Where the Wild Things Are

The woods smell of Marmite.

I freeze. This is it. This is the moment I see them. My eyes sweep the hip-high bracken, ready for a twitching, for a rustling. Maybe even a snorting.

But either they have silently slipped away, or they were already gone.

I walk on.

Strictly speaking, the methodology section in my Master’s thesis proposal did not include “find wild boar (Sus scrofa)”. I am meant to find them – that is, the sense of them – through the human residents of the Forest of Dean. The academic bedrock of the thesis is a pretty psychedelic offshoot of social science called more-than-human geography. I have come to my research site with a head stuffed full of deviant baboons, crafty cows, charismatic isopods, Scottish reindeer. I have started having dreams about other animals turning into humans and humans turning into other animals.

My first interviewee, a horse rider, tells me that the boar smell “ferally”. When I’m in those bracken-choked woods a few days later, the wind brings a smell that I’ve never smelled before, something musky, almost salty, and I know this cannot be anything else. It just happens to remind me of Marmite.

I have high expectations for my wild boar side-quest. The Forest of Dean is one of the few places in the British Isles to which the creatures have returned after their fourteenth-century extirpation, and it has the largest population – though like everything else about the boar, the exact size of that population is disputed. Some people don’t even think they should be called wild boar, their progenitors being farm escapees. From reading the reams of newspaper articles about the Forest boar, I’m certain that their relations with the local humans offer a lucrative study topic from the more-than-human geography angle.

And I am right, to the point that it seems as if all my interviewees have read the same journals as me with the benevolent mission of providing quotes that match up perfectly with the existing literature. The boar transgress by being in the wrong places, by doing the wrong things. Some of their crimes are benign, like digging up roadside verges. Others are murkier. I speak to someone whose terriers needed stitches after an encounter with a big-tusked male. One woman puts her head in her hands and tells me, in a shaky voice, how she is scared to ride anymore because her horse goes mad at the first sniff of boar. I feel shame. Sitting at my desk in my London flat, I had rolled my eyes when I read about the grumblings. In the Forest of Dean, I am much more of an alien than the boar.

Lessons begin the first night, when I’m driving back to the pub where I’m staying; I have to brake hard at the sudden manifestation of sheep on the road, red-eyed in the headlights. My foot is forever twitchy after that, which saves me a few days later when three deer bolt in front of the car. I grow familiar with the bends and the junctions, the blindspots. I begin to stitch together a map in my mind.

And people show me their own maps. Most of my interviews happen at kitchen tables over cups of tea, but not all. Picture this: the camo-clad wildlife photographer strides through the undergrowth, trailed by a hassled UCL student who is holding out her tiny Dictaphone trying to capture his every word of boarcraft while fighting off spiky branches and vaulting deep-cut brooks.

Looking, listening, and later transcribing, I apprentice myself. Deer hoofprints go more inwards; boar ones are more splayed, and in deeper mud their dew claws leave little holes. The whiter the root-end, the more recently the plant was dug up. Boar poo glitters with the shattered carapaces of beetles.

One day between interviews, I follow an RSPB sign on a whim and the path takes me past an oak tree that looks like it’s been encased in plaster of Paris all around the bottom. Further on I find the mud wallow, chalky grey in colour, popular from the gloopy freshness of it. Again I cast my eyes around, again I am denied.

The tales are richer than I ever imagined. They overflow the boundaries of my thesis. The pig-keeper fights off a male boar in the dark when it breaks into the pen of his male pig. The gardener watches baby boar – “humbugs” for their pale-stripes-on-brown – running up a slope to roll down, then running back up to do it all over again. The wildlife filmmaker has seen tadpoles and dragonfly larvae flourishing in abandoned wallows. The photographer speculates that because the Forestry Commission is culling boar in the most isolated parts of the Forest, the genetic balance is tipping towards the individuals that are less afraid to venture into the busier parts. Are the boar less secretive here because they choose to be, or is the Forest of Dean simply too small a place to hide them? When it comes to writing the thesis, I have to keep reining myself back from amateur zoology.

Still, there is more than enough workable material. I am steeped in the sensory memory of all the people I have spoken to. I see the boar surge away through the undergrowth “like dolphins”. I halt at the grating roar of a motorbike being revved, that seconds later I realise is coming from an animal. I lie on the ground inside a bush, watching a gaggle of humbugs squeal and play as the mothers doze nearby. I feel the stiffening of the horse between my legs. My heart booms as the female charges only to stop short a few feet away, feinting.

