Kateri Kosek, whose poetry and reviews have appeared in Orion, recently left her Massachusetts home for a several-week trip to Poland. Here’s the first in a three-part series of dispatches from her travels.
On a damp, rainy afternoon, we turn into the yard my father grew up in, an inviting square of farm buildings sheltering a mostly dirt yard. Barn swallows, just like those in America, whiz by inches from our heads, cobalt bodies sharp with purpose.
A first cousin I’ve never met has just driven my father and me two hours north of Warsaw to the countryside near Ostrołęka, Poland, a small city whose power plant, paper mill, meat and dairy processing plants, and general lack of attractions have failed to earn it even one mention in the Polish guidebook. On the plane, I have been studying two languages: the Polish in my phrasebook and, somewhat more in my comfort zone, the Birds of Europe, second edition, specially ordered.
The barn swallows, hurtling themselves through open barn doors, knit continents together with their soft, familiar chatter. My uncle’s wife describes later how she pauses in her work on the farm, where they raise cows, pigs, and chickens, to watch the parent swallows carefully dole out food to their nestlings. When I step into the barn, sending the pigs shuffling in their stalls, the swallows go into alarm mode: voices high-pitched and frenetic, swinging back and forth on an imaginary pendulum.
My first day in Poland is a meal of fried fish, cole slaw, cucumber salad, tomato soup over noodles; a three-hour nap to atone for the night of lost sleep; then, an assembly of close relatives I’ve never seen, who bring a few tears to my eyes, and keep me in a steady supply of homemade vodka and Polish beer even when I decline, informing me that here “no” means “yes.”
Night turns downright jungly outside. A steady undercurrent of frog noise—a burbly, ratcheting sound that is not quite pleasant—rises up from the low, wet area bordering the property. There used to be a river here; a tributary. In the winter were hundreds of yards of clean ice that my dad learned to skate on. But not anymore. Tomorrow, I will go to the river, a couple of miles away now, with a group of relatives, and in the shadow of the power plant, I will plunge into the river Narew because they do, despite the No swimming signs, then lie on the sandy beach while common terns fly overhead and the children splash on the shoreline.
When darkness finally comes, not until ten o’clock at night at this latitude, the power plant lights up my room like a bright moon. It is two miles away but I have a clear view of it—the only thing that stands between it and our house is a vast, mostly-grass-covered plateau of coal ash.
I step out onto the balcony. The trill of the frogs ebbs and flows, punctuated by other sounds ambiguous enough to be frog or bird. Squawks, a raspy rolling chatter, upturned whistles, occasionally something more strident. This is the nervous chorus of the night. Behind it all, the power plant, Elektrownia Ostrołęka, is awake and humming, prominent in the darkness. In a way, it is beautiful—patterns of smoke trails drifting from the stacks, tinted red by the lights on the towers. This lurid skyline, the frogs, the strange European birds, the mist that shines over the marsh when the eastern sky lights up at two-thirty in the morning—this is what the river has left behind.
Kateri Kosek’s poetry and prose have appeared in Orion, Creative Nonfiction, Terrain.org, and elsewhere. She teaches college-level English and frequently writes a birding column for the Poughkeepsie Journal. She hopes this was her first of many trips to Poland.
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