Even as a boy, you were fascinated by the nearby forest. Weren’t you afraid too?
The woods never scared me. On the contrary, I was always drawn to it like some sort of powerful force. I believe it’s due to the seclusion I experienced in my childhood. As a kid, I was homeschooled and isolated from other children: I didn’t have any friends, any pets, no school trips. I looked at the nearby forest, its sense of freedom, and I fantasized about it.
When I turned 19, I decided to go and live in the forest by myself. I felt the weight of my parents’ contradictions: for years I had been taught to avoid the outside world and its bad influence, but now I was told to go out and find a job, to fit in. It made me feel confused and uneasy. The forest seemed like a way out. I needed to escape the hold my family had on me and discover autonomy. When I left, my parents didn’t support me. Although they raised me to respect the forest, our ways of perceiving it were completely different. I sincerely believed one could live off the land, in harmony with nature.
How did you prepare yourself for a life in the wild?
I didn’t. Not consciously at least. I read books from adventurer Nicolas Vanier and primatologist Jane Goodall, amongst others, in which I learned a lot about what you could or couldn’t do in the wild. Although they didn’t exactly describe how they survived during their expeditions in nature, they were a great help. When I started going into the forest, I first went on short trips, just a few days, and came back home in between. Then I’d compare my experience with what the books said. I started learning more and more.
Take plants for instance: there are hundreds of plants you can eat, but you must pay attention. There are crucial distinctions between the nutritious kind, and the ones that don’t bring you anything, or that can kill you. During the seven years I spent living in the woods, I experienced one year in total autonomy. For the most part I went back and forth, alternating longer and shorter stays outside. You can’t just pack and leave on a whim, otherwise it’s suicide.
What was it like, arriving in the forest?
As a human being, my first experience of living in the wild was pretty violent. I discovered it was impossible to sleep a full night as I was used to; back then I was still trying to sleep for 8 to 10 hours straight, but as I soon discovered, you get cold and uncomfortable after 30 minutes. I never idealized nor hated the forest, although sometimes you’re tempted to. It can rain for weeks and you simply can’t keep dry, it can become very difficult, but you have to let that go.
But things changed when you met a deer.
They did. At the very beginning, my intention was simply to take a 15-day break in the forest in order to find peace and energy. I wanted to try living autonomously, see what that was like. I had never imagined being able to live amongst wild animals. But after a while, coming across them in the forest, the animals themselves started wondering about me, about my being there. It was the deer who tamed me, not the other way around. Then I met one special deer, Daguet. He started teaching me how to adapt in the forest, how to understand it. He made me realize I didn’t have to sleep a whole night through. He showed me how to sleep and eat in small doses, how to select my food. Each deer taught me something different.
Would you say it was a partnership?
Yes, there was a sort of benevolence, an understanding that benefited us both. The question is simple: what can you bring each other? For him there wasn’t much point in running away from me every time he saw me, that would have compromised the safekeeping of his territory. I wasn’t interested in chasing him away either. We soon realized we had to find common grounds: from his perspective, my presence helped in fending off bigger, more powerful deer. That way he could gain the best territory, and the females that came with it – soon they too became used to my presence. As for me, I had met a teacher. Daguet showed me how to sleep and eat in the forest, where to forage for the best food. Later I met Sipointe, who taught me how to shape a territory. You’d imagine it as defining a square, but it’s actually more like of star-shaped patch of forest, depending on where you can find a pond or the type of plant or grass you’re interested in.
For most people who wander the forest, everything looks the same. Did it take you long to master these territories?
For people it’s hard to understand at first, because we come into the forest with our predetermined notion of nature: we often view it as something to conquer, where there are dominant and dominated species, which is a very binary and vertical vision that corresponds to the society we live in. When you enter the forest, all of a sudden you discover a completely horizontal ecosystem where cooperation is paramount, where territories overlap without verticality. Stags share the forest with deer, as well as wild boars, ferrets, without driving anybody out. Our society is much more selfish, we can’t accept losing to anyone or anything. Living in the forest means letting go of non-acceptance as a system, and stepping into a world where you must learn to compromise to survive.
