself. No, I am not from there; I was not born nor raised there. As I have already mentioned, it all happened in Miensk, or, to be more accurate, near Miensk, in the village Haradzishcha which is to the east of Miensk. But when I sometimes think of associating myself with some kind of a small motherland which my soul longs to, I think not only of Haradzhishcha and its suburbs or my grandparents’ home land in the Dubovaye locality (about one km from the village), but surely of Naliboki Forest, too. It seems that in such an attitude towards this beloved terrain, not only the fascination of that land, its natural preservation from the greedy human use of everything it has are essential to me, but also the local people, and not only the present ones, but mainly the ones, who used to live there long ago, if they are even possible to be imagined. I am fascinated by such significant and even odd features of their physiology in the unity with the natural way of the whole forest life of all the breathers. I am not less fascinated by their ability to bear the misfortunes caused by the nature, no matter whether it is bad weather or damages caused by predators, or something else. Some kind of concurrency of the locals’ lives with the seasons, comparatively calm way of life, relative forest freedom distant from the district centers and authorities and many other things attract me as well. I am attracted by the remains of customs of the past peasant culture with the coating of the Christian piety. In fact, those remains is the only thing that is left because the former peasant culture rapidly disappeared during some radical and sometimes forcible reorganizations of life in the times of the USSR, and it is still disappearing now, during the fast development of the technology and mass migration to places like Miensk. A fundamental question arises sometimes: will this progress make people happier? And I know the answer. I am definitely sure that any modern super-earner or government official is less happy than ordinary people that used to live in Naliboki Forest centuries ago without any cars, smartphones, computers or even electricity. That is why it will not be surprising to me if one day I and my family move from Haradzishcha to Naliboki Forest.
I first got to know Naliboki Forest in August of 1969 when I was seven years old, so it happened in a bit childish way. My father Yawhien Sidorovich and his niece’s husband Aliexandr Hres’ went fishing to the lake Kroman’ situated in the backwoods of Naliboki Forest, in a small soviet car “Zaparozhets”. My father took me with him for that three-week holiday. An acquaintance of Aliexandr Hres’, Yazep Hryhartsevich, who lived at the khutar (i.e. steading, homestead) Kroman’ was a forester. We agreed in advance that we would be permitted to put up our tent and park the car on the territory of his homestead; he also agreed to lend us his boat and supply us with some food produced at the khutar. First, we drove from Miensk to the locality Ivianiets, then to the village Naliboki from which we turned into the forest driving along an old road that led from the Naliboki village to the lake Kroman’. That road could also lead you to the villages Paniamon’ and Shchorsy, or to the locality Budy and S’miejna. The road that used to be well-built and in some places it was a real jetty, was destroyed by heavy timber carrying vehicles. Big and dirty puddles in locality Tsiakuchaye were hard to get through.
Aliexandr warned us that when we drove through the biggest puddles near Kroman’, we would probably get stuck there and would have to wait for help for a long time. We would have to wait until someone came there from any side of the road to be able to practically carry the cars through those puddles. We would have to wait up to 24 hours and maybe even more, so it was possible that we would have to spend the night there. That was exactly what happened: we got stuck there. On our way from Naliboki I was highly impressed by the old coniferous forest with huge pines and spruces that are no longer there, because they were cut down. Or, maybe, they only seemed to be so big because I was too small at that time. To our surprise, we did not have to wait long, some people came in two forestry vehicles and altogether we managed to get our cars out of those puddles. Two long and strong spruce trunks 10–15 cm in diameter prepared by Aliexandr and his father in advance were used for that. That was how we got to the lake Kroman’ and the Hryhartsevich’s khutar (homestead).
