Adventures of a reluctant huntress
DURING A TRIP to England two years ago, I casually agreed to join a group of English friends on their biennial stag hunt at a lodge in the farthest reaches of Scotland. The place was called Loch Choire, and it was a most beautiful and desolate-looking spot, far away from everything except the tiniest neighbouring village. Consisting of thirty-thousand-odd acres of grounds with one rustic yet well-appointed lodge, Loch Choire sounded like the quintessential British hunting estate.
Exclusive hunting lodges are not among my usual haunts. As a documentary filmmaker, I have, over the past three decades, tended to focus on themes of social and political inequities. I’ve travelled to such places as Nepal, the Philippines, South Africa, Bolivia, and Chile, and a number of my films have to do with complex issues facing women in different parts of the world. True, one or two have entailed witnessing a hunt: I followed Cree families on their fall goose hunt in James Bay one year, and once accompanied a group of Thais on their hunt for carp and lizards in Thailand’s boggy, flooded flats.
But no one would mistake me for a huntress. The nearest thing I have to a credential in that area is a painting by Paraskeva Clark, called Diana Hunting in the Caledon Hills. It shows several immodestly covered women bearing bows and arrows, and it was painted for an Eaton’s window in 1940 as an advertisement for underwear.
In fact, at the time I accepted my friends’ invitation, I knew nothing about hunting. A friend who did know something about hunting expeditions told me to be sure to take a Barbour jacket. I said nothing. I didn’t know what a Barbour jacket was. I had never even fired a gun.
So what in the world was drawing me all the way to a remote part of Scotland to hobnob with this crew over lavish dinners and fine wines, and then join them on a hunt? It was hard to think of many places in the world that would feel more alien to a gently ageing, Jewish, instinctive feminist from Winnipeg than going hunting with a group of mostly male Brits. I was curious as to how I’d fare.
This would not be the first time my curiosity had led me down an unexpected path. During a short stint in the Northwest Territories, my lifelong love of all things edible led me to partake of a Dogrib Nation delicacy – the cheeks, tongue, and brain of a caribou. I have delighted in a plate of “rotten walrus” set before me in Arctic Bay. (To prepare the dish, a walrus is buried underground and left there until it achieves a ripe-cheese texture and flavour.) I’ve eaten, and even enjoyed, crunchy roasted cockroach in northeastern Thailand.
The stag hunt would give me a window into the world of that self-styled highest of all civilized beings – the British male – on this most British of activities. I knew only that shooting, as hunting is known in that culture, had for centuries been the purview of the privileged. Now I had the opportunity to investigate this tradition from the inside. I found I mentioned my forthcoming trip delicately, leaving out the word “hunting” most of the time. My sister-in-law looked horrified when I explained what I would be doing. “Just deerstalking,” I said. I was aware of the almost automatic response that most urban people have to hunting, that it’s savage and simply wrong. I, myself, have felt that way at times – and then, at other times, not at all. For me, as for most people, questions about hunting, killing, and eating animals are shrouded in moral equivocation.
I suppose that, as a gourmand who has gleefully devoured all sorts of meat, as a defender of Native hunting traditions, and as a woman who has never sought to be the hunter herself, I wanted to find out, too, how far I could go.
Hunting simply didn’t exist in my childhood community of Winnipeg in the 1950s. Jewish people, traditionally urban and historically denied land ownership, didn’t hunt – not to mention that the demands of keeping kosher made it impractical to stalk your own dinner. For me, hunting was somehow exotic.
My link to the world of meat was the kitchen table. The veal chops, rib steaks, and even the hot dogs were prepared with meat from a kosher butcher, “bled” in accordance with Biblical instructions. It would not have occurred to any of us to hunt our own meat. As for fish, no one in my family had ever caught one. My parents’ attitude would have been, “Why catch a fish? What’s a fish store for, then?” I often accompanied my mother to the butcher’s on Main Street where I saw the big raw cuts of beef suspended from hooks above my head, and the blood stains on the aprons of the men. Still, the meat on the table felt disconnected from all that.
As I grew up, I developed into an organoleptic junkie, a sensory addict, particularly when it came to mouth-feel. I constantly craved new textures and flavours. When I tasted wild meat for the first time at age fifteen – venison, cooked rare – I found it heavenly. My mother called me, affectionately, “Carnivore.”
