Everybody knows the yearning for a more basic and simpler life.
Pauline de Bok takes us back to nature.
Pauline de Bok is a hunter. For Prey. A year of hunting she spent a year hunting from a converted livestock barn in eastern Germany. Every day she watched wild boar, fallow and roe deer, foxes, hares and badgers. Sometimes she managed to shoot an animal; other times they would outwit her. She dragged all her kill back to her barn, where she gutted and skinned the carcasses, butchered them and stored the meat, eating her prey from head to tail. Her experiences and expeditions through the magnificent German landscape give rise to beautiful reflections on the relationship between humans and animals, mortality, and man’s place in nature.
Scope & Themes
Prey. A year of hunting is literary non-fiction. De Bok takes the reader into the hunting grounds and makes them a companion in her voyage of discovery. From the first sight of spoor to the shot, the blood, the haunch. From hauling kill through storms and mud to endless hours on the hunting platform. From the seriousness, fear, and joy, to the taboo around killing and the change hunting engenders in a person.
Back to Nature
In Prey. A year of hunting we follow De Bok on her personal voyage of discovery into something we risk losing. The world we live in is ever more urban, digital and automated. This is an inexorable development, which is changing us. Yet however virtual our lives become, we are and always will be made of flesh and blood; we are mammals and we are part of nature. This is something we are gradually revisiting: we increasingly want to return to nature and long for a simpler life. It is no longer enough for us to hike on constructed trails in park-like nature reserves. We want to look beyond the rows of landscaped trees and be part of nature in order to have to sharpen our senses and instincts and learn how to use our innate abilities once more – before we become little more than a brain, with a body as an appendage. A real animal confronts us with ourselves: we too are just another species.
Hunting is a primal activity that touches upon our own animal nature and mortality. A hunter tries to get into his prey’s head: how does a fallow deer, wild duck or hare live; what does it need; where does it feel at home – as a species, but also as a pack, flock, or individual. This empathy requires imagination. Killing is merely the final act – but this act is the cutting edge, in which all the energy is concentrated: why am I killing this particular animal? A shot is never innocent. The tension, concentration, adrenaline, and fear are overwhelming. Then come the blood, steaming wounds, crushed livers, excrement, occasionally stomach contents – and poor shots. A hunter has to have the courage to face up to his poor shots, as well as his motives, the soundness of his judgment, his skills, his moments of weakness, his aggression and cruelty, and his sentimentality. Finally, there is always his awe of wildlife and his attachment to his hunting grounds – his hunter’s habitat.
De Bok shows how ambivalent we are about hunting: hunters are seen as cruel, yet we eat reprehensible meat every day – chickens that are slaughtered after a miserable life with only this one purpose. She relates her hunting accounts to contemporary themes, which makes her writing very topical. Nowadays we want to know what we are eating: real animals that have lived like animals, instead of industrial meat produced from animals which are raised like machines, kept out of sight until the unidentifiable and bloodless meat lands on our plates.
From Head to Tail
When De Bok shoots an animal she wants to use all of it, so that it was killed for a reason. Each time she tries to save more of her kill. The liver, heart and kidneys, and then the tongue, and the hardest of all: the brains. Preparation and recipes are part of the narrative, she even roasts a boar’s testicles and discovers it is delicious. The offal she brings out to her baiting place for wild boars. There are other uses too, such as an animal’s coat. For good fur she has to kill or trap a fox, a raccoon or raccoon dog in the winter. More and more she trains herself to skin the carcasses without spoiling the fur. She buries the heads and later exhumes the skulls. If she bags a badger she can make fat and badger soap from it. Goose and duck feathers are excellent pillow stuffing; you can use pheasant quills as fashion accessories; and a boar’s long stiff bristles make a good paintbrush.
Prey. A year of hunting examines hunting from all angles: historical, philosophical, literary, anthropological, biological, ethological, ecological, anthropozoological, and autobiographical. De Bok is interested in hunting stories in the broadest sense of the word. A wide range of animals are dealt with: boars, roe and fallow deer, foxes, raccoons, ducks, pheasants, hares, rabbits and wolves. Wildlife and the hunter are inescapably bound. The hunter lies in wait for them, and they often outsmart the hunter.
The book follows the seasons and natural rhythms. De Bok illustrates her narrative with specific scenes and events. She hunts at her second home, in the countryside of eastern Germany. In all seasons she sits alone with her rifle in a hide. She hunts boar in the spring, and roebuck in the summer. The autumn is the high season, dominated by duck hunting and the deer rut. In the autumn and the winter, she joins drive hunts, and sits outside in the snowy countryside waiting for boars.