I was impressed by many things there. Some of them impressed me emotionally, and some left an imprint on me for a long time, maybe for the rest of my life. First of all, it was the freedom of the forest and the khutar that I have mentioned above and something that could not be felt in Miensk and near the place where I was raised. Second, the language spoken there, practically pure Belarusian language, different but fascinating, was pronounced by the Hryhartseviches in such a harmonious and tasteful way that made everyone want to speak that language. Being a son of Russian-speaking parents I had already heard quite a lot of Belarusian words by that time from my grandmother Vol’ha Viktarovich. But the speech of the Hryhartsevichs was much more beautiful, because it almost did not have any Russian words or accent, which obviously makes the speech clumsy and deprives it of the linguistic grace. And third, a lot more things that were interesting and special. The Hryhartsevichs kept a little lynx and I used to play with it, which was very memorable.
There was a mini-distiller for producing moonshine in a separate building on the territory of the khutar. I saw moonshine being produced there, and memorized it because everything there seemed to be filled with some kind of unknown before peculiarities and colour. Right there, at the khutar, there was a huge thirty liters cast-iron pot, where crayfish were boiled every day. Crayfish were caught with a kryga (a special net stretched out between the trees that looks like a turned upside down Cyrillic letter “ш”) near the lake. I took part in that process many times. And then, on the sly, I often let the crayfish out back into the lake or just onto the grass in the yard. We all together and sometimes just me, a young teenager, rowed the boat across the lake to its other side, where the river Kramanitsa flowed out. There the remains of the basement of the pre-war Polish gateway was a good place for fishing, especially for perches. I remember casting the line, watching the float swim one or two meters and sink. And there it was – a perch. A little one, but still. After two or three hours I had the whole bucket of perches. In addition you could catch some roaches or daces. I remember the resolute, well-built and handsome Hryhartsevich’s son, whose name was also Yuzik (like his father’s name – Yasep, Yuzik, Yuzaf). I envied him and wanted to be like him when I grew up. Unfortunately, when I met Yuzik not long ago, after many years, he was not as handsome as he used to be and his speech now had a lot of mixed Belarusian and Russian words, but he was still the same man of resolution. After spending almost two weeks at Kroman’ with my father, I headed back home a little earlier as being a child I missed my mother Rita. But when I came home I immediately felt the desire to go back to Kroman’, but how?
The continuation of my acquaintance with Naliboki Forest took place after a long time, when I turned 18, and that happened in spring of 1980. I was a student of the Miensk University. I and my friend Siarhiej Saluk started to spend our weekends in the village Piasochnaye, which is near the locality Mir, at our groupmate Piotr Kapura parents’ place. One side of Naliboki Forest, to be more precise, its south-eastern angle, which is also sometimes called the Mir Forest, was right there. And again, besides the captivating and ecological diverse places like the swamp Vowchaye, the river Miranka, the valley of the Nioman near the village Bierazhna and surroundings of the khutars of Luzha, I remember very clearly the rich Belarusian speech of the Kapuras, the speech of their neighbours and the full-fledged stock-raising business in the Kapuras’ residence. We were treated there very well, and I would like to believe that it was because of the hosts’ kind nature, or who knows, maybebecause they had two marriageable daughters.
I took my next step to Naliboki Forest, or, to be more accurate, to its north-eastern part in winter of 1982-1983. My above-mentioned friend Siarhiej Saluk and I got to the khutar Vialikaye Piechyshcha, where quite a poor family of Romak Margul’ and Yadzviha (some people called her Irina for unknown reason) Dalidovich lived. We were interested in otters and other semiaquatic mammals, and the river Vol’ka was situated not faraway there. Primevalness of this small river valley that flowed through forests and swamps excited us so much when we looked through those places on an old Soviet army geographical map of the 1920s, which was also called “kilamietrowka”. Siarhiej asked his father, Uladzimir Saluk, to get those maps as, working in the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Belarus, he had access to them. He liked to go fishing somewhere down the river Vol’ka too and those places attracted him on the whole. That is why Siarhiej’s father indulged and even helped him and me at the same time in our passion for otters, the river Vol’ka and Naliboki Forest on the whole. I managed to save those maps and now I sometimes look through them treating like a relic.