I came also to believe strongly that we shouldn’t hide the knowledge that the meat we eat was once alive. When I moved to Toronto in the early seventies, I became a food activist without knowing it. I loved Toronto’s open-air Kensington Market, where you could choose the live chicken you wanted for your evening meal, and see for yourself it was healthy and good. In the mid-eighties, I was incensed by a proposed by-law that would abolish the killing of live fowl. The politicians framed it as a public-health issue. But I, like many, felt they were simply offended by the handling and killing of live food in public, a way of life for the generations of immigrants who had occupied the market. The prudishness of the politicians reminded me of people who could only make love with their eyes shut.
The stag hunt was scheduled for a week in September. I flew to London, then drove north through England and Scotland to Inverness with a friend from Canada who has lived in Suffolk for the past thirty years. From Inverness, it was a further three-hour motor trip to Loch Choire. When we reached the remote northern highlands, we turned off the single-lane road onto what was barely a track, leading to the lodge. There was no sign of human life, just lots of sheep dotting the landscape, and then, finally, not even sheep. What I didn’t know as we approached the lodge was that we were virtually surrounded by deer – fifteen hundred of them.
I quickly assessed our accommodations, which were plain and homely but devoted to comfort. The lodge was gloomy late-eighteenth-century all the way: three storeys, a low-ceilinged kitchen, and a pantry out of Dickens. The furnishings were formal, and rather ugly; there was a generous wall of books, a massive fireplace, and an amply supplied bar. I had hoped for something a little more majestic, reality, as usual, straining to keep pace with my fantasy life.
We were sixteen in all: my group of friends from England plus three others. Among us were a doctor from Norfolk, two couples from Florida, a man who sought out unknown culinary delicacies, and a titled lady. Our hosts for the week were the informal Master of the Revels, John Hildreth, and his wife, Lucy. I felt sure I was the only Jew ever to have stayed there. I assumed my natural state: the outsider.
The lodge’s large parlour, with its tall paned windows facing out to the lochs and the hills beyond, seated us all comfortably, and it was here that the guests gathered nightly for drinks before dinner, and again later for conversation or a game, both usually involving more drinks. I had expected to be enthralled by the talk about the deerstalking, but I found it tedious – it was technical, and I had no frame of reference for bits of hunting trivia such as the ideal gauge for a clean kill or the recoil of a new rifle. I was especially disappointed to learn that, despite the steep fees paid to the lodge by the friends who had invited me, we would not be consuming any venison. While the successful hunter may take home the rack of antlers, all the game is shipped to Germany, where it fetches a very high price. Apparently, the revenue contributes to the upkeep of the lodge, but you’d think they could throw in a piece of meat.
Not everyone was a hunter, and most of the party found other things to do. There was walking, reading, painting, talking, or fishing.
Early on the first morning of the adventure, our host had scheduled a fishing trip. The group rose at dawn. I had not slept well, and I didn’t have the vaguest idea of what to do on the banks of the river, but I was determined to be part of the activities. One young man, Richard, a friend of the Hildreths’ son, caught a handsome salmon. This caused a flurry of excitement among the guests because he could now pursue the Scottish hunting game called the “MacNab” – consisting of the capture of a salmon, a grouse, and a stag in under twenty-four hours from one estate. The game is named for a book of the same name by John Buchan, a Governor General of Canada from 1935 to 1940, though the Canadian provenance seems long forgotten.
We returned to the lodge for a dream English breakfast – sausage, bacon, toast, eggs, and hot and cold cereals. Afterwards, John Hildreth came up to me with a chart of the guests’ activities, and suggested I accompany young Richard on his MacNab quest. I was delighted. I could observe without doing, then go on to hunt a stag of my own if I so wished.
Our professional deerstalker was a Scot in his sixties named Albert. He had that particular wiry strength of a man who has lived his life out of doors, and an air of bitterness as a result of being surrounded, I imagined, by men who claimed all the credit for bagging their stags, never acknowledging his role. Our odd threesome – Richard, Albert, and I – set out at nine in the morning. It was my introduction to the land. This estate had been the stomping ground of Mary, Queen of Scots. How had she managed, even on horseback? The ground was uneven, boggy, and bubbling with deer shit. There were few trees. The hillsides were marked by cretaceous rocks blackened in patches by lichen. To my eye, from a distance, they looked like deer.
