Magazine article International Wildlife

When 32 Artists Went to Poland

Magazine article International Wildlife

When 32 Artists Went to Poland

Article excerpt

They came from 15 countries to try to help save Europe's last best wetland

FROWNING AND SHAKING his head, the Polish boy made it clear to the sculptor from Stahlstown, Pennsylvania, that the rooster he was modeling was not quite right. The boy spoke no English, and the sculptor, Larry Barth, spoke no Polish. All they could do was gesture at each other.

Sitting in a wooden barn in a remote village in northeast Poland, Barth was demonstrating how he could turn an unpromising lump of clay into the head and shoulders of a lively bird. His young critic and other curious villagers were crowding into the barn for an exhibition of work by Barth and 31 other artists who had been underfoot for two weeks.

The artists had come from 15 countries to visit the village of Waniewo and its surroundings as an experiment in the power of art. The visitors specialize in portraying wildlife and nature. Now, under the auspices of a new organization, they had converged to see if their work could benefit nature. Their current cause: saving one of the last great unspoiled wetlands in Europe, the marshes in Poland's Narew and Biebrza River Valleys.

The force that took the 32 artists to Poland was Ysbrand Brouwers, a Dutch landscape architect, with twin passions for wildlife and art. Inspired by Canadian artist Robert Bateman's speeches calling for environmentalism among wildlife painters, Brouwers had begun to plan how artists might focus public attention on a threatened natural area.

First Brouwers tried the idea close to home, in May 1990. With two artist friends, Eric Van Ommen and Robin Darcy Shillcock, Brouwers and his wife, Etha, arranged a working visit to the bird-rich Dutch barrier island of Schiermonnikoog.

The success of this early venture (artists arrived from half a dozen countries) gave rise to more ambitious plans. Brouwers launched the Artists for Nature Foundation (ANF) as a formal entity for setting up future expeditions.

Searching for the next project, the new organization consulted the Swiss-based World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). The recommendation: Go to Poland, to Europe's last broad expanse of undisturbed peat mire--in the lower basins of the Biebrza and Narew Rivers.

Planning began in 1990 in the aftermath of the fall of Communism. The fragile wetland had escaped development only because of the region's poverty. Now, with new capital likely to flow from the West, Poland faced changes that could have lasting effects on both birds and people.

Although Warsaw is less than 200 kilometers away (124 mi. , the broad river basins are remote places. Scattered villages of wooden buildings lie hidden among trees on moraines that rise above the marshland. In each village is a church, and along the dusty roads are wayside crosses and statues of the Blessed Virgin, often with fresh flowers left by the faithful.

Once, similar lowland river valleys dotted Europe, from Ireland to Russia. There were mazes of meanders, creeks, oxbows and marshes like those in Biebrza and Narew, but farmers drained most of the continent's wetlands in the name of agricultural improvement.

For any human on the ground in northeast Poland, or, more properly, on the water, towering beds of reed and sedge obscure the vast reaches of the marshes. Landmarks disappear, and it is easy to become lost. Local boatmen still find their way by recognizing the shapes of clumps of trees.

Migrating birds on the way to their northern breeding grounds find refuge in 100,000 hectares (247,000 acres) of wetland only gently touched by man. So far 235 species have been recorded passing through or breeding in the marshes, including enough unusual kinds to encourage birders from across Europe to journey to the Biebrza and Narew. The rewards can be spectacular--male great snipes performing noisy communal displays on spring evenings, thrush nightingales singing on spring nights and, in the early morning, male ruffs, bearing extravagant feather ornaments of browns and blacks and whites as they compete for dominance of their display grounds. …

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