A house in Vialikaye Pechyshcha, 1984 and 1986; a mouse on the table in the house.
Ever since we got to the khutar Vialikaye Piechyshcha, we became its most frequent visitors. We used to spend long winter nights in their small house without electricity. We also used to speak Belarusian a lot. After a little time we got to know nearly the entire hosts’ way of life, which was not very rich in events. But still it was quite interesting to have conversations with them as Yadzviha and Romak told us the same stories in different ways; every time they added new details, which could be truthful or not. But that did not matter because we were still captivated by everything there. We were captivated by their stoic life with their three and later four kids. We were captivated by risky job of producing moonshine, and it was hard for us to judge them, because they did not have any other choice to get money to survive. Really, that was the only way of making at least some money for their remote forest living with the kids.
Yadzviha was a very good interlocutor and storyteller. She told us unusual stories about a weasel that braided their horse’s mane, about some creature with grey hair which walked along the glade in Piechyshcha, or about “zapiechnik”, “zashapnik” and “paddashnik” (magic creatures that are believed to live in a house behind the chimney, behind the wardrobe or under the roof), and about other magic creatures.
To my great regret, Yadzviha and Romak left their beautiful khutar one sunny day in early October of 1985. I helped them to move to the village of Vuhly at the north-eastern edge of Naliboki Forest. That was a really sad event. They and I felt that. The family stayed in Vuhly for a few years and then they moved to the village of Sivitsa about two km farther from the edge of Naliboki Forest. They needed to educate their children. Their elder daughter had to go to the third grade already, but there was not a school in Vialikaye Piechysahcha. In Vuhly and Sivitsa Yadzviha had six more children and died young. Romak and his sisters looked after the numerous children.
After Romak and Yadzviha left Piechyshcha, I by myself or with Siarhiej Saluk or with some other university acquaintances would go to their lonely house in Vialikaye Piechyshcha with the permission of the owners. I would spend a week or more there on my own a couple of times. It was the unforgettable time of loneliness and, at the same time, quick and unassisted studying of the ecology of wild mammals and birds and getting valuable experience of living in the wild. That went on until 1992, when while burning dry grass local herdsmen accidentally burned Romak and Yadzviha’s khutar. After that, being deeply moved I stopped visiting Vialikaye Piechyshcha.
As far back as 1984, during that time when I stayed in Vialikaye Piechyshcha, I started going hiking on foot or by boat in summer and especially in winter exploring the forest. Those terrain outings were made in order to study the ecology of otters. Every winter of 1985-1990 I would examine the biggest part of the waterway net of Naliboki Forest on foot. In summer I used to examine the rivers of Naliboki Forest by a kayak or by a small inflatable boat. The most frequently visited place was the valley of the river Vol’ka in the central part of Naliboki Forest.
Vadim Sidorovich doing research on otters and minks at the mouth of the river Valozhinka in 1985 (left) and at the river Vol’ka in 1984 (right).
Our first photos of the otter in Naliboki Forest, 1983.
The river Biarezina in 1984 and Vadim Sidorovich doing research on otter at the Biarezina in 1987, Naliboki Forest.
I also liked visiting the south-eastern part of Naliboki Forest, where a huge swamp in the localities of Khmielishcha, Dzieraminishcha, Vohminy, Puhach, S’viaty Kalodziezh and Prudzishcha, which is not far from the mentioned above Kroman’, was being drained. Despite the increase in the amount of the draining works in that area, a lot of wild and ecologically rich habitats, which attracted my attention, remained there. At that time I took a lot of photos, which I used in my research of otters and other semiaquatic mammals and which I thought were interesting.
Quite a lot of interesting that time photos of some practically primeval parts of that unique terrain have been saved.
At the edge of the lake Biazdonnaye and the Khmelishcha marshland, Naliboki Forest, 1966. Photo from the private collection of Khvedar Luhanousky.
