SI Vault
William Humphrey
February 07, 1977
When the right combination of weather converged over the French countryside, 75 hunters—one an apprehensive American—and their pack of ragtag dogs sallied forth after the legendary wild boar, once solely royal game
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February 07, 1977

Ugly, Pestiferous And Prepotent

When the right combination of weather converged over the French countryside, 75 hunters—one an apprehensive American—and their pack of ragtag dogs sallied forth after the legendary wild boar, once solely royal game

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In those places where the people have left long written, oral and pictorial records of themselves, the wild boar was the only game animal that would attack a man if provoked. Thus he became the test of prowess and bravery, the stuff of heroism, legend. One of the assignments given Hercules was the capture of a destructive wild boar, a feat to rank with 11 others describable only as Herculean. Meleager, son of a king, at whose birth the Fates themselves attended, killed the mighty Calydonian boar that had been ravaging the countryside. He presented the boar's head to Atalanta, the great huntress, who had wounded but failed to kill the animal. Meleager's uncles tried to rob Atalanta of her prize. He came to her defense and, in the ensuing fight, slew his uncles. Whereupon their sister, his mother, in a fit of anger, burned up a certain brand, an act that—it had been prophesied—would cause his death.

An enviable trophy, then—for all its ugliness, the coarseness of its habits. Ferocious and prepotent, and thus conferring upon its killer the same attributes. A beast with a bad disposition, so churlish and unamiable that its very name, in Latin, singularem, means "the one who lives by himself," or, as we might say, "the loner," and who must be sought in the deepest and most thickset part of the forest. A dangerous animal, as Shakespeare wrote in Venus and Adonis:

"Whose tushes never sheath'd he whetteth still,
Like to a mortal butcher, bent to kill.
On his bow-back he hath a battle set
Of bristly pikes, that ever threat his foes;
His eyes like glow-worms shine when he doth fret;
His snout digs sepulchres wher'er he goes;
Being mov'd, he strikes whate'er is in his way,
And whom he strikes his crooked tushes slay."

So Venus warns Adonis, who, indifferent and cold to the advances of the very goddess of love (a deficiency, or a superiority, fairly common among fictional hunters—Cooper's Leatherstocking, Faulkner's Ike McCaslin), goes off on his hunt for the wild boar, with direful consequences. Hunting has been known to do that: make celibates of its most ardent devotees, of either sex—witness Diana, chaste goddess of the chase; look how hard Atalanta made it for her suitors to win her in wedlock.

In the course of time, when heroes came to be born, not made, and a whole, self-declared, hereditary class of them sprang up, they reserved the wild boar hunt unto themselves as a proof of their innate superiority. One explanation for there being so many of the animals in present-day France may be that for as long as the country was a monarchy—and that was a weary long while—they were a protected species, protected, that is, against the common people: they were royal game. In the sanglier, that fabled creature, mythologized, versified, painted, sculpted, the French nobility found a quarry worthy of them and decreed that they alone were worthy of it. Not for the commonalty, because to challenge one was a test of bravery and manliness, which, of course, you did not have unless you had it in the blood. The peasants might complain that the animals were devouring their crops, but to the nobility, who were devouring the peasants, those complaints were immaterial so long as they themselves had their sport.

As late as 1818, the wild boar was still gibier royal. That year, the young Alexandre Dumas was taken on his first boar hunt. Not a drop of blue blood in Dumas, of course, but by that time notice had been served by the people of France that they would not always remain fodder for pigs, biped or quadruped. So, when the Duke of Orl�ans' neighbors complained of the depredation of their crops by those pernicious and protected beasts, the sangliers that his grace's forests harbored, and petitioned him to have his gamekeepers exterminate them to the last one, he acceded. The duke's head gamekeeper was Dumas' friend; thus it was that he was privileged to hunt the royal game. In the Fifth Republic, there are still some privately owned hunting preserves of royal dimensions where boars make their lairs, and around those are small farms where crops are grown for a living. Between these two divisions of landowners the clash of interests arising over the wild boar continues to this day. For farmers, there is never a closed season on them now, and in France any man, properly licensed, may carry a gun; but along the edges of the woods where the boars have repaired to digest the corn, which they glutted on in the night, the angry farmer may find signs on every other tree saying "Propri�t� priv�e. Acc�s interdit."

In the interest of d�tente, some of the owners of large preserves now permit boar hunts on their land. That very word, d�tente, is used in a pamphlet put out by an association of parish priests here some years ago in an effort to air, and to settle, some of the local tensions growing out of hunting, such as resentment by the gamekeepers over their wages and working conditions, hikers' fears for their safety, protests by anti-blood-sports groups—and the frustrations of the farmers. Some of the owners of the preserves welcome the hunts. For, in these difficult, late years, a number of them have cleared more of their land—though there remain forests that are truly vast—and planted it to moneymaking crops. As regards the wild boar, now legally classed an animal nuisible (a noxious animal), the owners, too, have begun to feel that there can be too much of a good thing. They are ready to provide the services of their own gamekeepers in the democratic control of these destructive creatures. We have come a long way from the days of the gibier royal.

One Saturday morning in mid-December the church bells that woke us every day had a different ring, a higher pitch, a quicker tempo. They did not sound, as they had for weeks, like the slow, muffled tolling of a buoy bell in a fog, but like bells pealing for a holiday. I threw open the shutters to find that the world had reappeared. It was like sighting land after crossing the ocean in a ship. The skies, long so low overhead and so heavy they made you stoop, had lifted high over this broad, flat land. The thin, slightly crooked spire of the church had reasserted, if not righted, itself in its place. The garden plots behind the houses steamed. From the village, where for weeks all had been so silent, came stirrings of life. There was the noise of traffic on the roads. The first shots from the rabbit hunters went off somewhere close by. The phone rang. It was the call I had been waiting for. The weather looked fair to hold through tomorrow, the gardes-chasse on two estates had reported finding fresh signs: tracks, rootings, wallows. The call was going out over the wires like the starting blast from the huntsman's horn—� la chasse!

It was Monsieur Hatte (pronounced Ott) whom the gamekeepers called to report their findings, for in and around Souvigny-en-Sologne he is the master of the boar hunt. As will presently be seen, this kind of hunting requires someone firmly in command, and M. Hatte is something of a disciplinarian, for he knows well, having been gored and having twice been shot, once in the head, what can happen when things are allowed to get out of hand. M. Hatte is also a farmer, and farmers are natural enemies of wild boars. Just the week before, M. Hatte had gone out one morning to harvest a field of corn, and found that overnight it had been razed by a drove of the beasts. Instead of going hunting he ought, in fact, to be spending this fine day on his tractor, and indeed, he would have to pay for taking the day off by spending the night on it. Never mind. It was worth it, and not just because he was out to destroy some number of his old enemy—whom he loves—but for the passion of the chase.

Our hunt was a far cry from the days when the wild boar was game for the aristocracy only. On ours there was �galit� and fraternit�—libert� being the understood prerequisite of the two. Along with a Parisian-looking gentleman addressed as "Docteur" were the village grocer, farmers, farmhands, landowners, a road mender, me—not only not to the manoir born, but a foreigner. Old companions of the hunt who had not seen one another for a long time, and people who had never seen you before—certainly not me—stuck out their hands for a shake, that rather limp French handshake. Nothing exclusive about it; by the time all were assembled there were 75 of us. M. Hatte had been right about wasting the time of a great many people unless you had an idea where the game was.

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