There’s a dreamy moment halfway through Geoffroy Delorme’s brief, sensuous book in which one of the young deer he gets to know curls up beside him, its head resting on his leg. The image is both touchingly familiar and surreal. A couple of walkers nod in greeting as they pass, as if it’s customary for a wild deer to snooze in the lap of a human. No doubt, Delorme notes, they mistake the deer for a dog. Even more startling, the little deer, whom Delorme names Daguet, begins to twitch and wriggle. “He is clearly dreaming,” Delorme writes. Of what, one wonders, do roe deer dream?
Deer Man follows the story of someone who turns his back on society and spends seven years living in a forest among roe deer. We discover very little about the events that preceded this decision. Exclusively home-schooled, the young man was clearly lonely. And there’s something amiss in his relationship with his family. Yet a fleeting encounter with a young buck draws him into the woods around Louviers, France, and off he goes. It’s fairytale stuff, both in its transformational force and its unspoken darkness. The lack of information about his life – the ruthless absence of autobiography – can seem odd to a modern reader. Yet the strength of this book is its singular focus on the deer.
As readers, we yearn to know the nitty-gritty of how he made it in the wild. In his time there, he must survive the damp and cold and feed himself from the forest plants, differentiating the textures of leaves to forage in the dark. But we are spared the true privations he must have endured: Delorme is both stoical and tight-lipped. We are only glancingly told that he survived hypothermia on several occasions, that he learned to sit with one leg tucked under him to keep the water from impregnating his clothes, that he wore three woollen jumpers. Delorme never dwells on himself, stubbornly training the lens on the animals alongside him. Yet that is the power and charm of his book.
There’s a long tradition of accounts by people who have tried to enter the domain of wild animals. The Peregrine by JA Baker remains one of the finest and strangest. More recently, we have Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk. In Sooyong Park’s The Great Soul of Siberia, scientific scrutiny gives way to revelation in the face of his study subject, the Siberian tiger. Charles Foster’s Being a Beast saw him live like a range of creatures, from otters and swifts, in a tragicomical rejoinder to the challenge thrown out by philosophers: “What is it like to be …” Such books are encounters, more than anything else, with sentience. And yet we always somehow loop back to the human.
The celebrated naturalist Richard Mabey has long railed against the impulse to use other animals as “some kind of mirror”. Writing against recent trends in publishing, Mabey challenges us to “have more respect for nature’s own narratives”. Many, like Foster, who try to do this acknowledge that we need a disruption of power relations across the living world. Yet, in most books, the hook must always be human biography.
That is not what readers get in Deer Man, with its hallucinogenic brevity. Admittedly, there were times when I found his distance frustrating. Too often he skates over what must be fascinating territory for a reader. Opportunities for development are lost throughout the book. Yet one suspects this is the only kind of testimony that could come from someone who has, in many ways, eschewed the human world. That is the price.
By the end, I took pleasure in how the tight, spare writing conveys the inadequacy of language to properly render the experience of living in the wild. As the chapters unfold, Delorme recedes even further from the narrative, mirroring his gradual withdrawal from civilisation and home. At first, he returns a few times a month to shower and recharge his batteries (Delorme is a photographer, and his images hugely amplify the text). But, over time, he returns less and less. And he takes less each time from his old life as his skills and confidence – and indeed appetite – begin to transform. Eventually, he no longer lives “in” the forest but “of” the forest. He uses “we” freely, not only to tell us what he and the deer are doing but in ways suggestive of emotional and psychic entanglement.
What the whole book recognises is the agency of the animals Delorme meets. Sure, he has sought out a relationship with this wild creature. But so, too, has the animal. And this isn’t inevitable, as he points out. He tries the same with some foxes. They won’t tolerate him.
What we are left with is a startling portrait of an animal that is both familiar to us and yet shockingly misunderstood. Roe deer – Capreolus capreolus – have been around since Homo sapiens emerged as a distinct species. In the UK, we’ve lived alongside them since at least the last ice age. We’ve worn them, eaten them, revered them, and etched early texts on their antlers. Today, we know them best on the bumpers of our cars and on our plates. The story is much the same in Delorme’s native France.
Yet, for Delorme, each deer is unique. Each, for him, has a name and a personality. Unsurprisingly, then, Delorme returns from the woods an advocate. He wants the deer – and not us with our rifles – to be responsible for their own management. And he wants us to consider our forests and woodlands in radically new ways that recognise the meaningful lives of the species within them.
Some readers may consider him mad. And, while I won’t give away the ending, we all know that Delorme is not, after all, a roe deer. It’s clear from the outset that this can’t go on for ever. Yet it is a delightful, moving read – and a quietly revolutionary one.