Black Forest Baroque

Die Meisterjäger von Laubach.

[by Terry Wieland]

THE CASTLE IN THE GERMAN TOWN OF LAUBACH dates from about a.d. 1250. It’s still owned by the Count of Solms-Laubach, and houses a library containing more than 120,000 volumes. A Gutenberg Bible, now on display in a museum in Mainz, came from the Laubach collection. The castle is a gray-stone edifice that has seen more history than is good for it, but scars and all, it gives an impression of immovable permanence.

The courtyard is reached through a stone passageway that once had a portcullis and probably a drawbridge but today is a cobbled footpath. At the far end, flickering pine torches illuminated a scene that could have occurred in 1450, or 1750, and is still repeated today: Laid out in rows of ritual lay red stags, roe deer, wild boar, and mouflon sheep; there were foxes and raccoons, and a pine marten. In the red torchlight, a dozen trumpeters waited in loden green for the ceremony to begin.

“Driven hunting may seem easy to the uninitiated, but for the man sitting on a stand waiting for the beasts to dash by, it requires a collection of skills…Being able to shoot, obviously, is a big part of it, and so is identifying an animal as it bursts out of the bush at high speed.”

It was the end of our first day of hunting in the dense forests that surround Laubach, and the head gamekeeper stepped forward to begin the ceremony. Townspeople crowded into the courtyard, and women moved among us, offering mulled cider on wooden trays. As the gamekeeper began to speak, we all went silent and drifted back in time.

CONSIDERING THE INFLUENCE OF GERMN IMMIGRANT GUNMAKERS IN AMERICA, it’s a wonder our customs don’t follow theirs more closely. No people in the world take big game hunting more seriously than the Germans. German is the lingua franca of hunting in Central Europe, and German customs are the customs of the Poles, the Czechs, the Austrians.

To be head gamekeeper in a town like Laubach is to hold high office. For a German, obtaining a hunting license requires extensive training and examinations, many rooted in tradition, but once you are a hunter, you become a member of a highly respected society. Many Americans sneer at such “undemocratic” rules without ever knowing what is involved or why. As the American boxing writer A. J. Liebling once noted in a completely different context, however, “There is still a kick in style, and tradition carries a nasty wallop.” In hunting, as in many things, we ignore tradition at our peril.

The European traditions of hunting stretch back to medieval times and, for all I know, began with the Druids. At first glance, you see just the rituals. Only when you dig deeper do you find the reasoning behind them.

With a burgeoning population in Europe as elsewhere, it’s a continuing battle to maintain game animals and birds, and the major consideration is habitat. Whether it’s a wild boar in a German forest, a red grouse on a Scottish moor, or a whitetail in Pennsylvania, economics and the public good become determining factors in survival. In this case, the forests around Laubach are maintained as they have been for 800 years, under the careful eye of the gamekeeper. The animals dwelling therein are protected, in order to be hunted, and the meat turned over to the village for sale to the game dealer. It makes a significant contribution to the town’s finances, and so everyone has an interest in preserving (and not poaching) the red stags, the boars, the roe deer.

Much of this was explained when about 40 guests of Zeiss Optik gathered in one of the corporate classrooms to receive briefings on hunting safety, and the rules, requirements, prohibitions, and, not least, the penalties for shooting the wrong stag or killing a wolf. As hunting writers from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Germany, France, Spain, America, we were all experienced hunters. In my case, I have participated in driven hunts before, but every country is a little different.