- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
We would go after them on the first fine Sunday—if we ever saw another one—following the rain. Essential conditions: a fair Sunday, following immediately upon a spell of bad weather. The bad weather we were having this winter—parbleu! Days indoors while the windowpanes streamed. Day after day as dark and dank as a cave. Days when you could part the fog with your hands. When you groped your way to the boulangerie for your daily bread, encountering in the Cimmerian gloom some bent old woman swathed in her widow's weeds. When, in a short-lived lifting of the fog, the low, little half-timbered farmhouses appeared again in the nearby fields like a fleet of fishing boats anchored in port, afraid to venture beyond sound of the church's muffled bells. Our first condition was being met. Bon! For our purposes, the ground must be soft, muddy. We must be able to track our quarry to their lair. They travel in droves, and they range widely—here one day, miles away the next. Unless their signs have been freshly sighted and they are known to be in a certain covert, then you are wasting your time hunting them.
Droves? Wild boars in droves? Could this be? When I, in a novel set in East Texas, had required one for a character to kill, I had had to import the boar from over the line in Louisiana. But here in the Sologne, a district of France less than a hundred miles due south of Paris, they have them in droves. They have got entirely too many of them, more than they want, more than they know what to do with. Here they are a nuisance, a pest, a varmint. For this is a region of grain farming (especially corn), truck gardening and plant nurseries, and the wild boars, the sangliers, are voracious, omnivorous and prolific. It is impossible to deplete their numbers; impossible, except around small plots, to fence strongly enough to keep the brutes out.
The Sologne has long been the hunting center of France. Game of all kinds abounds here. You lose count of the pheasants in the roadside fields after driving for a quarter of an hour. Game may legally be sold in this country, and outside the shops at this, the open, season hang mallards, partridges, rabbits and hares, deer and roebuck. It is not cheap, but it is plentiful.
The area, always sparsely populated, went strongly Protestant in the religious wars, lost, of course, and was desolated. A marshy place, low-lying and fiat, periodically flooded by its many rivers, it was then practically abandoned, shunned as savage and pestilential. Wild animals took it over. The nobility used it as their hunting grounds; it was good for little else. Not until Napoleon III was draining and reforestation undertaken. Odd, that penchant of dictators for glorifying themselves and currying favor by reclaiming swamps.
Now, though much of the district is still wild woodlands, still held as hunting preserves, much of it is cultivated—despite the poorness of the soil. This proximity of crops to coverts has increased the amount of game—especially those impudent, wily and gluttonous creatures, wild boars.
The long tradition of hunting, here in the valley between the rivers Loire and Cher, has produced attendant crafts, fine arts, history, legend and lore, much of it preserved in the Museum of the Hunt in nearby Gien. Gunmakers in towns along the Loire still turn out fine shotguns by hand—lock, stock and barrel—with side-by-side double-barrels (that lost art in America) and with, if you prefer, the hammers on the outside in the old fashion; these will cost you not less but rather more. Hunting horns are still made, the making of the great ones for the stag hunt being a skill passed down from father to son. The tubes for these are hand-drawn, hand-curved, the bells hand-hammered, the whole thing gold-plated, chased in silver with scenes of the hunt; the finished product is a piece of jewelry, and costs accordingly. The chipping of flints for flintlock fowling pieces and rifles was a local cottage industry lasting well into the age of photography. The museum in Gien has a photograph—circa 1875, I would guess—of a man and wife seated outside their door engaged in this work, along with a flintmaker's bench and hammers, and flints in various stages of completion. They would not have had to look far for flint. The solid part of this part of the world is made of it.
Hunters come here, in season—mid-September to early January—from all parts of the country, for the French are a nation of hunters. Indeed, the patron saint of hunting was French: Saint Hubert. His devotees tend to overlook the fact that it was not because of his hunting that he was sainted. He gave up the sport when a stag he was after one day turned on him and said, "Hubert, how long are you going to keep this up? How long are you going to allow this mania to distract you from the care of your soul?"
On weekends for the preceding month the banging of shotguns had been daylong right up to the village edge. The streets at noon were filled with men in hunting clothes and boots. They crowded the bars. They brought their dogs with them into the dining rooms, tied them to the table legs, ordered food to be served to them. In large parties, they got loud and boisterous and started dousing one another from the water and wine bottles. One glimpsed young blades in full formal hunt regalia: calf-length black frock coats with broad lapels, scarlet redingotes, frilled white shirts, riding breeches and tall gleaming boots that always look as though they are being worn for the first time, or as though the wearer has a manservant whose only duty is to tend them. These glorious gallants will be off to take part in Count Something-or-other's mounted hunt for the stag. The horses will be purebred coursers with lineages centuries long. There will be a head huntsman with one of those golden horns, resplendent in his uniform, a valet-de-chiens in charge of a pack of 80 or 90 staghounds. Stirrup cups in footless goblets of chased, precious metals inset with gemstones will be handed by uniformed servants to the hunters and the huntresses on their restless mounts.
Boar hunting, though done on foot, is party hunting, too, unlike the upland game shooting going on in the fields around the edges of the village, which involves a solitary man or a group of two or three friends out with their brace of dogs. Indeed, much organization must go into a boar hunt—too much work to take chances, too many people to be needlessly disappointed. So conditions must be right. Until the day comes when they are, you must wait. In the meantime, you might remember what you know and have read about it, and, being a stranger, study up on how it is done here.
The combination of disgust, respect and fear that he inspires in man makes the wild boar the ideal game animal. "Of all quadrupeds," wrote Georges Buffon, France's premier naturalist, "the boar would seem to be the ugliest. His imperfections of form seem to affect his nature. All his habits are gross, all his tastes foul, all his feelings reduced to a furious lewdness and a brutish gluttony, which makes him devour indiscriminately anything put before him, even his own offspring at the moment of their birth. The coarseness of his pelt, the thickness of his hide, the density of his layer of fat, all make the animal insensitive to blows; one has seen mice living on their backs, gnawing their hides and their fat without their feeling it. But if they are obtuse in their sense of touch, and even more so in taste, their other senses are very sharp. Hunters are mindful that wild boars see, hear and smell at long range, thus obliging them to stand and wait in silence through the night, and to place themselves downwind in order to keep their scent from reaching the animals, for it will carry a great distance to them, and always strongly enough to turn them aside."