I felt a tiny panic each time Albert spotted a real deer. I wouldn’t see it for many seconds, sometimes minutes, after he did. It reminded me of something a friend, an old Ojibway chief in Northern Ontario, told me when I complained that I would never find my way back to the reserve alone because I couldn’t distinguish between the twists and turns of the river we were navigating. He said it was the same for him when he came to Toronto – all the streets looked alike.
Our troupe was travelling in a made-in-Canada all-terrain Argocat able to navigate the masses of streamlets and heather and rock even at ninety-degree angles. Over the next few hours, we twisted up and down and around. I felt like a tourist in a Paris cab. Where were we? Had we been going in circles?
After lengthy “glassing” with a powerful, much-worn telescope, Albert identified the stag we would pursue – an eleven pointer. (Stags are ranked from the meagre two – a weak or very young deer – up to a hearty fourteen – a male in his prime.) The very best are saved to produce more offspring the following year or reserved for famous or very rich hunters. I began to think this was an unlikely Disneyland for adults.
The Argocat came to a stop, hanging precariously over a deep crevasse. We disembarked and proceeded on foot. Aha! So there was another way to travel here. We slopped our way through the muck created by the endless dung and the invisible rivers cutting through the peat and the faintly fragrant dry heather.
My boots were waterproof, but only ankle-high, so the stinking water rolled in over the top. I found myself wishing I’d brought along a Barbour jacket. Everyone here had one. It was the stylish, functional, rain-proof uniform. I wondered what Mary, Queen of Scots, had worn.
We stopped to eat our packed lunches. I had permitted myself only a slice of ham and an apple, no beverage, to save my appetite for the sumptuous dinners. By noon, I was already tired, cold, thirsty, and hungry. I had only the vaguest sense that this was a chase. We continued for five more arduous hours. I battled an overwhelming sense of fatigue by reminding myself that, thanks to a lifetime of eating well, I had stored some excess resources for just such an occasion.
At around five o’clock, after hours of creeping around the grounds, Albert dramatically dropped to his belly and signalled us to do the same. He then led us on our bellies through a swampy mire. We were covered in grime; midges swarmed us, heading for our mouths, noses, and ears. It was best to just let them have their way, because when you swiped at them, you landed deer shit in your mouth.
Presently, Albert jammed his walking stick into the ground, then turned to Richard and motioned for him to follow. They headed off; I was to stay by the walking stick until I’d heard a shot, and then follow. I did what I was told. I waited for an hour and then another. I heard nothing. The sun began to sink. I’m not ashamed to say I was growing a little frightened. Still on my belly, I backed out of where Albert had left me. Finally I reached the other side of the hill, out of the swamp, out of sight of the deer, and, I was careful to make sure, out of the wind so my scent wouldn’t alert the herd. I had watched too many Westerns, and I didn’t want a herd of deer to stampede me. I continued to wait. I marvelled that anyone would engage in this “sport,” at such enormous expense.
I had imagined a much nobler event, something that would have explained the successes of the British Empire. I suppose I had rather pretentiously hoped to learn something about the British, about men, maybe even about myself, on this journey, but at that moment I felt ignorant and quite vulnerable.
The descending darkness intensified my fear, which was of nothing in particular and so of everything – bats, roving angry herds of stags, apparitions. I had been in terrifying situations before, but now they seemed tame; pretty much everything compared favourably to the deep terror of this unknown terrain. Where were Albert and Richard? Another hour passed. It was pitch-black. There was no moon, and even the stars were obscured by clouds. Then it began to rain. I sat in the dark imagining a dead boy, a dead deerstalker, a vengeful eleven-pointer.
The most spontaneous hunt I have ever known happened closer to home, some thirty years ago. I was with a jumble of sweet chums, walking in the twilight at Delta Marsh, a beautiful, flat, reed-riddled bird sanctuary just outside Winnipeg. I had recently returned from a stay of several months in France, a time that had filled me with big ideas about politics and art and given me a real appreciation for fine food.
Suddenly, in the falling light, we were surrounded by leopard frogs. As a one-time aspiring scientist (I’d paired my university major in literature with one in zoology), I knew them immediately – I had dissected these in Zoology 204. As a dedicated cook, I also knew they were treasures. I hurled a challenge at the group: “If you catch them, I’ll cook them.”