Prey. A Year of Hunting is perfect for readers of:
- H is for Hawk, Helen MacDonald
- Norwegian Wood, Lars Mytting
- Landmarks, Robert Macfarlane
- The Outrun, Amy Liptrot
- The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben
- Into the Wild, Krakauer
- The Shepherd’s Life, James Rebanks
- Wildwood: A Journey through Trees, Roger Deakin
- Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer
- Le Grand Marin, Catherine Poulain
About the author
Pauline de Bok studied German, theology and philosophy, and now works as a writer, journalist and translator. In order to write her novel, The Huntress, as authentically as possible, she got her hunting diploma in 2012. She had not expected to carry on hunting afterwards, yet the hunter deep inside her had been awakened. It changed her relationship with the countryside: she was no longer a visitor, but was once again at home there, as she had been as a child in a village in the east of the Netherlands, where her father was a vet. Becoming a hunter changed the way she regarded nature, the animals around her and herself. She slowly honed all her senses, strength and agility, knowledge, experience and instinct as a hunter. While doing so she recorded her early hunting experiences in The Huntress.
The way she sees hunting, her decision to continue hunting after completing the novel, and her brilliant philosophical and literary approach to the subject are so powerful that they warranted a non-fiction book based on her own experiences. In Prey. A year of hunting De Bok describes a journey of discovery into something we risk losing.
She lives for part of the year in eastern Germany. In 2006 she published a Dutch-language book about the old farmstead where she lives, entitled Blankow or the longing for Heimat. It was nominated for the M.J. Brusse Prize in 2008 and was published in German in 2009 by Weiss Books Verlag (translated by Waltraud Hüsmert). Blankow was awarded the Annalise Wagner Prize in 2010, and a German paperback edition was published by Insel/Suhrkamp in 2011. Her novel The Huntress was published in Dutch by Atlas Contact in 2014.
Press on The Huntress:
• ‘The author conveys essential questions to the reader of this philosophical novel.’ – Literair Nederland
• ‘The Huntress is not just a book that celebrates the beauty of hunting. Its descriptions of nature are permeated with ethical questions, without the point being laid on too thickly. De Bok subtly encourages the reader consider them. Fundamentally, she demonstrates that we all have hunting in us – humans and animals. She seems to be saying that how we deal with this determines who we are. As such, The Huntress is not only an ode to a controversial leisure activity, but also a book that questions the ethics of life and death.’ – Else Boer, Recensieweb
Prey. A Year of Hunting:
Publication date: October 2016
Length: 256 pages | 80.560 words
Illustrations: no illustrations
Germany – Verlag C.H. Beck, publication date: January 2018
Denmark – Rosinante & Co, publication date: Autumn 2017
Farewell to the City
– A Young Female Boar
– Wolf Fever
– Dog Days
– My Hunting Grounds
– Wildlife Camera
– Clay Pigeon Shooting
– The Rut
– A Boar’s Testicles
– The Bad Shot
– The Longest Night
– Killing a Rabbit
– Closed Season
A Young Female Boar
[excerpt from Chapter 1]
I want to leave immediately the first time I go to the forest meadow in the Hanower hunting area. How am I supposed to spend hours here, hemmed in by the trees, with no horizon, no wildlife in the distance to watch, and almost no scenery. Wildlife doesn’t care about scenery; animals find shelter and food amongst the trees and shrubs. So I decide I have to give the meadow a chance, and climb the hunting stand at its edge. It’s an open hunting platform made of logs and planks.
The young beeches along the path still have dry brown leaves, but the nearby sloes are already blossoming. They give off such a penetrating and sickly smell that it makes me queasy and I breathe shallowly. Until I get used to it. Perhaps the scent would even cover mine – that would be handy. But I suspect boars would smell straight through it: human – danger – get out of here. This sensitivity is invaluable to them. They must have a nose for other scents, which they smell more precisely; and they have a phenomenal memory for them. My dog never used to respond to the intoxicating smell of violets in the grass, but the faintest whiff of a cat would drive him out of his mind. When it comes to smell we are barbarians.
A yellowhammer is hopping around the bait site in front of me, a nightingale is singing to my side, ducks, geese and cranes are noisily flying overhead, and a buzzard hovers on the lookout. Silhouetted by the glaring light, a bird is perched motionlessly on a jagged twig atop a dead tree, like a Japanese ink drawing.
In the corner of my left eye I see something move. A young roe deer comes out of the clump of beeches, pausing on the tractor track I have just walked up. She looks around, swivels her ears, puts her nose in the wind, listens, looks, sniffs, and shudders. She can smell me and wants to bolt, but she stays put, nervously turns her neck, and bends forward, completely alert. Then she swiftly abandons the path, and goes around the corner.
