For some time, a fox has been been sleeping in our garden. One evening I decide to follow it across the fields at the back of our house and into the forest. I step inside 10 metres, then 10 more – just enough to feel a shiver of adrenaline before turning on my heels. After that first visit, I venture a little further each evening. As soon as the house is asleep, I open my bedroom window, slip behind the hedge and cross the field to the big trees and the bustle of the animals.
Home-schooled, I have spent most of my childhood almost entirely alone, without friends or classmates, without holidays or school trips, and apart from these nocturnal escapades I sit in my room studying by correspondence. By the time I am 16, this life has become a kind of torture. On the day of the baccalaureate, the school leaving exam, I throw my registration letter into a maize field and resolve to spend not only my nights but also my days in the forest.
Bord-Louviers is a forest of 4,500 hectares (11,120 acres) located in the département of Eure. Its horseshoe shape melds perfectly with the fourth bend in the Seine. If I travel from east to west, I pass through vegetation made up principally of pines and beech trees to reach a denser forest of oak and wild cherries. I base myself in the east, on a big overhanging rock called la Crutte, which dominates the whole of the Seine valley.
I keep the modern world out as much as possible, retaining only what is strictly necessary. First of all, a change of clothes to keep out the cold: two pairs of canvas trousers and a pair of jeans, alpaca wool underpants, linen T-shirts, virgin-wool pullovers and two seaman’s caps. To keep them from rotting, I store these clothes in sealed bags in a rucksack, buried in the forest.
For cooking, I use only a small aluminium frying pan and a pot for boiling water. I decide to follow an omnivorous but vegetarian-inclined diet. I cannot imagine living in a natural habitat and eating the wild animals that live there, even though nature is obviously overflowing with predators. I buy tins of food and hide them at the foot of a tree, under a pile of branches and dead leaves. Unfortunately, a few days later, wild boar discover my hoard. All the tins are disembowelled by their razor-sharp trotters.
Hauling my shopping back into the forest in a 50-litre rucksack is, frankly, exhausting. In fact, in order to survive, I decide that my most efficient strategy is to eat what I already have at my disposal. Bramble, silver birch, hornbeam and bay leaves, “dry” fruits such as chestnuts, beechnuts, seeds or hazelnuts, and also dandelions and sorrel.
I discover the willowherb with its edible root. You dig it out with a knife and eat it raw. There are also nettle roots, wild carrots. Let’s be honest: at first it’s frankly repellent. The red dead-nettle, for example, a plant whose proteins are essential for survival – well, it tastes like a spoonful of compost. But it’s not all bad: clover flowers have very agreeable sweet notes. To slake my thirst, I use a sock to filter rainwater then put it in my billycan and boil it on a little wood fire.
My “territory” covers about 500 hectares (1,235 acres). And I soon start finding my way around. There are the paths followed by the animals, which I know by heart, and then a few special tricks that I develop with experience. Olfactory points of reference are essential, particularly at night. The oaks give off a scent of old wooden beams. If I approach a pond, my nostrils catch the scent of rushes and mud. My eyes get used to the darkness.
One fine morning a roe deer, the one that I would come to call by the French name Daguet, crosses my path and comes to a standstill a few steps away from me. Very slowly, I crouch down. I am fascinated by his big, shiny black eyes. We stare at one another for a few minutes, which seem to last for hours. He turns away and plunges into the undergrowth.
Soon afterwards, I’m eating from a bramble that provides a good supply of small leaves, slightly withered but very nourishing nonetheless. I’ve been savouring this salad for three-quarters of an hour when a face emerges from the bushes in front of me. Rather than running away as a normal roe deer would, Daguet chooses to stay and observe me. He seems to have decided to find out more about this newcomer who has invited himself into his home.
A few days later, I encounter him again, lying at the foot of a tree. I approach gently, hiding behind each tree in turn to avoid attracting attention. I decide that I’ve developed an unusual talent for approaching stealthily, unless he is just pretending not to see me. Just to be sure, I move out from behind the tree so he can’t miss me, then move towards him slowly, half crouching. He regards me calmly. Unbelievable. The rascal has been mocking me from the beginning, letting me advance from tree to tree like an idiot. When I’m about 10 metres away, Daguet gets to his feet and stretches. I stop. He considers me. And we stand like that for half an hour. It’s a magical moment. I have a sense of total communion with him and all the other things that surround us. My heart and soul are at peace. My brain is on hold.