Has your experience in the wild changed you physically?
When you make your body go through such an experience, it adapts. Sometimes it’s quite quick (like when you start exercising), but it can take longer. Those long-term transformations are painfully slow. If you want to adapt your senses, you will start by paying the price. Touching, for instance: I touched a lot of plants that defended themselves and had skin-rashes. Your eyesight can be affected; when I went into the forest, I had a good sight, but because my environment was now made of trees, which blocked the horizon, I soon started to lose my ability to see from afar, like most deer who live in the forest. I lost some skills, and gained others. My sense of smell got a lot better, so did my sense of touch, as my skin adapted. But it takes a while and the will to learn. The trickiest was to start building up fat in my body to go through the winter, which is hard for me as I’m naturally very skinny! I got dangerously cold at some point.
What were some of the toughest moments you experienced in the woods?
There were quite a few! It can get really hard living in the forest, you’re almost always hungry and cold. Especially in the beginning, when you haven’t figured out the techniques to adapt and survive in your environment. Take clothing: I used to pack cotton t-shirts and jeans, which is not what you need in the wild. I soon switched to wool and linen clothes that dry faster. Sometimes, you have managed to store some food – let’s say hazelnuts – in the best trees to keep it dry, only to find out squirrels have eaten everything the next day. You come to realize there’s no point in complaining: quite simply the smartest animal wins. You have to learn how to share and learn from your mistakes. You can’t evolve without getting it wrong first. But some of these mistakes cost you more than others. I learned it the hard way, with sorrel. I loved its citrusy taste, except I didn’t know eating large quantities could actually destroy your kidneys and your red blood cell.
What about the good times?
There are so many, but the best is when you’re resting in a clearing with the deer. A clearing is everything to a deer. You’re out of the forest, but still hidden by the tall grass. There is a sense of peace and intense happiness when you’re sitting there, whether the sun is warming your body, or the rain starts to fall hard and produces this amazing melody. Those are my best moments, lying down in the clearing with my forest friends.
The deer you lived with became a big part of your story, but first you had to approach the group and get to know each other. How does one communicate with a deer?
There are many ways to communicate with a deer. The most obvious is to call out – to bellow. The only problem is, you can’t bellow to a deer if you don’t know the deer in question, because it won’t be familiar with the sound of your voice. Imagine if you’re standing in the street shouting “Robert! Robert! Robert!” but there’s no Robert around. That won’t get you anywhere, except straight to the madhouse. The best way to communicate is through smell. We all have a distinct smell, and it plays a crucial role. If you’re thinking positively, you’ll give off a sweet smell. If you’re scared, the smell will be sharp and acidic. If you’re anxious or aggressive, the smell might be more bitter.
Our smell is basically like a passport, a way to identify us in our environment, and a deer is very sensitive to that. You can also communicate through looks, attitudes. If you manage to perfect all those techniques and mobilize your senses, you’ll eventually reach a sixth sense, which is intuitive communication. That takes a lot of mindfulness and work on yourself, because even if you really want it, it’s impossible to change your signature smell in 10 minutes. A thought triggers a mood, which triggers a smell.
Does one get bored in the forest?
No! On top of looking for food and a place to sleep, you constantly have to store tinder in dry places in order to build a small fire and get warm – which believe me you do. You have to find string and make bundles of twigs, you have to mend your clothes, there is always something to be done. Meditation helps, it makes you focus on the moment without asking yourself too many questions. The aim for me was not to think. You would think it’s easy not to think when you’re immersed in the forest, but everything reminds you of the outside world: sirens from a passing ambulance, the nearby church’s bells ringing... At first, when you submit your body to such tough conditions, your conscience tries to take over and pushes you to give up, to go back to safety, food and warmth. You have to work on your conscience to realign it with your body, and hold on.
During your time in the forest, you came in contact with hunting parties. You saw a deer you loved die before your eyes. What is your position on hunting?
