Of reapers grim and not-so-grim

1606, in a little town called Ząbkowice in the south-west of Poland, a cholera epidemic killed over a third of the population. Eight gravediggers – six men and two women – came under suspicion. While being tortured, they confessed not only to poisoning their fellow townsfolk, but robbing the church, eating the hearts of small children, and ‘stealing cloaks’ to boot. For their crimes, they were burned alive. You may have heard of Ząbkowice by its former name: Frankenstein. And some say that this story partly inspired Mary Shelley to write her famous book.

I’m not sure if that’s true or not, but in any case it makes a good ghost story. And being Halloween, it’s the time of year when we get out the funny teeth, put on a monster mask, and revel in telling ghoulish tales.

On which theme, it turns out that the nearby village of Kudowa Zdrój also has a macabre skeleton hiding in its closet. It’s a pretty little town, nestled in the picturesque hills of the Stołowe Gory range and an altogether nice place to spend a few days. But it’s particular draw card seems just perfect for Halloween: a Chapel of Skulls.

The Chapel was the idea of a priest in the 1700s, when a number of wars and a cholera epidemic resulted in more dead bodies than the cemetery could handle. Rather than just dump them all in a mass grave, he decided to build a small chapel and line the walls with their skulls. While this might sound bizarre, there are actually similar chapels in the Czech Republic and Portugal, making me think one of the strangest things about it is that other people had the same idea.

A very small nun took great pleasure in showing me around, and pointing out the interesting ways some of the people died – like the bullet hole that killed a soldier and the spongy skull of a syphilis sufferer. Then – with maybe just a tad too much enthusiasm for my liking – she lifted a trap door to reveal around 21,000 extra skulls that couldn’t be accommodated, looking up at me from under the floorboards. Rather unnervingly, I may add. The last skull that the nun pointed out was that of the priest whose idea it was, also now part of the display. Somehow, it seems fitting.

But I’m happy to report that not all reapers of the season are grim. I discovered this when I ended up in Laskowiec, in the north-west corner of the country, for a less macabre but just as quirky folk ritual: the (snappily-titled) ‘Championship of Scything Boggy Meadows for Nature’. How about we call it grass cutting for short and move right along to the point.

Which is that, some years ago, the Biebrza National Park had a problem. The wetland birds needed the grass to be cut to nest. But grass cutting machines couldn’t operate on the boggy land, and there were less and less people around who remembered how to do it by hand. They hit upon the tried and tested way to get a bunch of guys (and a couple of gals) to do anything: Make a competition out of it. This contest is now in its eighth year.

While these reapers were anything but grim, they certainly were serious about their sport. Which is understandable, since we’re talking not only the Polish but the European grass cutting championships here, with competitors from some 10 countries as well as all over Poland. Their goal: to hand-scythe a mile-long stretch of grass in the fastest time. Although it’s not just about the speed, one local explained, there are also points for the straightness of the line, the depth of the cut and the width of the swathe. ‘As well as crowd favorite’, one of the female competitors pointed out, campaigning for our vote. Well, who am I to argue with a woman with a scythe, I thought, popping my vote in the box and joining the couple of hundred other spectators cheering from the (boggy) sidelines.

If I’m making it sound pretty wacky, then I’m doing a good job of describing it. But there’s a serious side to the festivities, since the Park also hopes that events like this will help publicize the importance of protecting the world’s natural areas. I’m happy to help them out, because the Biebrza wetlands are quite striking. And being met at the park entrance by a dewy-eyed doe and her timid fawn, how could I not go home with a soft spot for the place.

And anyway, as I carve a face in a pumpkin and put in a set of false teeth and a monster mask, who am I to pass judgment on strange folk customs at this time of year.

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