The Native Americans used to say that when hunting roe deer you shouldn’t think about them too much, in case they sense your thoughts and make their escape. That seems entirely reasonable to me. Thoughts become moods and moods become scents. So I force myself to have positive thoughts, in the hope of making my silent dialogue with Daguet last as long as possible.
After a while, my legs go numb, and I’m not sure what to do, when at last he starts moving forward. I walk slowly behind him. His ears point backwards, in my direction. The leaves rustle under my weight and make him start a few times. He sets off at a trot and then stops again, turns around and waits for me. It’s thrilling. A wild animal is trying to tame me.
Suddenly a bark can be heard in the distance. It must be Six Points, another roe deer I come across regularly. Daguet runs off at such incredible speed that I find myself all on my own like a fool in the middle of the oak wood.
Sharing the lives of roe deer involves giving up a number of things. Generally speaking, you have to forget all about the human codes of life in society, such as saying “goodbye” when you leave. You also have to give up on certain conventions like eating at a fixed time or sleeping at night.
Since I started living in the forest, I’ve become exhausted. I wake up far too often and struggle to get back to sleep. The hooting owls, the screeching foxes, and particularly the boar make a terrible racket. They squeak and scream and grunt and run in all directions. But the worst enemy of sleep is the cold. Several times I suffer from hypothermia. It is the same every time: I go to sleep, start dreaming, and all of a sudden I wake up quite numb, feeling as if I am going to be sick.
After a few weeks, the lack of sleep starts to make me hallucinate. I hear voices, see silhouettes, sometimes I even feel as if I am flying. I am wiped out. I begin asking myself serious questions as to how this adventure is going to end.
The problem is that I never rest. During the day I look for food and build shelters to protect myself from the weather, which takes an insane amount of time. They quickly attract insects, so I have to rebuild them every day. I must adopt a more efficient way of living; there must be something I’m missing.
I find the answers by observing Daguet. Roe deer rest day and night for one- or two-hour cycles. I realise that sleeping at night isn’t compulsory, as long as you rest from time to time. To do that, I crouch down, with my right hand on my left knee and my left hand on my right knee and my head between my arms. I decide to base the rhythm of my life on his; except that, since my stomach has just the one chamber, when he chews the cud, I meditate instead.
For the first few months, the insects wouldn’t leave me in peace: I was bitten everywhere. But over time my skin hardens and thickens, and my resistance to the cold improves. Washing is easy. In the middle of the forest there’s a remarkable group of trees called the Four Brothers. Four magnificent beeches, 40 metres high, that have grown perfectly symmetrically, forming at their centre a big cauldron that acts as a collecting point for rainwater. Dental hygiene isn’t a problem, because I no longer eat sugar. I run my index finger over my teeth with a mixture of water and ash and the job’s done. Obviously, this little cocktail doesn’t taste like supermarket toothpaste, but compared with the flavours of my new wild diet, it’s fine.
At this stage of my adventure, I’m still returning to civilisation a few times a month. The processed foods that I find in the family fridge are just as appetising as before, but I find them increasingly difficult to digest. I take a hot shower, sleep for a few hours in my childhood bed and leave before daybreak. I avoid my parents, who disapprove of my new man-of-the-woods lifestyle and have no qualms about saying so. Do I wash my clothes? No. I don’t want to bring the smells of the world of human beings into the forest. It would make my friends extremely nervous.
Early one morning, I walk with Daguet to the pine grove where Six Points is master. It’s very early, and very dark. Some little noises like whispering can be heard. Suddenly, a few metres away, I can just make out Star, Six Points’ doe. She is lying down. When she notices Daguet, she sniffs, rises to her feet and struggles towards us, barking faintly.
Daguet retreats with a series of little hops. I’m ready to follow him but I’m worried about Star, who doesn’t seem to be in the best shape. I have deep respect for this very intelligent little female. She lies down again. A few moments later, visibly weakened, she struggles up again, her whole body trembling, takes a step forward and then stops.