I’m not a hunter, but that doesn’t give me the right to ban or condemn other cultures. Today people tend to constrain and condemn others, without trying to understand first. Every tribe had gatherers and hunters to begin with, but usually hunters were a minority. I often wonder what ‘hunting’ means. In Western societies we tend to use the word for general purposes, whereas today ‘hunting’ often means large beats aimed at controlling animal population, which brings a lot of suffering. I do have trouble understanding the concept of hunting for sports. I prefer following the animals to see what they can teach me, rather than killing them. If you decide to kill an animal instead of learning from it, there is not partnership involved, and without interspecies partnership, I believe we are condemning ourselves in the long run.
What drove you to leave the forest after 7 years?
The first reason is quite simple: it’s called industrialized forestry management. It largely destroyed the variety of food I needed to survive in the woods.
As it turned out, like many endangered animals, your habitat was compromised by man.
Exactly. If you go around obliterating whole plots of forest, you quickly see the result: one single tree contains a biotope in itself, with cooperating plants and animals. When you depend on this ecosystem for food and shelter, as I did, you immediately suffer the consequences. I suddenly had to walk many more kilometers to reach the kind of food I needed to survive. I was exhausted. My whole system was compromised. The second reason was the deer. They had grown up, matured, and they started leading me more and more towards the human-made paths that led to the edge of the forest. It’s as if they were sending me a message; I think they were telling me “your place isn’t here, this is not your world.” And I listened to them. The final reason is that I met my girlfriend, while I was walking in the forest. All the signs were there: it was time for me to go home.
How was it, returning to civilization?
It was pretty violent. When you move to the forest, you undergo a slow transformation, but when you come back to the human world all of a sudden, it’s a brutal experience. Walking is strange: after years of moving around on a soft ground, my feet weren’t used to hard concrete, which hurt my back. When I ended up in a tiny studio, I struggled to breathe because there was no wind and I felt like I had to make a huge effort just to breathe in. It wasn’t naturel to me anymore, because the forest had helped me breathe for so long. I had to get used to people again, the way they smell when they are stressed out, their aggressiveness. At first, I had to return to the forest regularly.
Do you still go back to that forest, even 10 years after?
The forest I knew is completely gone. Because of industrialized management, I don’t recognize the forest I once lived in. The photographs I’ve put in my book show a landscape that is no longer there. Even the animals are gone. During my time in the forest, there used to be stags, deer, badgers and foxes. Today people who walk through that forest wonder where they are all gone. It’s a shocking experience. But the forest never left me, because I was a part of it for so long, and it became a part of me. Even here, in Paris, I am the forest. I carry it with me.
When did you decide to tell your story?
It took me a while. At first, I didn’t want to. Then, when I went back into the world and had to socialize again, a lot of the people I met told me I should share my experience. To me, it felt like I was betraying my forest friends. The deer had shown me everything they knew and I was about to reveal their secrets, things they had shared with me only. So, in the beginning, I only told a few anecdotes, before I realized I could tell people about my experience without divulging every little secret.
What message would you like to send to your readers and to future generations?
I’m not here to teach a lesson, I’m here to share an experience. My main message is that we are part of nature. We tend to separate human and nature, but we are one and the same, we are part of a system. It’s a mistake to withdraw ourselves from the equation in order to “manage” nature. It’s not up to us to destroy and reshape nature to our likeness, and so far, the image we’ve created is a sad one. What makes humanity so great it that it’s part of nature. This book wants to show precisely that. It shows that we can thrive and learn through partnership and cooperation, instead of destructive competition. Every single being, human or not, has its utility in the natural world, and we all play a part in it. If we don’t understand this, we’re already dead in some way. Nature quickly shows us when we’re headed the wrong way. Today, unfortunately, our society fails to understand this and puts people against each other. I know it’s hard, but we need to work towards a more horizontal society, not a vertical one. We have a lot to learn from humans and animals alike, being in the same boat – and it’s a rocky boat. But perhaps the mistakes we’re making today are precisely here to teach us a better path.