The principal large mammals in Białowieża are the bison, moose, wolf, boar, bobcat, and graduate student. The last spends a lengthy juvenile period studying forest theory in Western Europe before migrating in to do field work and possibly mate. The nutrient-rich graduate student is a cornerstone of the forest food pyramid, a conveniently mobile, heated feed bag for a variety of small cosmic horrors. Since there is so little real forest left in Europe, the supply of these initially pink-cheeked graduate students is limitless and easily replenished. If you step quietly, so as not to spook them, you can see them sometimes through the trees, catching frogs with nets, cataloguing the various insects buried in their skin, or peering resignedly into bird holes. They look pale.
As Romek and I walk deeper into the brambles, I find my own interest in the forest reciprocated by a dismaying variety of parasites. Anything with legs, wings and a bloodsucking proboscis has perked up and come to greet us as we enter areas that have gone a long, hungry time since their last warm mammal. The ticks are the most horrifying. Romek is talking to me about the subtleties of forest ecology when I see something with far too many legs run up from his collar directly into his ear canal. He doesn’t notice and keeps talking, but unconsciously pokes at his ear with an idle fingertip as I die on the inside. Moments later, of course, I feel a certain scrabbling at my own hairline. Whatever Romek says for the next hour is lost to me as I claw at myself, every once in a while catching a little facehugger that makes a tiny popping sound between my fingernails.