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I stepped out into the sunlight, scarcely able to believe what I had seen or, rather, what I had not. I stared at the hills around me, contrasting them with the old photos of those same hills I had seen. Where dense forests now grew, forming a high, closed canopy — in the valleys, over the hills and up the mountain walls until they shrank, many thousands of feet above sea level, into a low scrub of pines, which diminished further to a natural treeline — there had been almost nothing. In the photos, taken on the western side of Slovenia during the First World War, the land was almost treeless.

So tall and impressive are the trees now and so thickly do they now cover the hills that when you see the old photos — taken, in ecological terms, such a short time ago — it is almost impossible to believe that you are looking at the same place. I have become so used to seeing the progress of destruction that scanning those images felt like watching a film played backwards.

Tomaž Hartmann had driven for almost an hour along a forest track through Kočevski Rog to bring us here. The woods of beech and silver fir towered over us, in places almost touching across the road. Their roots sprawled over mossy boulders. They rolled down into limestone sinkholes: karstic craters. Karst topography — weathered limestone landscapes of chasms and caves, sinkholes, shafts and pavements — is named after this region of Slovenia, which is sometimes called the Kras or Karst plateau. The word means barren land. When Karst landscapes are grazed, they are rapidly denuded, but it was hard to connect the term with what I now saw.

Where the road clung to the edge of a hill, I could see for many miles across the Dinaric Mountains. The mountains rambled across the former Yugoslavia, fading into ever fainter susurrations of blue. The entire range was furred with forest. Where the road sank into a pass, the darkness closed around us. Through the trunks I could see the air thicken, shade upon shade of green. A few yards from the road, a fox sat watching us. Its copper fur glowed like a cinder in the shadows, which cooled to charcoal in the tips of its ears. It raised its black stockings and loped away into the depths. Woodpeckers swung along the track ahead of us.

He parked the car and we set off up a forest trail. Mushrooms nosed through the leaf litter beside the path. Saffron milk caps, orange and sickly green, curled up at the edges like Japanese ceramics. Dryad’s saddle, sulphur tuft and cauliflower fungus accreted around rotting stumps. Russulas — scarlet, mauve and gold — brightened the forest floor.

Tomaž led us up a limestone slope towards a stand of virgin forest, the ancient core of the great woods that had regenerated over the past century. As we climbed, we stepped into a ragged fringe of cloud. Sounds were muffled. The trees loomed darkly out of the fog. As we walked, Tomaž spoke about the dynamism of the forest system: how it never reached a point of stasis, but tumbled through a constant cycle of change. He had noticed some major shifts, and knew that, as the climate warmed, there would be plenty more. Though he described himself as both a forester and a conservationist, he had no wish to interrupt this cycle, or to seek to select and freeze a particular phase in the succession from one state to another. He sought only to protect the forests, as far as his job permitted, from destruction.

Ahead of us something dark and compact shot across the path in a blur and disappeared into the undergrowth: probably a young wild boar, Tomaž said. Then, though it was not clear where the transition had occurred, we found ourselves in the primeval core of the forest. The trees we had walked past until then were impressive, but these were built on a different scale. The beeches grew, unbranched — smooth pillars wrapped in elephant skin — for 100 feet until they blossomed, like giant gardenias, into a leafy plateau in the forest canopy. Silver firs pushed past them, the biggest topping out at almost 150 feet high. Only where they had fallen could you appreciate the scale of their trunks. . .