You are never closer to nature than when you pick it or kill it. I once spent a year living wild, eating only what I could hunt and gather on 40 acres of remote Herefordshire, where England ends in Wales. In retrospect, my Palaeolithic sojourn was an indulgence, propped up by a publishing contract for The Wild Life. But it was also revelatory. Animals, I learned, defy Linnean classification, and reduce to prey or rival.
My time living wild also means I am one of few people qualified by experience to assess the French publishing phenomenon Deer Man, Geoffroy Delorme’s account of seven “wild man” years in the Forêt de Bord, Normandy, living among a herd of roe deer. And, as it happens, I am writing this in France, next door to a 3,000-acre forest. With roe deer.
Delorme declares he adjourned to the forest following a chance meeting with a Capreolus capreolus buck. It inspired him to seek “the nobility of life in the wild” and “my true place in the order of things”. A drop-out — Delorme was home-schooled and solitary and there are darkly hinted-at problems with his family — his choice to be adopted by roe deer is instructive, a prime case of “elective affinity”. Vulnerable young man identifies with an animal species regarded as vulnerable. (I mean, consider Bambi’s childhood.)
Delorme is hardly the first to go off the civilised script. For centuries, misfitting men have been compelled to venture into the backwoods and the boondocks, starting with Enkidu in the Epic of Gilgamesh, followed by Christ in the wilderness. (Women rarely do wilding.) The imperatives are obvious: the search for self-awareness, the sense of suffocation from human rules, the belief that we are truer to our original selves in a state of nature, the concern that civilisation despoils the landscape. The Americans even constructed an original national art form from this quartet of anxieties: The Western.
But nobility in the wild is hard to do. I nearly totalled myself by consuming a poisonous mushroom; Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze is fun jacked up on the party stereo, not when you are paralysed and your ability to detect colour is limited to 50 shades of mauve, and you are praying for the psychedelic madness to end.
And every day there are half-moons of dirt under the fingernails. And every day the pathetic anxiety of: “Will there be enough to eat?”
Delorme suffers bouts of hypothermia, doesn’t comb his hair and washes in rainwater trapped in a tree trunk. (Spoiler alert: this does not preclude a love interest, a woman.) Although he tries to “live of the forest” rather than “in it”, there are only so many berries and bramble leaves — the latter a roe deer staple — he can bear, and he “borrows” the food set out by hunters to tempt wild boar, and sometimes buys tins and pasta. On occasion, he nips off home for a bowl of fromage blanc, and a hot shower.
Mind you, Henry David Thoreau, the patron saint of us latter day wild men, used to go home for cookies with Mom; he just omitted to mention this in Walden. Ditto the soirees in the cabin. Imagine my surprise to find that Bear ‘Born Survivor’ Grylls avails himself of hotels when roughing it. In case you are wondering, my downfall, my apple in Eden, was a cheese and tomato sandwich; then again, I was on bedside duty, my father in intensive care following a heart attack. You don’t get much wild duck on the menu at Hereford County Hospital.
Even with cheats, Delorme finds himself changed. Forest living improves his senses, and he loses the cultured taste for carbohydrate. I lived near carb-less on my Paleo diet, and was heroin chic skinny — but never quicker in body or mind. Tested, I had faster reflexes than a striking cobra.
Seven years with the herd, and Delorme emerges from the forest an advocate for his deer “family”. His understanding of the deer mind is impressive. The book, now translated into 11 languages, is recounted in fragmentary, vivid episodes. Rightly, Delorme accords the beasts agency and personality, and tells us a great, humbling truth: despite our self-congratulatory self-labelling as homo sapiens sapiens (“doubly wise humans”) we are still animals, and the species barrier can be membrane thin. Humans and animals alike seek social contact. In a key moment, Daguet, a young buck, lies on Delorme’s lap like a dog; Daguet wants to be petted. This is not a given in the animal kingdom: the forest foxes remain aloof from Delorme’s charms.
Understandably so. There is competition down in the woods, as well as co-operation. In my year wilding I had an intensely rivalrous relationship with a buzzard, since we both had our eyes on the rabbits. For all Delorme’s pretence of being a deer, humans are not ruminant herbivores. They are omnivores, with canine teeth for tearing meat, and have a digestive system similar to a dog’s. In other words, foxes and humans occupy the same ecological niche, and like a bit of venison on the menu.
By identifying with doe-eyed roe deer rather than going properly hunter-gatherer Paleo, Delorme comes askew on his own key question, of how to preserve the Forêt de Bord’s roe deer — and by extension, deer and wildlife elsewhere in over-populated Europe. His proposed solution is to “make these marvellous animals responsible for their own management”. This is a Pan pipe dream. Self-regulating deer, as per the pre-anthropogenic wilderness, would also require, for instance, herds of aurochs (wild cattle) to establish and maintain grassy glades. And lynx and wolves to keep the auroch and deer numbers in check.
And unfortunately, wild animals have the bad habit of not staying put, and wandering into human habitation and farmland, often wreaking havoc. Thus the wild things either need to be fenced in (resulting not in a Wilderness but a safari park.) Or culled.
Delorme’s idea for self-regulating deer, like other forms of rewilding, springs from an anti-human source. He confesses to being “disgusted by my own species”. But if you treat humans as the problem, they will be. Rewilding, which is predicated on no or little human presence in vast tracts of land, philosophically forecloses the possibility of humans living in harmony with nature.
Alas for rewilders, humans have been intertwined in the West’s ecosystems for so long that journeying back into a pristine wilderness is not an option — even in France, where the population density is 11 persons per km² (about a quarter that of England). The land is finite and the demands upon it — of economics, services, sport — are a real and growing danger. Management may be a dirty word in contemporary conservation, but without management, settling the competing claims to land for the good of all — deer included — is impossible.
Ironically, Delorme’s Forêt de Bord has, for millennia, been managed. Formerly it was the property of the Dukes of Normandy and later it became a royal forest of the Kingdom of France. It has been managed for timber, for houses and for fuel. Oh, and for deer-hunting.
Delorme rails against deer-hunting. Is this wise or logical? After all, deer-hunting as a form of forest-management merely inserts the human predator into the woody ecosystem rather than the lynx or the wolf. Like them, humans are born hunters, and our brains are wired to pursue game. Writing a CV, getting a job, going shopping: these are merely substitute activities for tracking a deer, and putting a spear through its heart, and taking home the flesh to the family cave.
Delorme’s eschewal of hunting means he offers only a partial experience of wild living. He is aware of the dangers of the forest, but less so of the opportunities, the constant alertness for lunch, the skill required for stalking, the atavistic satisfaction of hunting for the pot, and the realisation: Venatio, ergo sum. We are animals, and hunting — if we can still find the killer within after the diverting, sapping decades of consumer society — is truer, more honest than buying meat in shrink-wrapped plastic from Sainsbury’s.
Hunters have a vested interest in bounteous habitat, and bounding deer. You cannot kill non-existent animals. In France, where la chasse remains a way of life, the million-strong Fédération National des Chasseurs (FNC) is increasingly articulating itself as pro-conservation and anti-industrialised agriculture (the real destroyer of the countryside.) The Fédération’s current TV ad runs like a promo for Friends of the Earth.
Delorme’s anti-hunt rhetoric is, then, ultimately deer-defeating. In crowded days like these, a roe deer’s salvation could just be the ethical hunter, an echo of our prehistoric self. And if you are a deer, does it really matter whether you die by a bullet or being ripped apart by a lynx?