Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Guns of Winter

February. The sounds of winter hush and crackle along the frozen landscape like frost patterns on windows. The cold whisperings of nature drift through the air like a mournful, cryptic sentence already hinting of spring: the ticking of woodpeckers, the dripping of dew as it thaws from the bare branches, the leaf-rustling of the blue tits and red squirrels searching for food. The crunch of frost beneath hesitant feet. And of course, the occasional staccato burst of gunfire. Winter in the Quercy means hunting season.

When we first moved here I was all about quaint rural traditions. I’d bought John Seymour’s classic guide to self-sufficiency and – okay, let’s get confessional – I had fantasies about growing our own vegetables, keeping chickens for eggs and bees for honey and home-brewing wine, beer and mead on the side. And part of those fantasies involved joining the hunt and bagging the occasional wild boar. To be fair, we have managed to tease a few tomatoes and raspberries from the soil, and I haven’t given up on producing my own bottle of wine some time before I die. But my visions of early-morning deer stalking with my farmer friends have run up against one stubborn problem. La chasse, as the hunt is called, is a little spooky.

I’m not sure what exactly I was expecting – manly adventures in the woods, I suppose, confronting and defeating a charging wild boar, perhaps roasting the thing over an open fire in the woods while the farmers taught me ancient secrets of animal tracking or local medicinal plants. Okay, maybe not, but realistically, although the only things I’ve ever hunted in my adult life were clay pigeons, I had witnessed both American and English hunting and had assumed that the French version would be some combination of the two.

American hunting, like much of American society, plays out a mythos of rugged individualism and unbounded opportunity. Rich or poor, any man can head into the woods and face his prey, engage in the eons-old quasi-spiritual dance of souls between man and beast, a ritual homage and putting off of man’s own sense of mortality. The idealized American hunter is rugged, solitary, free and sanctioned by God to kill things and talk nonsense about it afterwards. Fox hunting in England is pretty much the opposite. Ostensibly the goal is to cull foxes, but that’s merely an excuse to gather hounds, horses and upper class English people in snazzy jackets and jodhpurs for a morning of riding, eating and drinking. It’s essentially an elite social bonding ritual, and the only struggle is to look good while staying on a horse as it jumps over hedges and ditches in pursuit of a pack of dogs. The only thing he has in common with the American hunter is that he too is sanctioned by God to kill things and talk nonsense about it afterwards.

Now the French version is in a league all its own. In one sense, it’s hunting at its most pure. By and large, the hunters here are local farmers, and their goal is to cull crop-destroying wildlife – deer and wild boar – and to put a little extra meat on the table. There’s no half-baked philosophy or elitist tradition here, nor any divine sanction or silly talk. It’s a job that needs doing, so the men get together a few times a week over winter and do it.

On the other hand – Well, it’s always that pesky other hand that keeps things interesting. Unlike so much in French culture, hunting here is anything but subtle. I’ve tried to find some romance in it. Perhaps there is something beautifully primeval about hunting in packs – a long stroll down genetic memory lane inevitably takes us back to tribes with spears ganging up on mammoths – but it’s not easy to idealize dozens of men fanning out through the countryside in beat-up white hatchbacks and 4x4s hoping to gang up on Bambi with enough firepower to invade a small country. Although la chasse probably does recapture the chaotic frenzy of a mammoth hunt more closely than its Anglophone counterparts, it’s a pretty ugly affair. While one group races up and down country lanes to no clear purpose, another gang has spread out along strategically chosen roads, guns in hand, to await their prey. The third group, a pack of very hungry dogs, usually followed by a puffing paunchy Frenchman blowing a hunting horn, is busy trying to flush the deer and boar out of the woods and into the line of fire of the hunters. And when that happens, the real fun begins.

Paint the scene in your head. A line of woods, an open field, a road and a handful of armed men standing about 50 yards apart from each other. It’s a cold winter morning, the landscape dusted with the vagueness of frost and mist, the chill displaced from the hunters’ blood by a good shot or two of pastis shared that morning before they set out. The barking of dogs grows closer, the blast of a hunting horn rips the air, and suddenly a frightened, hapless deer bounds out of the trees into the open field. Does a single, well-aimed shot crack through the bitter morning air offering instant resolution of the timeless confrontation between man and beast? No, you guessed it, that quiet field ignites in a deafening unsteady barrage of gunfire. As we listen to shot after futile shot echoing through the woods, I feel grateful for France’s strict gun control laws. If these guys had access to more firepower I wouldn’t be surprised to hear machine guns and heavy mortars ripping through the forest.

It is a testament to the poor aim of these hunters that there is ever anything left of the animal once they’ve brought it down. Yet I know from experience that large chunks of deer often remain in edible condition. They show up often as Loto prizes, or sometimes as gifts to local landowners. There is something grotesquely charming about having a smiling, scruffy-looking man drive up to your house in a battered old car and offer you a clear plastic bag of unidentified bloody meat. Thank you for understanding our time-honored traditions, those bags of meat say. Don’t ever go walking through the woods in a brown sweater or coonskin cap, they silently add.

It’s easy to make fun of the hunt – stories about drunk hunters shooting each other are particular favorites of walkers and disgruntled landowners – but I have kind of a soft spot in my heart for these guys. They’re rough, they’re reckless, and they seem like exactly the sort of people who should not be running around armed. But they work hard, they believe in what they do, and they’ve done their best to be nice to us. They slow down as they pass by our house, conscious that we have a small child and that we rent cottages to families. They wave politely when they see us, and every year we get an invitation to the hunters’ association ball. But they have never asked me to join the hunt, and I’ve never asked to come along. Better for everyone, I suspect.

On the other hand, brewing mead is sounding a lot more plausible to me these days. It keeps you indoors.

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