Hunting season is coming to an end, so I’m going on one last big game hunt in Germany with a guy named Sjoerd. He's the first hunter I've met from my generation in Amsterdam, which is unique because hunting in Holland is hardly a youthful affair.
Welcome back to our column, Hunter/Gatherer, in which we showcase the resourceful—and hungry—people who gather wild food sources without the help of the grocery store. Photographer and writer Isabella Rozendaal is back with a dispatch from her project, Isabella Hunts, in which she follows hunters from different cultures around the world.
Hunting season is coming to an end so I'm going on one last big game hunt in Germany. I'll be hunting deer, boar, and other large mammals with Sjoerd Evenhuis, a young guy who runs "Wild van Wild," a company that turns wild animals into charcuterie, stews, and other delicacies and delivers them to high-end restaurants and stores in Amsterdam. Sjoerd is the first hunter I've met from my generation in Amsterdam. As I've mentioned before, hunting in Holland is hardly an urban (or youthful) affair, so it's a rare pleasure to meet someone like him. And just like me, he's in it for the food. We'll be hunting with a group of about twenty hunters at his regular spot in the Eifel region, a five hour drive from home, where the hills are rolling and the forest is dark.
I drive out with my intern, Max, and I'm a little nervous about taking him because he is a young kid and brand new to hunting. I've never done this with a student before–I'm not even sure it's legal–but he's infatuated with all things outdoors. He'll be fine. I've tried to explain as much as I can, but there's only so much you can do to prepare for something like this. We follow the winding German roads through villages that look almost candy-made and pull up to a farm packed with Dutch cars. This must be the place.
I meet Jaap, the jachtmeester, the host of the hunt and the authority figure. Whatever he says, goes.
First, we go on a daytime hunt. The weather is great and it's snowed just a tiny bit, so the pines look as if they have been dusted with icing sugar and I feel like I'm walking through a life-size frosted forest cake. The hunt is not all that eventful, though. One of the hunters brings back a small roe deer, but in a group this size, that's hardly considered a haul. Nobody seems bothered by this because they're happy to spend a day in the woods and catch up with old friends.
In my eyes, this roe deer is treasure. I'm always interested in the part where you get to eat the animal, so I jump at the opportunity to learn how to butcher it. One of the hunters patiently guides me through the process and I feel a rush of pride once the animal is neatly dressed and hauled into the cooler.
I clean up and we all help to get dinner ready. At most hunts, the menu consists of simple dishes made with supermarket pork, but today is different. I am delighted at the sight of thick wild boar burgers, delicate venison stew, and a host of sides. Two of the guys horse around with a Dutch oven and coals in the garage in a pretty successful attempt to bake bread. After dinner, Sjoerd tells us to get ready for one last hunt in the dark.
He's picked a spot that he thinks will offer a reasonable chance of success. So how does he figure that out? Hunters spend a lot of their time observing game because animal behavior can be pretty predictable. If they like to feed in a certain place, there's a good chance they might return. But then again, they might not, and if they see the hunter or hear the hunter, or if the wind is in their favor, that's it. If you are so lucky to actually spot game, it has to be the exact kind you're looking for: species, gender, and age. And even if all those factors have worked out in your favor and you're faced with the animal that you want for dinner and are legally allowed to shoot, it should ideally stand exactly broadside in such a way that you can get a clean shot at their lungs and heart, just behind the shoulders. This simply means that most days, you're going to go home empty-handed. And from what I gather, this is how hunters like it best. For a hunter who manages a piece of land, this gives them an opportunity to observe game and get a better understanding of what goes on in the field, and when you do finally shoot something, it's just that much more exciting. If you don't care for sitting quietly and staring into nothing at all for a really, really long time, hunting is not for you.
Sjoerd, Max and I cram into his mud-splattered truck, which is so full of junk and gear that I can barely fit on the backseat. I tuck my knees sideways and fold myself in, holding my camera above my shoulder to keep it from getting smashed on the road. We drive up to one of the fields, park the car, and quietly slip out, trying to close the doors without making a sound. Sjoerd leads us to a hunting blind: a small hut built on high poles with windows that can open with a plain wooden bench and a few old cushions.
Those usually look something like this:
Now I'm quite the trooper but I can't stand getting cold, so I've packed a sleeping bag that's so insanely thick it feels like an airbag just deployed in the blind and I have to get inside it before Max can fit in after me. We don't want to make any sound, so we take everything we need from our noisy bags and zippered pockets: a rifle, ammo, knives, drinks, a camera, triggers, flash, batteries, binoculars, and earplugs. Sjoerd quietly opens up the windows and peers through his riflescope. It should take a while for any animals to show themselves since we just made all that noise, but he passes me the binoculars so I have something to do. It's not even a full moon out, but the field is covered in snow and I see the world in crystal clear gray tones.
When you sit in a field and literally watch nothing happen, it gets incredibly boring, fast. The hardest part is the first twenty or so minutes. For me, it typically goes like this: I take in the view; I'm struck by the beauty. I carefully consider every detail of my surroundings, but within minutes, after the initial excitement wears off, the experience becomes excruciating. I'm supposed to stay still, so all I want to do is shift around. I acutely feel the hard bench and every part of my body that's uncomfortable. I get itchy in inappropriate places. My nose starts running. I can't stop thinking about anything and everything. I get frustrated that I don't enjoy it, that I'm not "in the moment," and I am very aware that I'll never be "an outdoorsy person." I start thinking that I apparently need constant stimulation and I've been fucked up by modernity to the point where I can't live without a device anymore. Nature is just not for me: it's for other, better people. I'm just pretending. But after about half an hour, my mind unclenches. It goes soft and nowhere. I stop thinking for the most part and just sit there. It's so boring it's not even enjoyable. It's not a nature experience. Time does not exist anymore and I can no longer tell the difference between one and five hours. I'm in the butter zone.
Sjoerd grabs his rifle and peers through the scope. Max has passed the binoculars back to me, and I'm looking at three wild boars roaming the edge of the field. My inexperienced eye can only just make out their silhouettes, but in no time, I can tell Sjoerd is about to make his shot. I scramble for my earplugs while trying to keep my eyes on the animals. The muffled shot sounds as if it's from a distance, but it thunders through my body, and I see the boar go down through the shaking glass. Sjoerd lets out a deep sigh of relief and grabs the binoculars, trying to make sure he didn't fuck it up.Check back next week for the second installment of Isabella's German hunting adventures.