It is still dark when I hike on a mountain slope in the drizzling rain. My headlamp shines on the narrow path that zigzags through the forest. My hands are cold, my head still sleepy, but the forest is already wide awake: its fresh morning smell flows through the air, comes down from the trees, and up from the muddy earth. Birds are chirping, tree branches crack under my feet. God knows what time it is: we have left our watches, phones and other modern devices behind three days ago. We are here to disconnect, enjoy the silence, listen to the natural world around us and reconnect with ourselves.
Matei, our guide, is walking in front of me. I follow his slow, steady pace. Matei grew up in a village on the border of the forest and spend many long summers in the house of his grandmother in the mountains. No one knows the area better than this guy. So when Rewilding Europe and WWF Romania announced that they wanted to bring back the European bison to the area and needed rangers, he immediately signed up. Most days Matei is walking alone, observing the behavior of bison in the wild, checking the fences of the acclimatization zone where new bison come in on a regular basis, or gathering bison faeces to study their diet and detect possible diseases. His lonely work is not without danger: rangers have been killed here in the recent past by illegal loggers.
This week Matei is guiding us, a group of Dutch professionals who are participating in a rewilding leadership programme. The programme is organized by Nature Lab in cooperation with Rewilding Europe and the European Safari Company. After a good hour - I guess - Matei stops in a meadow and instructs all of us to be in our own quiet place and listen. Just listen. After a few minutes I lay down in the high wet grass, looking into the sky. I become aware of my immediate environment, a snail passing by, a shiny bug moves into the other direction, a bird sails by. We spend the following days walking, often in silence. One morning we see a long black snake rolled up in the grass. “What is that snake trying to tell us?,” asks Jasper, one of the facilitators from Nature Lab. “The snake that is changing his skin every year. What can we learn from it?”
That night, after a great dinner prepared by Matei’s wife, we sit around a fire in the camp. In the distance we hear the sound of the river that flows through the center of the valley. Above us, the milky way lights up the overwhelming darkness. What thoughts have come up when you embrace the silence? The following day, late in the morning, we encounter the iconic beast of the area: a bison. Silently, he is moving through the bushes, eating the bark of young trees. At some point, the animal sees us, stops eating and gives us the stare. His message is clear and we move out of his comfort zone. He only continues to eat when we are at around 100 meter distance and he feels safe enough to continue his midday meal.
Long ago, this was a regular sight as the bison was roaming around Europe in large herds. Now, the European bison is even more rare than the rhino. In fact, the European bison is on the brink of extinction. Rewilding Europe and WWF Romania have brought back the bison to this area and hope to rewild an enormous area of land, threatened by illegal logging. I am motivated to contribute to this cause, but how can I contribute with my own, unique talent? What impact do I like to create? What potential, what power lies inside of me, waiting to be unleashed? ‘Damn, it is time for action,’ I realize when I continue walking that afternoon, in the footsteps of Matei, through a dark forest.
- Maarten van der Schaaf, December 2019