During such expeditions through Naliboki Forest I frequently spent nights in khutars and hamlets. I might have visited almost every one of them. Quite often I visited Roma and Yawhien Shybut in the hamlet of Navusts’ and Baliaslaw and Hienuefa Sadowski in the khutar of Kozie Pienna. Those places are situated near the river Vol’ka in the central part of Naliboki Forest, some 14-18 km from the locality of Vialikaye Piechyshcha. It was interesting to listen to Roma and Yawhien telling about local people’s life, special forest news while Baliaslaw who knew the forest and its wildlife thoroughly could compel my attention narrating stories about his forest challenges and adventures. A friend of his and a co-worker, Lenard Yurevich, who lived nearby, at the khutar Yas’kava, used to visit Baliaslaw quite often. I got to know him, a real expert in local wildlife and local people, a little bit later. Both families, the Sadowskis and the Shybuts, used to treat me with local moonshine full of very special odour and taste which went down easy and was quite tasty. All that was very nice and I keep it in my memory.
By the way, I got to the hamlet of Navusts’ and to the Shybuts’ residence, which played a big role in my life connected with Naliboki Forest, for the first time in April of 1984 during the trip on my above-mentioned inflatable boat down the rivers Sivichanka, Vol’ka and Biarezina. That was my first descend of the beloved river Vol’ka. At that time I spent a night near Navusts’ at the Vol’ka valley in a clump of some huge oaks. Those oaks were lucky enough not to get cut down and now they are still standing there surprised to be safe and sound when everything else was cut down. When I had floated one kilometer down the Vol’ka, I got into a misty clearing and some homesteads were located to its right side. I went ashore and walked around the hamlet. I clearly remember the last house in a remote place, which stood separately like a khutar. It was the Shybuts’ residence. I thought that it would be perfect to buy such a place and use it as terrain research facilities for conducting zoological researches and as a peaceful place for the forest life deprived of many vices of the civilization. Having dreamt a little and watched the elderly landlady being busy with the cattle from afar, I went to the woods in the direction of Bakshty by the only northern road that was there at that time. After three kilometers or so of walking I heard a shot and then another one somewhere near there. When I came to the place where the shots were made, I saw a bony man in his about 60s emaciated by work. He had just hunted the second capercailye and was obviously not glad to see a stranger, because he looked at me with doubt and some kind of hidden indignation. It could be easily explained as hunting for capercailyes was prohibited, especially there. But, when he realized that the young stranger, who had unexpectedly appeared, did not constitute a menace, he calmed down. We talked a little about capercailyes and otters there. He also pointed out that he and his father fed their families with capercailyes every spring, and luckily their population was not getting any smaller. Then, when he felt my trust and some kind of interest, he invited me to his house. That man was Yawhien Shybut – the owner of the homestead, where I saw the busy landlady a couple of hours ago. Yawhien was a forester. Despite the early hour, we drank a couple of shots of their homemade strong alcohol and I was also treated with some capercailye meat stewed in the stove. It was made in grease until it got red and I still remember how delicious it was. I got half of a capercailye to go. I roasted that meat on coals and ate it half-done. It was tasty too, but not as delicious as the meat stewed in the stove.
Afterwards, I started visiting the Shybuts sometimes. I was always welcomed and treated well there. The hosts used to tell me all the news of the forest and other things. I liked it very much and the hosts seemed to think of me as of a pleasant and a close friend. In Miensk I used to buy some Balsam Belaruski to treat them, and they loved this quite tasty liquor. As for me, being absolutely light-headed at that time, I preferred the host’s moonshine from an oak cask which was like good whiskey – full of odour, taste and colour. It was not like vodka which I never drink because of its tastelessness.
Yawhien and Roma Shybut at the hamlet Navust’ in Naliboki Forest, 1982 (left), 1969 (right). Photo from the private collection of Anatol’ Shybut.