The writing is not easy, though. I lie awake at night wondering how to capture the chiaroscuro of relations between the boar and the humans of the Forest of Dean, the thicket of love and respect and fear and hatred. One man openly stands on the side of “cull ’em”, but he still photographs them. After our interview is concluded, we watch from his sitting room window as badgers come to eat the food he has left out. Like many others, he is an animal-lover torn. The boar is not polite. The boar does not ghost through the landscape like the deer. The boar does not, always, run away when encountered. Its habit of standing and staring, sometimes even approaching, can be deeply disturbing to a person who has spent their entire life sending wild creatures fleeing.

There are no wolves, no cobras, no tigers, no elephants on these islands. All us Brits are used to being gods.

The interviews and the evidence of my own senses shake me: the head in hands. The trembling voice. The pointing finger – “I don’t go down that path anymore”. I don’t ride here anymore. I don’t walk the dog here anymore. I don’t let my boy go down there on his own anymore. I don’t go out the back at night anymore. This isn’t Londoners being scared about leaving the back door open in case a fox pokes its nose in. Screw the show-don’t-tell. I have to say the words: the Forest of Dean is the only place in the United Kingdom where people are afraid of wild animals.

Yet even the fear itself is a fickle visitor. There are people who feel sick with it. And there are others who, before the Dictaphone, hesitate and look skywards in their attempts to describe what they feel when they come upon boar, when they lock eyes. They always end up settling for a single word: thrill. They are surprised, they are scared, their heart is pumping ice-hot adrenaline through their blood vessels. And they don’t want it to stop.

The first time someone talks like this, I am catapulted back into a memory of my own. I’m snorkelling in the Indian Ocean, chasing unicorn fish. Then I turn my head and

Grey long shape SHARK.

It comes towards me. It circles. Its grey-iris, black-slit-pupil eye stares at me. My body is a silent roar.

It swims away.

I want it to come back.

The writer and environmentalist George Monbiot believes we are all suffering from “ecological boredom” – the psychological consequence of our ancestors wiping out all the fauna capable of harming them. Monbiot points to the ridiculous number of big cat sightings in Britain as evidence. We are so desperate to be scared by the wild that our eyes turn black cats into panthers.

There is no longer need for panthers in the Forest of Dean. Here, there is a dark and miraculous alchemy at work.

I finish my research without having ever got a glimpse of the boar. Probably the talking while walking scared them away when I was out with the photographers. But even when I staked out likely places on my own, the fading light turning to static under the trees, they did not come.

Towards the end of August, my thesis almost finished, I drag a friend on a weekend trip back to the Forest. I email a few of the people I interviewed, and the badger man tips me off about a sounder – a collection of mothers and babies – that’s been regularly showing up at a certain place at a certain time in the evening.

The bracken on either side of the dirt track is almost as high as our shoulders now. It’s all very velociraptors-in-the-long-grass. My friend is not normally one to seek out wildlife, but she mirrors my tense, hushed walk.

We hear snuffling. We halt. Now snorting. Bracken quivers, shakes. I breathe in and out.

Out she steps, slow. Stately. She is smaller and darker than I had expected. Petal-shaped ears. Ash-grey around her face where, below peaked brows, eyes glint black at us.

I forget all the things I’ve been told about her. She simply is.

She makes one loud snort, and then she is gone.

Boar

3 thoughts on “Where the Wild Things Are

  1. Hey Chantal. Love your posts, and share your love of trains and forests 🙂
    Did you find the sword of Griffindor, by any chance?
    What’s the title of your thesis?
    I encountered some wild boar (an adult and some little ones) at a lake/forest outside Berlin and it was magical!
    Please add a “Follow” button to your pages so that we have an easy way follow your wonderful blog (from a laptop).
    Cheers!
    James

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you James! I’ve now added a follow button (didn’t realise this didn’t appear automatically, so thank you for the pointer). I never found the sword or got a glimpse of a Patronus, unfortunately. But seeing the boar was reward enough. I love your project, by the way. I work at the Marine Stewardship Council so responsible consumer choice is something that’s very important to me!

      Liked by 1 person

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