Tuesday, 31 January 2012

What remains - Memories of my father and the forest

So it is time to write of death again. As the new year just waved its first hellos, my father died. After two months of his body disappearing before our eyes, he simply fell asleep. For that I’m grateful. He was eighty-five. He lived a long life, he lived through a lot.
He died almost to the day eleven months after my mother. They were companions for sixty years. Even though I haven’t lived in the same country as my parents for a long time, we were very close. I don’t even know yet what it means for me that they are both gone, what it really means. I was their only living child, the apple of their eyes. My brother died aged eight of leukaemia before I was born. I used to be angry with him when I was little, for leaving me alone with this loving, weighty, intense relationship.
As my parents got older, our relationship turned as they do and I started to worry about them and looked after them from afar as best as I could. I spent many hours with my father in his last months. Witness to the rapid deterioration of his body and to the curious mix of vulnerability, acceptance, love, toughness and wit in which he lived the end of his life. In those hours I thought about what it is that remains of us. I thought about legacy, about memories.

I look at the things that my parents leave behind. The few material things, the photographs and I know they will all go some time. What else will remain about them as individuals? I don't have children. How will my parents live on? And then I thought, does the forest remember exactly which dying tree fed a particular area of new growth (maybe it does), and does that really matter? Or is the continuation of growing life the most important thing. So what is it, I thought, that will flow out into the growing life of the world from my father?

He loved nature. He loved it in a very unsentimental way. He loved the forest and the animals in it and yet he was a hunter. He killed animals. We ate them. There are big forests where I come from. My father would think nothing of walking into the forest at night by a full moon. That’s when you hunt wild boar. You might say, what was there to fear, he had a gun, the animals didn’t. That is true. Some say a wild boar can be a danger if you don't know what you're doing, even if you have a gun. There was also the being alone with oneself at night in a forest for long hours. Maybe equally scary. I would not have walked into that forest at night, and I don’t know many people now who would.
So he would be there with his dog, who was his companion and co-worker more than a pet and whom he loved as we all did. It took knowledge, skill and patience to be in that forest at night and to kill a boar. There were many boars where I come from. They used to break into the maize fields for a good meal leaving the farmers frustrated. But the farmers also knew that this is what happens in maize fields near a forest, and they kept mending their fences. It was a constant battle on both sides.

Hunting is heavily regulated in Germany. You cannot hunt without a licence and to get it you need to complete a training of forestry, ecology, flaura, fauna, animal care, conservation, weapons, forest and hunting laws and then take a state exam which many don’t pass. Hunting is linked to “Hege” and "Waidgerechtigkeit”. I haven’t found exact English translations, but roughly it would be “care” or  ”preservation” and “rightful treatment of  forest and animals”. There are many arguments on both sides, those who say you need regulated hunting in an area that is after all not really wild any more, where the natural balance is already gone. Others argue that hunting is cruel and unnecessary and nature will still regulate itself. This is not my argument here. I'm telling my father's story. 
Private forest owners often lease areas to someone who has the money to pay for it. So people like my father - who was a bus driver and did not have much money – worked for a leaseholder in exchange for the right to hunt. He spent hours creating salt licks and winter feeding stations, clearing paths, maintaining shooting stands and other back breaking tasks I don’t know of. He worked with the dog so she would become a calm and reliable partner.
I remember many times when he was called in the day or in the middle of the night because a deer had been hit by a car and run away wounded. So he left with the dog and the gun to track it down and kill it. Sometimes during harvest time, tiny fawns with big eyes and spotted coats would sleep in the high fields, invisible to the combine harvesters. Sometimes a little one was run over by the big machines. If it was lucky, it died. But often it only lost its legs or some other horrific injury. And my dad would be one of the people called upon to shoot it.

For a time as a teenager I hated him being a hunter and was ashamed of it. I was getting interested in the anti-nuclear movement and environmentalism, and it just seemed to grate. Yet I still ate meat from the butcher shop as did my friends. Underneath it all, if I was truthful, I always admired him. And I really liked a haunch of venison which my mother could prepare better than any celebrity chef, with wild mushroom sauce, spiced red cabbage, bread dumplings and pears poached in red wine filled with cranberries. Maybe with some lambs lettuce as well.  More than once I went down to the cellar and opened the door only to walk into a dead deer in the dark, hanging by a metal hook from its neck, the life in its deep brown eyes stopped dead by a shot from my father’s gun.
The idea that you could hunt down an animal with riders for hours and have it torn apart alive by a pack of dogs was abhorrent to him. He could kill alright. But with one shot if at all possible, quickly always. He could kill, but he would not torture.