That is why when in the early 2000s Yawhien died and Roma could not stay there living on her own in the backwoods of Navusts’, their homestead was easily sold to me. She, in her turn, moved to her elder son Tolik, who lives in Valozhyn. That is how I got the homestead that I had been dreaming of since I first saw it. I was always glad to invite Roma to Navusts’ and she could stay there as long as she wanted, and one time she did actually come. But soon Roma got deeply touched by her old home. She said that everything there was already not hers and left. I had never seen her since then, and two years later she, being cut off her home, died. I still feel surprised by the fact that she could sell me her home. But at the same time I am grateful to Roma for that and for her hospitality.
But, let us get back to my trips around Naliboki Forest at the end of the 1980s. They were very informative not only from the point of view of zoological studies. During my conversations with the locals I got to know and to see many things about their life in the backwoods of the Forest with its considerable freedom and the necessity to work hard in their quite developed husbandries. But it was a pity that at that time I was not interested in photographing the scenes of the peasant life and, first of all, of their husbandry works. That would have been of a great use for the book. Meanwhile, I spent a lot of nights in the natural environment regardless of the time of the year. I got used to the cold and all the other inconvenience of such winter overnight stays and even enjoyed them. And most importantly, being in the nature I saw a lot of things and that improved my skills and experience to stay in the wild, which I needed some time later.
From the beginning of the 1990s or so I started to gradually neglect Naliboki Forest because of Paazierre Forest, where I aimed to analyze the vertebrate predator-prey community that dwelled in semi-natural environment. Naliboki Forest was not a good option as the total draining of the swamps took place there and also a whole number of species of predators, like the European mink and brown bear, had disappeared there. But those species could have still been found in Paazierre Forest. Although I had always dreamt of going back to Naliboki Forest, and not just an amateur, but to do some zoological studies there. I had also dreamt of buying a homestead somewhere in the backwoods of Naliboki Forest. Despite my being busy, I used to go there from time to time. When the rivers were not covered by ice, I liked to float down the river Islach or Vol’ka and then till the mouth of the river Biarezina, and then to go up the Nioman till the village Dzialiatychy, and from there I went to Miensk somehow.
The confluence of the Nioman Father and the Biarezina impressed me greatly by its spontaneous power, picturesque beauty and eternity. Since then, I have gone to this place every year and I feel like going back there again and again and again. The village Dzialiatychy where I got by the Nioman was another great impression because of its village colouring especially in cobble-stone Vilenskaya street with its old, built before the War but still beautiful houses, skillfully built wooden church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, and numerous stork nests.
From 2000, having more or less done the studies of the predation in vertebrate communities in Paazierre Forest, I decided to move those studies to Naliboki Forest. I set out towards Naliboki Forest. As for my zoological research in the Forest, I could define its aims and objectives within much deeper scientific and conceptual competence based on my earlier acquired research experience. When I bought the Shybuts’ homestead in the forest environment my life significantly changed. That time in Naliboki Forest my research group and me investigated a lot of interesting and even new issues on predators life and launched a long-term monitoring of important species of vertebrate animals. Those activities are worth a detailed description in separate articles of this blog along with articles about the valley of the Nioman in the south of Naliboki Forest, the ones about the Biarezina in the Forest, about Dzialiatychy and about a lot of things that are in the Forest. Time to finish this post but I cannot help noticing that in 2000 the wolf and the lynx became my favourite species of zoological research. In Naliboki Forest from the Navusts’ field station I began to investigate the still insufficiently studied questions of the wolf reproductive behaviour and ecology as well as ecology and behavior of lynxes which I will talk about later.
All my life has been focused on that. Every May I search for wolf litters and discover up to five dens with pups. I have never killed wolf cubs, but trace the wolf pack during the first year of the pups. All these activities do not happen without companions and friendship that is based on the interest towards wolves and lynxes. Hopefully, it will go on like that.