Two of the men grabbed green garbage bags and quickly filled them with seventy-five frogs. There was a little fluttery jab at the farthest reaches of my consciousness when I saw my challenge was going to be met. Now what? I knew I wasn’t going to hammer them between the eyes, as was done in France and Quebec. I’d find a kinder (or at least less violent) way to kill them. Perhaps I’d freeze them. Yes, that was it. My friend had a commercial deep freezer where they would sleep and die, quickly and painlessly.
Two days later, one of my friends came and helped me hatchet off the frogs’ legs, which I skinned and sautéd in butter and garlic, which was the way I had enjoyed them in Paris. When I fetched them from my friend’s deep freezer, I had tried not to look at their little frozen bodies.
Early in the evening the gang who had been at Delta gathered in my small, carriage-house living room. We sent great steaming platters of succulent, tender, garlicky frogs’ legs out of the kitchen. We converted a few vegetarians that night. The rest of us thought we were about as sophisticated as you can get. We had our fill, and all for free. It was sublime.
It wasn’t until the next morning, when I gazed out a back window, that I noticed a curious movement in the laneway. The garbage bags containing the frogs’ remains, carefully twist-tied shut, were slowly advancing along the wall. I put on my glasses to confirm the unlikely sight. I saw three plastic bags inching their way down the alley.
For a moment I questioned my sanity. Then I realized what had happened. How could I have forgotten this fundamental zoological fact? Frogs are coldblooded; these ones had survived their deep sleep in the freezer like so many frogsicles, and now, thawed, they found themselves legless and in a green plastic coffin, from which they were trying to escape. Soon after, they were whisked away by the sanitation trucks.
A distant human sneeze caught my attention. Through the mist I saw the two men trudging towards me.
“Everything all right?” Albert inquired earnestly, sensing it wasn’t. I decided to keep my anguish to myself.
Albert left Richard and me on the hillside and went to get the Argocat. Richard’s boyish face was smeared with blood. In keeping with the tradition observed by hunters bagging their first kill, Richard had dipped his hands in his stag’s blood and painted his face – “blooded” himself, as it’s known. The tradition dates back to the medieval period and seems to reference baptism. I decided that if I were to bag my own stag, I would not “blood” my face. In any case, I had a feeling that this was a male rite of passage.
Albert returned and picked us up. Then we retrieved the felled stag. I glanced at it but was feeling too sorry for myself to feel anything for the dead beast or to ponder the meaning of this strange ritual. Richard questioned Albert about the grouse, trying to sound offhand: “I guess it’s not possible to find a grouse this late?” Albert mumbled something about the scarcity of grouse just now. Richard tried again. Albert replied more harshly, “There are no grouse here.” We rode back silently – Albert, Richard, the carcass, and me.
When we returned to the lodge, it was after nine o’clock. The group was sitting down to dinner. The table was laden with glasses of red burgundy, rare roast beef oozing bloody jus, horseradish sauce, roast potatoes, broccoli, and salad. I washed up, then joined the other guests at the table. A plate of food and a glass of wine appeared before me instantaneously. Everyone was sympathetic to my ordeal. Lady Sophia wrapped me in her pashmina shawl; John Hildreth shot me an apologetic, sideways glance.
Richard, I noticed, had left the darkened ritual blood, now dried in creases, on his young face. No one commented on it; it was a norm here. I was too tired to really think about it, but I knew somewhere, if not wholly consciously, that what I had seen that day was not truly hunting. Hunting was at best an act in harmony with nature. I may be romanticizing somewhat, but it was what I had experienced in the North, when people needed to eat. This was something else. This was a game. This was a kind of pretending. The blooding ritual seemed to say more about the superiority of man to beast than the gratitude man might show to beast for providing sustenance.
The rest of the week at the lodge flew by: I became a student of Lucy Hildreth, a landscape painter. I made a still-life painting of items from the lavish larder at the lodge. Other people in the party went on hunting expeditions; I stayed in the parlour and read.
On our last full day at Loch Choire, I came to the question I’d been avoiding most of the week: was I going to hunt my own stag? I wasn’t sure what I thought. I have never been particularly sympathetic to vegetarians. The position of drawing the line at red meat, or dairy, or leather shoes, had always seemed arbitrary. And when the view was consistent, there was often something off-puttingly rigid about it. Yet I also deplore the egocentric view that the world has been created for humanity alone, to use as we wish. I had an unusual opportunity here to know something fully I never could under any other circumstances – to test the contradictions, to confront my beliefs. It had always seemed legitimate to me to hunt animals for food, but not legitimate to kill them for sport. On the other hand, the animal I would shoot had been bred to be hunted and shot, as cattle are to be slaughtered for food. I was not destroying an animal in the wild. My analysis of sport hunting was complicating before my eyes. I don’t know exactly what tipped the balance, but in the end, I decided to face the task. I was going to hunt a stag.