I sit and pass time, so that the scent I have inevitably left behind will be obscured, and the noises I made whilst getting settled on the hunting stand will fade away – I will become part of the surroundings.
A frog starts to croak; another one on the other side of the meadow tries to outdo him; in no time at all a whole amphibian choir is blaring. The green frog mating season has begun and will drown out everything else for the next few weeks. Suddenly it is silent, and for a moment I’m able to hear whether anything is stirring in the undergrowth. Then the frogs resume croaking as loud as they can for a mate. I try to listen through it, but can hear nothing. For the time being I will have to rely on my eyes.
The moon rises pallidly above the beeches. A large boar appears out of nowhere in front of me. I’m so dumbfounded that the blood races through my veins. It looks around, as if it too is surprised to be just standing there in the last light. He eats some bait, looks around nervously, and eats some more. Over there – another one comes out of the brush. It’s much smaller, a juvenile, I think; it must be over a year old.
I very carefully take hold of my rifle, release the safety catch, turn on the red laser sight in my visor, and put the barrel on the parapet. I aim at the small one, which is nicely broadside. My hand is steady; the red dot is right behind its shoulder blade. Three more pigs, each a different size, come out of the undergrowth. I wait – perhaps more juveniles will come. The rule is to always shoot the smallest one.
The boars are sauntering around, not fully absorbed in eating the maize. They are staying at the edge, close to the bushes, and keep looking up – also in my direction; do they smell me? It’s a sounder; more juveniles must be coming. The big sows are alert; I have no idea what they are sensing. One of them squeals – giving me a fright – it leaps up and quickly disappears into the bushes. Two others immediately follow suit. Now there are only two. I don’t have much time left. Perhaps the whole sounder will return later, but it’s growing dark, and the moon is not yet bright enough. My ears are ringing; I can’t see anything other than boars. No – there goes the big sow. The small juvenile looks up; just a few more grains of maize, he seems to think.
It’s now or never.
Twittering, screeching and squeaking – the animals are startled. The boar is down. I saw it keel over. Boom. Dead. Or is it? The creature starts kicking its hind legs, as if it wants to run away upside down, with its hooves in the air. Did I paralyse it? Is it twitching? It is slowing – see, it’s stopping.
My field of vision widens; I return to the meadow, to the hunting stand, to my own body. I did it – night after night I sat as a sniper in the landscape, and now shot this boar.
A couple of people in the nearby village will have noticed. Listen – a shot, a hunter. As I too have done for years: in the confines of your home, where it is comfortable, you realise for a moment that out there in the vast country, in the silence and the emptiness, an animal has been killed – by a human. For an instant you cast off time.
I come down from the hide and walk over to my kill.
It’s impressive just how compact, tough, and strong a wild boar is. I lift one of its hind legs: it’s a sow. I inspect the udders; they are slightly distended. ‘It has either just whelped or else they’re still inside,’ Maik says a little later as he looks at the carcass, pulling at a nipple: ‘No milk. They’re still inside.’
Am I shocked? A little. But, above all, I think: I’m in luck! For if the sow had already whelped there would have been new-born piglets languishing somewhere. I would have made a serious error, even though nothing had been visible from the swine’s appearance. The line between good and bad is sometimes a matter of good or bad luck.
When the hog is hanging in the cold store and Maik is doing the paperwork, I look through the entrails for the udders, or rather for the foetuses. They are under the pile of bowels. So that was it: they haven’t lived in the outside world; they haven’t been there, and they never have been there. There isn’t anything to forget.
Or maybe there is – when I slice open the womb. I give Maik a stealthy glance. Then I put my knife into a membrane; I’m not going to look away. I want to bring home the fact that I slayed five pigs in one go – look! I squeeze a slippery creature out of the membrane. It’s grey, everything about it is grey, as if its colour would only come after the exposure to daylight. Very vague stripes run lengthways down its back. It’s almost twenty centimetres long, very thin, and its head seems curiously large; I push open its mouth – which is strangely familiar when it’s wide open, with those sharp teeth – the tongue, too, is grey. Its little eyes are still closed. I slice a second foetus out of the membrane; the transparent amniotic fluid runs down onto the ground. Then I slice number three and four out; I don’t want to chuck them out like rubbish, like offal for the predators, without having seen them as the living creatures they were, ready to be born. Then I throw them, along with the other waste which is still on the ground, into the vat.
Whilst putting the sow’s liver in the refrigerator, I’m struck by a thought: why didn’t I slice out the foetuses’ livers? They must be very soft and tender. Suddenly, I hardly dare think any further. Does throwing them away show more respect?
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