As a child, I often watched him butcher a deer, and on a couple of rare occasions, a wild boar. I was fascinated by the eyeballs he would take from the sockets in the skull, by the hide and tissues separating from the flesh, the flesh from the bones. The skull with the antlers had to be boiled for hours until all the flesh came off and then dried to be mounted on a wooden plaque as was the tradition. When my father built me a wooden playhouse at the end of the garden, he mounted a small deer skull above its door. The stench of a boiling skull is horrific. One day my mother forced him to take a small electric stove with a very long extension lead right to the back of the garden where he would have to boil the skulls from then on. But my mother was also a forester’s and hunter’s daughter, and very much a woman of the earth in her own right, so she understood.

My father’s heart was in the forest. He studied long hours in his meagre spare time to pass the exam and get his licence. He found something out there in the forest, an honesty about life and death maybe that connected him to his childhood on a farm. Something that helped him move through the trauma of his late teens and early twenties spent fighting in a brutal war and trying to survive a prison camp. On his seventy-fifth birthday, the local priest came to the house to congratulate him. When he remarked upon my father’s rare attendance at church, he responded that the forest was his church. This greatly embarrassed my mother, at least momentarily, and made me feel strangely proud. The church he found out there was one of clear and inarguable facts, of blood and guts and beauty. Of freedom and solitude. That also had space for the raucous drinking sessions with his hunting buddies, which caused me and my mother many nights of worry about him getting home safely and made me hate him for a while. The machismo, or maybe something that I have no name for, that comes with the skill to use a gun and the ability to take a life. There were also the class distinctions between the rich folk who held the hunting lease and the people like my father who did the physical work. And there were the times when none of that seemed of any consequence, in the solemnity of a particular night in autumn when the kill was laid out in front of the church in the light of torches to be blessed by the priest and the hunting horns were played, as a reminder, so I was told, that fellow creatures gave their life, and of our duty towards them.

I studied cultural anthropology, travelled the world and was fascinated by the ways of life of traditional and tribal peoples. It took me a while to recognise that some of the things I was seeking, that where different from the artificiality, consumerism, hypocrisy and separation from anything that was not human, that some of this was right in front of me. Quite possibly inside of me. That I had seen it since I was a small child, heard the stories. Touched the eyeballs fresh from the sockets. Stroked the hide of a fawn, cried my eyes out for its death and then ate its flesh for lunch. That I had a small deer skull over the door of my small house. That our beloved dog had a job outside the house as everyone else. That my father took her out into the heart of the forest when she was old and suffering and dying. Without telling anyone, he took her out there and shot her and buried her by a tree, and when he came back he would not speak for a day. I lived in another town then, and my parents did not tell me about this until I came to visit, and we cried. He needed to make sure that she died quickly, without fear, in a place she loved, with him by her side. He was not going to outsource this last duty to a vet.

There came a time in  his life, when my father said he did not want to kill any more animals. That it was now the task of younger men. From then on he only went to the forest to walk, to observe, to be there.

There is something in all this that I’m only now beginning to understand. That made me who I am, with a disdain for our utilitarian, consumerist, brutal culture that is destroying the world, but also suspicious of easy answers and the romantic and naive attitude I find in some who love and try to protect the more than human world.  
Something in the honesty of my father’s way is important in the world I live in. Even though it seems very far removed from it. Or maybe because of that. I would like to think that somehow it will continue to flow into the world through me.


As I was writing this, I came upon a good question posed by the excellent Earthlines Magazine blog: Is Nature Writing too nice? And I would answer, with my memories in mind, yes it is. I hope we'll rise to the challenge to make it more real.