I see a thin trickle of fluid emerging from her hindquarters. She groans. I take a few steps to the side to gain a better view of her pale rump, when I realise that she is giving birth. Two trembling hoofs dangle into the void. Minutes pass: another contraction, then another, when, all of a sudden, out comes the young fawn, falling to the ground: bam! Deep within me I feel an immense joy. He is a little male and I call him Chévi. Star licks him all over then runs her tongue affectionately over his muzzle.
A couple of months later, I’m walking with Daguet. Summer is well advanced. It is warm, the sky is deep blue and the sun is blazing. After eating some fruit, I lie down in a clearing. Daguet joins me and the strangest thing happens: he curls up with his head on my knee. A moment later, he lifts his head slightly, yawns, looking at me, then rests it against my thigh, near my hand. I stroke his cheek with my thumb. He seems to like that. I withdraw my hand gently to put it on his back. I stroke him for a long time. He is sleeping deeply, because I feel the weight of his body getting increasingly heavy against me.
So we take advantage of this peaceful morning; the bees spin around above our heads and gather pollen from the few flowers scattered about the meadow. Not a sound disturbs the fullness of the moment.
The hardest part of living in the wild is making it through the winter. I learn to stock up, to collect plants in the spring and dry them. Nettle, mint, oregano, dead-nettle, meadowsweet, yarrow, angelica … Of course, you want to be certain that you can tell edible plants from poisonous ones. Angelica, for example, is almost indistinguishable from hemlock. Wild garlic is easily confused with meadow saffron. The problem with meadow saffron is that you can eat it and then sleep like a baby. The toxic effects only set in after a number of days, once the sly perennial has attacked your liver, which is bound in the end to explode.
Every now and then I go to my parents’ house. For several months, I have had a strange sensation when putting my feet on concrete floors. They are hard, cold and perfectly flat. I’m not used to them any more. While I’m recharging my camera batteries, I am assailed by smells. The smell of the fridge, the smell of bleach, of heating, of carpet, of clothes, clean or dirty, even the smell of the people who live in the house.
One interminable autumn night, I have been walking with Star for a few hours. She has probably left Chévi somewhere in the beech forest with Six Points and Daguet. It is cold in the early light, and the undergrowth is covered with a thick layer of mist. In the plantation currently under development, the brambles have been crushed by tractors, and we struggle to find a place where food hasn’t been replaced by mud.
It has been raining constantly for several days. We move into the pine forest where it is less damp. Star eats some chanterelles, and I put the rest in my billycan. My plan is to cook them over a wood fire this evening. I’m soaked, I’m cold, and a good hot soup made from old nettles and bramble leaves with mushrooms will do me the world of good.
Then, all of a sudden, something strange vibrates under my feet. An earthquake? In Normandy? Impossible. A gunshot rips through the silence of the forest. I look around for Star. Panicking, she is climbing the narrow valley that overlooks the forest path. The ground goes on vibrating more and more intensely, when I see about 20 red deer, stags and does, charging towards me in a disorderly gallop. I manage to hide behind a tree. At last the crazed herd disappears into the distance. A second rifle shot rings out and a bullet grazes Star. She dashes past me, barking to signal the danger to the others: “Baaah! … Baaah! … Bah, bah, bah!” She runs with all her might.
My blood freezes and I drop my billycan and run after her through the pinewood. I struggle to follow her, because the trees are densely packed together and there are so many branches on the ground that it is hard to run while also looking ahead. Finally, she slows down. I see her tottering slightly. I run over to try to gauge the seriousness of her wound. In the distance I hear four blasts on a hunting horn – the signal for roe deer. The hunting hounds spread terror through the undergrowth. Star sets off again, leaping as best she can. A few hundred metres further on she takes refuge in a dense thicket of blackthorn bushes, an almost impregnable fortress.
The hounds arrive but, seeing my aggressive stance, continue on. A moment later, the hunters show up, shouting loudly, accompanied by more dogs on leashes. I leave my rucksack by the entrance to the path along which Star fled. Since it is impregnated with my scent, it will confuse the pursuing hounds. I hide nearby. They pass, my ruse works, and I know they won’t be coming back straight away.