A different deerstalker, Ronald, led me down to the edge of the lake where I was to shoot at a round target some 500 yards away, prior to venturing out to do the real thing. Lying on my belly, with the rifle up at my shoulder, I tried to find the bull’s eye in the sights. Cross hairs! Something familiar, at last – it was like looking through a camera lens. I took my shot, knocked back by the recoil. The bullet struck the bottom of the bull’s eye. I was thrilled – and, apparently, ready to move on to the next phase: to hunt.
We set out in the cool morning sun. The deer stalker had brought a trainee with him (called a ghillie), a university student who was here to learn the craft of game management, a notion that threw a very different light on what we were doing. In his view, we were keeping a herd culled, in order to maintain a natural balance. Alex, the doctor, had also joined us.
We moved slowly through the vast estate, approaching distant herds of stags tentatively. Ronald picked out an eleven-pointer. I stared at it through the binoculars, trying to find all its marks of distinction. I didn’t want to know it so intimately, but it was imperative I be able to recognize it.
We resumed the trials of the first day, crawling on our bellies through the muck and slime for hours. Despite the strenuous activity, I no longer had any appetite. Suddenly we stopped; there he was, my eleven-pointer, lying down, chewing cud. I willed myself not to see the animal’s beauty and his vulnerability as he ate. We arranged ourselves with the rifle for the moment when the stag would rise. Ronald asked Alex to put his cap on my head – my curly, flyaway hair could alert the herd. The hinds, females, sometimes barked a warning to the stags if they caught a glimpse of the slightest movement. They seemed to be stationed slightly away from the others for this very purpose.
Then my stag rose, gracefully. “Now!” barked Ronald. “Now?” I asked. “Now!” he repeated. I raised the rifle and lined up the cross hairs squarely below the shoulder midway through the stag’s body. Through the eyepiece, the animal was all but inanimate. I fired.
The animal fell. Had I done this? A numbness began to creep over me. Then, quickly, the stag rose, as they often do, apparently, after having been hit. The stalker took the gun from me. “Brilliant shot,” he said. Alex concurred. “Perfect,” he declared. “Really?” I asked, excited, and then again, more fearfully. The stag had fallen once more. Both men kissed me. Alex ceremoniously handed me the casing of the spent bullet and the stalker took off towards the stag. I called out “Shouldn’t you shoot it again?” “Not necessary,” he called back. I was lost in guilt and discontent and equivocation. Then, all of a sudden, the stag, fully risen again, shuddered, and took off at top speed.
We were all taken aback. A chorus of expletives tumbled forth from the stalkers. Then Alex pointed out that there was not even a trace of blood. Baffled, the ghillie ran off after the stag. I began to look for a fallen animal in the immediate vicinity, thinking it must have been another stag that had bounded away. After two long hours of searching, we reconvened on the hillside and Ronald reported that he had seen my stag, hale and hearty. It must have been grazed in the withers, the muscular hump behind the head, which would have stunned it momentarily, but done no permanent damage. The men apologized abjectly, swearing this had never happened before. I said very little.
By the time I returned to the lodge, bathed, and joined the party, news of the fiasco had circulated. John Hildreth was particularly distressed on my behalf. But I was jubilant. I felt as though I had won a lottery. I had come very close to actually killing an animal, and escaped, despite my best, or worst, instincts. I had been granted a curious reprieve, guilty only of intent.
Our last evening meal began after rounds of single malt and gin and vodka. There was smoked salmon, and crab to start. Pheasant and steak, potatoes and green beans and salad, lemon meringue pie, and apple pie served with thick English cream, all washed down with deep plummy burgundy, which one of the guests had driven to France to fetch, months earlier. My appetite, I noticed, had returned.
The next morning, my friend and I drove away from the estate. As we passed through the tiny village nearby, we noted a sign posted in the only shop window. “Fresh venison £5 a pound. Also grouse.” We looked at each other without comment.