Bambi: A Life in the Woods

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La Chasse: On Hunting in the French Countryside

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Illustration by Ellis Rosen
“For reasons of security,” our co-ed party wore vests the color of traffic cones. The silky white and brown Springer Spaniel “gun dogs” were collared with jingle bells. A few people wore berets; one wore a trucker hat. One genteel man wore a fedora, strictly traditional but for the fact it was bright orange mottled with camouflage. “We complement it!” he said to me, gesturing at the French countryside’s greens and browns. Then he tugged on his orange vest. “And…we don’t complement it.”

As the day progressed, I seemed to notice a sartorial preoccupation on the part of the French with this garment. Another man pointed out a boy’s safety vest. “Quelle couleur?” the man asked the small child, who answered orange correctly. But the adult wagged his finger and smirked. “Non, non!” this Frenchman corrected, “C’est orange Hermès.” We were and hour southwest of Paris. Into the pockets of a tweed coat, I slipped ivy and soft feathers pulled from freshly dead pheasants.

Pheasant sound like a cross between a chicken’s cluck and a turkey’s gobble. When they are shot out of the sky, they tend to cartwheel or drop like footballs. There were plenty of partridge and some hare too, but pheasants interest me most, probably because of that hysterical, impressive scene in Disney’s adaptation of Bambi.

“Bambi watched how he flew up, directly between the trees, beating his wings,” Felix Salten wrote in his 1923 early environmental novel. “The dark metallic blue and greenish-brown markings on his body gleamed like gold. His long tail feathers swept proudly behind him. A short crash like thunder sounded sharply. The pheasant suddenly crumpled up in mid-flight.”

Not everyone participating in la chasse shoots. The people without guns are called batteurs. We “beat” the cabbage field and surrounding forest by walking through it, stirring the animals for the shooters to take aim at. Most chasse grounds are groomed with alleys for the shooters and beaters to wade through.

“This is the corridor de VIP,” Brian would say of every alley we found ourselves in that chilly day last November, “you’ll see.” Brian is an American businessman from London. He came with Herve, his friend and the husband of my mentor, American journalist Dana Thomas. Our host was a sharply featured man named Didiere. Didiere had the bugle, so you understand it was Didiere’s show. We were something like two dozen people and one dozen dogs, and he was sometimes obliged to act like a drill sergeant to keep the beaters in line.

Once Didiere’s cell phone rang: “Oui? Oui. C’est possible.” He hung up and looked at our formation. “La belle — up a little. Brian! Up on the line,” he directed us. When Brian moved, a pheasant made a go for it, flying up and out like an Audubon illustration. But no one shot. “Incroyable!” someone muttered. “Incredible” is a word that gets a lot of airtime during a shoot.

As well as:

A voilà! (There it is!)
Allez! (Go ahead!)
D’accord. (Okay.)
Zut! (Heck!)

Eventually Herve hit a pheasant that hit the ground running — and managed to scramble into an extraordinarily barbed patch of shrub. “That’s a bramble,” I said. Herve considered the thorns. “I’m actually going to go,” he resolved, “I’ve got the right pants.” Minutes later he wanted to know why he he’d done that. “We need a dog,” he said. “Merde.” Brian found a small boulder and hurled it in, but the bird was unmoved, so Didiere brought over two excited spaniels. “Advance in. Advance in!” he commanded the dogs. “Please, bring it to me!” I wandered off, passing a man in a red beret and paisley silk scarf, who calmly said, “We’re waiting for birds.”

For a “blood sport,” la chasse is peaceful. “This is all so civilized,” a foreign policy advisor originally from Montana once remarked to me (even though gunfire blasted around us). We were batteurs at an old world château in Châlons-en-Champagne, trudging through forest that had recently dropped its red and yellow burden. Generally shooters are taking aim at birds that were released into the habitat as chicks and provided for in the meantime. “It’s like a five-star hotel for pheasants,” you hear. The argument is there, though. Chasse kills are free-range and sustainable; traditionally they’re characterized by respect. One does not take a shot one does not believe he or she can make. One never shoots a bird on the ground. And one will probably spend an hour or more looking for an animal he or she worries is wounded. In all, how could it be worse than buying anonymous meat from the grocery?

Still, last October saw criticism of Pippa Middleton for “pos[ing] with 50 dead birds on shooting trip in Scotland.” A member of her party Instagrammed the women in wellies with their haul of pheasants, partridge, and woodcock. Social media aside, that is what you do at the end of a shoot. The French call it le tableau de chasse, when the animals are laid out on display, counted, and admired. Cock pheasant, for example, have caramel bodies; long, houndstooth-print tails; and British racing green heads masked with the red color of lingonberries. Sometimes Herve comes back from a shoot and puts the game in the refrigerator, unbagged. Whole birds with dead-canary talons. Dana rolls her eyes — “Birds aren’t carrots!” — but I have been known to take their bodies out just to look at them.

Unlike its English school, the French chasse is not so fixed in aristocracy. “The butcher is un chasseur,” Dana explains. “It’s one of the occasions where the farmers meet up with the gentlemen.” But there is variation. Not long ago, Herve went shooting with a friend who actively tries to hide the amount of time he spends on chasses from his wife. The problem was he wanted to go to a place far from Paris — from where it would be difficult to arrive back home at a normal hour. So Herve’s friend rang a second bon ami; he had a helicopter. “Would you like to join? Yes? Good— — because you’re driving!” Some châteaux rent themselves out for chasses for the day. The break for lunch generally overflows with meat, cream, vegetables, cheese, bread, and wine. Maybe this happens at a rough picnic table, or maybe at a grand banquet table with silver knife rests in the shape of tiny, robust hares.

That evening, when a younger shooter named Étienne asked to see what I was writing, I handed over my notepad. He studied it for a moment.“We call this pattes de mouche,” he diagnosed. “‘Unreadable letters.’” “We call it chicken scratch,” I countered. “Okay,” Étienne said, assuming an air of diplomacy. “Can we agree on pheasant scratch, then?”

The sun was setting. Our party walked out of the darkening forest and back to the house. It was nippy, but the single partridge I carried was still warm and doubled as a muff. A woman named Henrietta appeared holding a mushroom with a head the diameter of a basketball. Brian held pheasant and partridge at his side. “Bravo!” Henrietta playfully congratulated, toasting Brian with the mushroom as if with a champagne flute. “Oui,” she cooed. “C’est un joli bouquet.”

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