The silence is unprecedented for spring, a time of bird song and insect hymns. It’s a silence I’ve never known in this forest in fact, this wild tangle of silver birch and willow, alders, shrubs and reeds. Even in deepest winter the place resounds with a living quiet, a mute but sensed presence. Instead there is the hollow echo of absence.
I have been here before. Not only to this rare and mysterious place along the shores of the lake but amidst the constituents of its devastation: ash, cinders and ignorance. This part of the world has a dark history of fire being used as an economic instrument, a way of clearing the land of trees to get around restrictions on development or for additional, illegal grazing. The fires often shift wildly out of control, having been lit purposefully on days with high winds in order to push the flames as far as possible, and they occasionally lead to vast and devastating conflagrations like some of the fires in the Peloponnese caused by arson a few years ago. The acrid scent of smoke is common throughout the land.
Returning home after a day away we discovered that the silver birch forest hugging the southern shore of Great Prespa Lake had been set ablaze – the orchestrated work of arson. The fire trucks weren’t on alert in April, stowed in the nearest town 50 kilometres of mountain road away. By the time they came over the high, winding pass and descended into the lake basin the parts of the forest still visible through the haze had been burned beyond recognition. A fortunate turn of winds meant the loss was less than it might have been, where it could have spread into the deepest tracts and beyond the border into the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Instead it curled in on itself, giving the fire fighters a chance to douse it. With their work finally finished they confirmed the growing murmur of suspicion: the series of individual fires had been deliberately set.
As I approach the forest the sweet scent of blossom unrolls on a breeze. Beyond the white blooms fizzing with bees a black expanse shoulders out towards the lake. I slide rubber boots up to my knees and tuck my oldest pair of trousers inside them. Then I traipse a trail through ash. It lays in deep reefs, sometimes a foot thick and crisscrossed with charred branches and a few untouched reeds, the accumulated memory of a once-living time. I find myself wondering what organisms surround me, what’s been transformed into a singular and indistinguishable dark thing. The reek of fire pillows up with each step.
Animal tracks pock the ash; a skin of burnt bark has been sloughed off by deer. And everywhere the silence. The tips of trees just greening hold no birds or butterflies; no bees skim what would have been an unfolding forest floor. The silver birches weep sap from their sides, strange red drops that fall when they should be rising at this time of year. Where the bark has been singed it crinkles and peels, a forlorn set of pages being turned. There is a place for fire in the natural order of things – certain ecosystems wouldn’t exist without it – but not in this manner.
The silver birch forest in Prespa is a rare community of trees. Although a common northern species with a reputation for being invasive, the silver birch reaches its most southern distribution here. The elegant white tree wrapped in parchment-like bark clings to the very edge of its range around the lake. Mingling with willow, alder and poplar there are very few forest ecosystems of this composition to be found anywhere else in the country. And its origins are equally unique. For the past half-century the Prespa Lakes have been receding. Though the exact causes remain unknown, this loss has enabled a gain. The progressively exposed shorelines are ideal for damp-loving trees like the silver birch and willow, and this young forest community has emerged in the water’s place. It is an authentic wild wood, a unique and natural expression of trees. Hosting a rich variety of migrating and resident birds and insects, it also harbours an astonishing range of mammals for such a small parcel of land, including bear, badger, wild cat, fox, roe deer, otter and wild boar. A distinguished place within the basin.
The fires were probably set by, or on behalf of, the owners of animal flocks, either to curtail the forest’s expansion or to clear the reeds for grazing. The reeds will return more resolutely, however, bolstered by the nutrients in the ash, and the sandy lakeside land at the edge of the forest is too poor to provide much edible grass. But the fires continue all the same, despite the lack of any benefit. Not long ago a friend watched the process unfold through his telescope while he watched birds from a hill. The herder dipped cotton into oil and brought a lighter down to meet it before tossing it casually into a thicket of dry reeds. He then moved on and performed the process again. Within seconds a series of blazes rode away.
Some years ago I interviewed the director of the NGO concerned with the natural and cultural preservation of the Prespa Lakes, The Society for the Protection of Prespa. As the lakes straddle three countries I was interested in Myrsini Malakou’s thoughts on borders. At some point she shifted the conversation in a way that I hadn’t expected, away from the obviously political towards a line of thought that has as much, if not more, bearing on the future of many shared places: “You can’t say that the national border is more important than any other…There are the borders of interest and activity – the farmer, the fisherman, the environmentalist.” Walking through the burned forest I saw clearly how divisive and exclusive those borders can be.
I feel empty amidst the ash. I’ve experienced the resilience of the natural world before, how unexpectedly riotous it can be in the most fragile of times, but this doesn’t allay the sensation of sadness and loss, my powerless rage. What takes years to become can be undone in a day. What has laced together of its own accord into complex and varied life forms can easily be extinguished. That is the measure of man at his most destructive. The forest will regrow, of that I’m sure. But unless common ground can be found across the differing borders of interest and activity then environmental conflicts will continue. The ecological integrity of the world that sustains us will eventually collapse; it is simply a matter of time.
In ‘The Wild Marsh’ Rick Bass writes of his absorbing love for the Montana wilds where he lives, even when confronted with aspects of its destruction, the dissolution of its biological beauty: “But one of the key components of love is hope – enduring hope – and to let fear replace hope would be a bitter defeat indeed, a kind of failure in its own stead.”
The day is warming towards noon. My throat rasps from inhaling ash and the remains of smoke have left my eyes watery and raw, but amidst the black and feeble desert before me I see a peacock butterfly sunning itself on a singed stick. Its wings open and close slowly, like curtains on a summer breeze. I can find no other colour, no other life in this place drained of light, but it is enough. This small and fragile creature whose life spans days rather than years acts as a lens, a focus for more than it is, and I leave the fire and forest behind determined to do more than merely hope.
To read an earlier post on fire in the region click here.