I stay hidden for another hour or so, long enough for the beaters to move away. I’m extremely worried about my friend. As soon as possible, as evening approaches, I go back to see her. My poor Star. She is lying fatally wounded in the chest. She is trembling, and my eyes fill with tears. The life gradually slips from her body. She looks at me, uttering little sobbing cries, before resting her head on the ground. She starts to fall asleep in the still, grey day. “Oh, forgive me, Star, I wasn’t able to protect you. I promise I’ll look after Chévi. He’s only five months old. I’ll take care of him so that he gets big and strong and has his own territory. A fine territory. I promise you, my friend. I promise.”
The clouds are reddish against the pale November air. My friend closes her eyes. The sun has just set. I stay there, by her lifeless corpse, for several long minutes. I have to move poor Star. I know the hunters will come in search of her. They know they hit her; they will go looking for her with bloodhounds. I take my friend in my arms to bury her far from the site of the hunt. Her 20 kilos are too heavy for me. My strength is failing, but I don’t want my friend to end up on someone’s plate. She deserves better than that. I hold her tightly and redouble my efforts. Once I have reached my destination, I break the ground with the survival knife that I carry with me at all times, and then continue digging by hand, but the ground is too hard. I can’t make a deep enough hole. I set Star in the shallow trench then camouflage her body with two palisades of fir-tree branches bound with linen twine, then bring them together to make a little roof, a discreet grave. I cover the whole thing over with soil, moss and bracken.
Spring has arrived. I use a gimlet to dig a little hole in the trunks of silver birches to collect sap. If the tree is big and generous I can get a good litre in a single night. The juice is deliciously sweet and gives me all the essential minerals that I have so cruelly lacked during the winter. I also like to lick the sugary sap that runs down the trunks of the pine trees. It has an astonishing flavour, a springlike freshness.
One afternoon, Chévi and I are walking in a grove under the branches of a magnificent birch. Chévi lies down. The treetops dance slightly in a warm south wind. I lie down on a bed of ferns and contemplate the translucent tangle of emerald foliage. We stay there a long time. At sunset we get up, still drowsy. As we walk, I allow myself to be filled by the warm smells that have accumulated during the day; the honeyed aroma of the grasses makes my head spin. Nightjars flit nervously overhead, in search of insects, breaking the monotony with their very particular call, like the purring of a cat. A few moments later, we pause in the middle of the oak wood, where a male tawny owl is hooting loudly. A female joins in a duet that makes the darkness ring. The full moon casts its pale light on the undergrowth. I feel the roots moving under my feet. I hear the trunks creak like rigging when a zephyr stirs the canopy.
We climb to a thinly wooded plateau. Chévi looks at me and raises his head slightly, just as a shooting star passes overhead. I make a wish: that we can be friends for life and nothing will ever part us. Dawn approaches, and the mists of the Seine and the Eure mingle and evaporate as the sun’s first rays settle on the surface of the lakes below. In the distance I hear roosters crowing, while the village church at the bottom of the valley rings out its first chime. A black fox returns from a good night’s hunting. The last boar cross the dew-drenched fields to reach the depths of the forest before humanity awakens. In the summer the days are long …
One night, I go home. What I want most is a hot shower. The gate to the house is double-locked, so I climb over it. At the front door I put my key in the lock and it sticks. I can’t open it. I try the garage door and a second door that lets me into the house. I go to the fridge: it’s empty. I look in the food cupboards: they’re empty, too. Some are even locked. I leave with tears in my eyes. I know it is the last time I’ll be coming to this house. I walk at a jog, without turning around, to get back as quickly as possible to the ones that I now think of as my real family: the roe deer.
As soon as I reach the forest, I look for Chévi but I can’t find him. The hours pass, and a wave of depression hits me. I walk back and forth along his usual routes without seeing him. In the early afternoon, physically and emotionally exhausted, I set off for another part of the forest where he and I are in the habit of relaxing. It is then that I spot his silhouette. I run to him, full pelt, and hug him. With both hands around his neck I start weeping on his shoulder. He stands motionless for several minutes. I feel his heart beating against my cheek, and he rests his muzzle on my shoulder. The warmth of his body does me good. His fur bristles as if he is shivering, then he starts licking my face. I’m so happy to see him, to be his friend.
This is an edited extract from Deer Man by Geoffroy Delorme, published by Little, Brown (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism