Hunting in rural France is etched into the landscape. Not just in the blood of deer or boar, but in structures and traditions embedded in local life. It’s common to spy simple wooden look-out posts at the field’s edge, camouflaged car parks, or towering structures giving high vantage points. I don’t venture into the forest if I hear guns and dogs, so when I chance on them these places are silent and sinister. Even on a sunny day, the wires, pulleys and platforms for hanging game always hint at some darker purpose.
Hunting days are noisy, and start early in the morning mist. There are distant horns, the jingling of dog bells, then much shouting and intense activity as hunters hurtle by car down steep woodland tracks to the latest sighting. Gunshots echo. It goes quiet at lunchtime, as the rough-hewn tables and benches in the woods become scenes of satisfied meaty feasting. A forgotten dog wanders by, sniffing its way home.
This year I was present at the start of the hunting season in mid-August. It was a national religious holiday for something quite different, but the celebrations for Saint Hubertus, the patron saint of hunters, seemed to take centre stage. Behind the altar in the village church hung an embroidered stag, magnificent in his pagan glory. A troupe of musicians on traditional hunting horns played out the service, then performed to the crowds outside before heading for the cake stall and the vin d’honneur we’d all been waiting for.
After the celebrations were over, I wondered about the implications for the body of being a hunter. FM Alexander had something to say about this. Concentration on one spot was to be avoided, he wrote, it stops you from seeing accurately what’s going on around you. More important for the true hunter was a general alertness, an ability to take in the whole landscape, to be prepared for whatever happened wherever it happened. He also saw in animals hunting in the wild a reminder for humans to wait, hold back and not spring into action immediately.
Thinking about hunting over the holidays gave me a way of seeing the changes in my own perception. I’m moving away from a focus on detail, what I want to happen, what I’m hunting, to a wider awareness of my own reactions and what’s going on around me. I’m less likely to be wrong-footed, more likely to pause, see what’s hidden, what’s really out there. It’s taking time, but I’m becoming a better hunter.