  1. Daniela - thank you so much for writing this. We understand very well that whole question of hunting and the apparent contradictions of loving and caring for our own stock (sheep, pigs) and then killing and eating them anyway. We wrestle with it all the time (and my husband, rather than take our animals to the abbatoir, has learned to kill them himself rather than subject them to the long trip and likely fear. But we cry a little every time :-). All those contradictions we live with and the complexity of that whole idea of being connected to the natural world. It isn't always pretty flowers, all warm and fuzzy. Your father sounds like a man who knew that and your story about the dog - well, that is an act that takes courage and a vast amount of love. I'm sorry you lost him but also glad that you still have so much of him with you and in you.

    1. Thank you Sharon, glad you can relate to it, and respect to you both for entering into an honest relationship with your farm animals. There is so much to be thinking about when it comes to how we relate and are connected to the world and its other inhabitants. Great that you have been writing about Tim Ingolds work over on the Earthlines Blog, he's really good at getting right into the entanglement of all this!

    2. It was your blog mentioning Ingold that led me there, Daniela. Astonishing work - a real revelation. Almost made me want to be an anthropologist when I grow up :-)

    3. Ah nice one! yes, made me remember why I studied it - only wish I'd had teachers like that then, but glad to have found his work now.

  2. It's difficult to say more; this is a beutiful elegy that seems to capture the spirit of a man whom I've never met. It does remind me of the complex and respectful relationship which indigenous cultures have with the animals they hunt; Barry Lopez has some thoughtful essays and short stories on this subject, which help me to understand the necessity of hunting, but also of the necessity for mutual respect and the relationship between the hunter and the prey.
    That echoes, in a way, the relationship of mutual respect we develop in time for our parents.
    best wishes

    1. That's an interesting thought, about mutual respect and what that really means in the face of relationships not always being just pretty, and what does love and care mean in all this. Food for thought. Have been meaning to read Barry Lopez for a while, so it looks I really need to get round to it! Thank you! D

    2. Daniela, this is a beautiful, profound and thoughtful post. Thank you for it, and for facing the tough stuff. Oh and yes, as Ian says - Barry Lopez is excellent on this - one of my favourite writers; read 'Crossing Open Ground' first. Our relationship to animals and the wild is so complex, isn't it? I so respect your father's attitude. For myself, I have finally taken the vegan (after many many years of being veggie) path as the only one that feels right for me, as someone who is not willing to kill her own meat and doesn't want the hypocrisy of others doing it. However, my lovely daughter, a lifelong vegetarian, has decided to learn to hunt and kill her own meat, and has been gradually steeling herself to begin by collecting and preparing roadkill, an attitude I support and admire enormously.

      And thank you for writing about (human) death, another thing we cover up in our culture. I believe you are perhaps the Daniela who follows my blog? - in which case you might have seen my posts about my mother's recent death. It feels important to share this stuff, and hands together to you for your courage - part of the healing process, isn't it, being able to talk/write about it; and as someone recently bereaved I appreciate reading another's response?

      I'm so glad to have found your blog. Roselle

      Again, thank you.

    3. HI Roselle,

      thank you so much for your comments. Hats off to your daughter. And hats off to you for acting according to your truth. I often think I need to stop eating meat until I'm prepared to kill myself, but I'm still living with a measure of hypocrisy I need to resolve. Sharon pointed me to your blog, so yes I'm the Daniela following, but I have not actually had time to read much in these last weeks. I'm looking forward to getting some time to do that soon. I also think it's good to get another's perspective on grief. So I'll see you over on your blog soon!
      All the very best, Daniela

  3. Daniella thankyou so much for this lovely and heartfelt story .Its prompted me to feel into my Father and relating and the world as he sees and feels it and to all that i carry on from him . My father like yours was a hunter, there is much to ponder .
    Go well Simeon

    1. Thank you Simeon, very glad to have prompted this. Hope all's well with you, best wishes.

  4. Ah, Daniela. So generous of you to think of me when you have not long lost your father. I have had a turbulent journey with mine, so I know how that relationship can be complex, but what you write of your father makes me wish there were more people honestly following their own consciences and practising a healthy respect for nature in all her moods. And I love how clearly your voice comes through your words. Thank you for writing this. Thank you for your love. Sending insight and peace to you (sometimes a tricky combo). xx

  5. Bless you, Lunar, that is all I can say! XX