Here is the forest. Not just a forest, but a puszcza: a Polish word that means a world of trees which have never been felled since the first bands of human beings arrived to hunt here. The Puszcza of Kniszyn, which begins north-east of the Polish city of Białystok, must be 10,000 years old.

To reach the village of Lipowy Most, I set off from the city Białystok along the road which leads to the Soviet frontier. I turned off the tarred highway at the spot where an oak tree grows upon a mound, a tree on which the Russians hanged Polish insurgents during the January Rising of 1863. That is to say: the vain Polish insurrection for independence, which began in January but which lasted for fifteen months – for even longer, in the puszcza.

The road to the village is made of sand and dust. It ends in a wide clearing, large enough for fields of rye and a cluster of wooden houses. The history of this village began in 1918, when the three empires which had partitioned Poland between them for 123 years – Russia, Germany and Austria – collapsed almost simultaneously. Poland stood up among the ruins and reclaimed its independence, and the new government decided to honour a man, by then old, who had fought for the nation in 1863. It gave him this land for his six sons, and their descendants are still here. But the government also intended, by settling veteran patriots and their children on this land, to post more sentries along what the Poles consider to be the eastern frontier of Europe – the przedmurze (bastion) of the Catholic West.

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