Dark Forest, Deep Sea: Reflections of a hunter by Richard Hall (Submarine, 2017), 250 pp., $38; Oxygen by William Trubridge (HarperCollins, 2017) 336 pp., $39.99
Every now and again you open a book, begin reading and relax as you realise that you have found the perfect fit for your mood. This is what happened to me when I began Richard Hall’s Dark Forest, Deep Sea: Reflections of a hunter. I hadn’t known that I wanted to read a book about hunting, but the depth of Hall’s detailed observation immediately struck a chord. The opening paragraph begins with a description of the scent of his felted wool hunting jersey:
Laced within was the scent of beech forest from the mountains of New Zealand – aromatic like cinnamon, but mixed with a volatile component reminiscent of eucalypt – a scent so crisp it struck all other thoughts from my mind. Then another layer – earthy, like wet fistfuls of crumbling humus fresh from the forest floor. The subtle musk of deer from past hunts lingered, not unpleasant, distinctly animal. My head spun and I was taken straight into a memory of the Southern Alps, far from the wooden panels of my shed on the rim of Wellington Harbour.
Immense snow-capped mountains rose up around me, valleys clad with thousands of acres of dark green forest, braided rivers flowing through golden tussocks. A rifle lay across my lap and my dog, Jack, leaned against me, our prints dotted out behind us in the dew. Breath condensed in puffs, wafting up like smoke. I pulled the jersey away, returning to reality, and stood over my pack with the garment hanging loosely from my hands. The vision left me, but the feelings did not. Feelings of enchantment, contentment, wonder, longing.
Descriptions rendered in such intricate detail are possible only from those writers who have spent long hours in stillness, recreating the landscape around them with photographic precision, working from memory to restore not just a physical space but an emotional one, too. As Hall states from the outset, this book is not simply a recollection of hunting and fishing trips but rather an attempt to ‘uncover the true heart of these experiences’, and for this reason the content is broken into thematic rather than chronological sections, based on emotional engagement and responses.
This is a special book and not one I thought I would necessarily appreciate, as hunting and fishing are not sports that call to me. My last encounter with a hunter – in a remote hut up the Waitaha River on the West Coast – was pretty disconcerting. My female friend and I arrived in the late afternoon to find a man sitting outside the hut cleaning a gun. He failed to return our greeting, made no eye contact, and spent the entire time we were together in silence. I recall feeling alert and watchful, slightly nervous that we had found ourselves in the company of someone who had spent too much time alone.
Isolation features strongly in Hall’s book but it provides him with an opportunity to think and reflect. In this way the atmosphere and tone of his book have more in common with Happy People, the recent Werner Herzog documentary about fur trappers in Siberia, than, say, the blokey yarn and anecdote adventure stories found in the deer-culling tales of Barry Crump, or in hunting and fishing magazines with their emphasis on trophies.
One of the things Hall thinks about is why he kills animals in the wild. I was curious about this as I have spent a lot of time in remote areas and have always welcomed the very rare sight of deer, chamois or thar. Their presence takes the edge off the anxiety or fear I sometimes experience and make the land less hostile. Hall shares that appreciation, but hunting provides a frame, or a purpose, to his outdoor experience: it is intellectually and emotionally stimulating. The act of killing for food appears to strengthen his link to the natural world in an intriguing way. In tracking prey over a period of hours or days, he begins to think like the animal: tuning in to shifts in time and terrain and changes in physical and emotional states. He writes about the warmth of the pelt, the pulpy fleshiness of the meat, the steady drip of blood down his back as he carries the carcass home. Even though I continued to wish he would miss his shot, I began to feel that there was a real element of the mystical and sacrificial in his taking of life. He respects the animal by killing it humanely, and in eating the flesh he receives not only sustenance but also an opportunity to become part of an ongoing life cycle, a world bigger than himself.
Hunting, with its slow and mindful pace, allows Hall to fall into step with the natural world. The aesthetics of being in remote places, of how to live and travel over rough ground, is beautifully captured in his writing. I especially liked the wonderful juxtaposition between focused, detailed descriptions of the condensed world underfoot and the big, wide views of expanded landscapes seen from ridges and hills. Hall uses all his senses when describing the outdoor environment. His descriptions of loose stone on rock-hard packed earth when encountering a slip; the sound of a saturated thin cotton shirt being pulled off a cold body; the feeling of being buffeted by strong winds while sitting on a spur; the sight of black choppy water on Lake Mahinerangi; the smell of a hunting jersey – are all beautifully observed and contained. I also admire the way he respects and describes the people he hunts with. No one comes across as colourful ‘material’ to feed his story. There is obvious friendship and companionship, but privacy is maintained, and that feels right.
Dark Forest, Deep Sea is a book about hunting and fishing but it has succeeded in reinterpreting and redefining the subject, achieving its stated purpose of uncovering the true heart of these experiences. The accepted boundaries of hunting literature have expanded and shifted as a result of this book. It deserves its place on the shelf beside my favourite New Zealand wilderness and nature writers: authors like Aat Vervoorn, Geoff Chapple, Brian Turner and Alison Ballance. It’s a book I will come back to time and time again and reread with pleasure. I loved it.
Free-diver William Trubridge begins his memoir Oxygen with an account of his unsuccessful 2014 world-record attempt to dive to 102 metres. His mind, described as detached from identity and locality, is reduced to a state of elemental awareness as he holds his breath and descends into the deep. He writes: ‘The heart of that falling body beats slowly, shuffling thickened blood past the dormant brain. With each beat the body sinks another length away from the surface, away from the sun, away from the air. Inside there is awareness – but there is no content to the awareness, like a camera filming in darkness.’
Trubridge’s plunge away from light, away from air, provokes a sense of awe as we follow him into a world that teeters between wonder and oblivion. He is a remarkable athlete, driven to test himself to such an extent that he believes: ‘When we can respond to suffocation with equanimity, we are truly on the path towards maximizing our breath-holding and hence our aquatic potential.’ Such mental focus and physical strength propels him to go deeper and further to reach maximum aquatic potential – that is, the ability of a human to feel at home beneath the sea.
Oxygen is structured in chronological order and draws on his memories, journals and dive log. Born in the north of England in 1980, he spent the early years of his childhood aboard a yacht, the Hornpipe, as his family sailed from Europe to New Zealand via the Caribbean and the Pacific. Much of his early life revolved around the sea and it was during this period that he became fascinated with the underwater world. Following his education in New Zealand he decided to dedicate himself to free-diving in 2003, vowing to reach the goal of 76 metres by the age of twenty-five – a depth he attained in January 2006. His training, described in detail throughout the book, focused on strength, technique and increasing tolerance to the accumulation of carbon dioxide (which provokes the feeling of suffocation and stimulates the urge to breathe).
The emphasis throughout Oxygen is firmly fixed on Trubridge’s training schedule and subsequent dive, and this is one of the book’s unexpected strengths. Whereas many sporting or adventure books tend to round out the goal-driven heart of the story with sections containing background history, light-hearted anecdotes, colourful descriptions of ‘exotic’ locations, foreign cultures or significant relationships, Trubridge removes much of the extraneous detail so that the reader has no choice but to become fully invested in his free-diving routine. The tension, intensity and drama that results from such concentrated focus reminded me of one of the modern classics of mountaineering literature, Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void. A crucial difference between mountaineering and diving, however, is that mountains have a fixed height, whereas the limits of free-diving are unknown and constantly tested.
Although a great deal of Trubridge’s attention is focused inwards, his writing succeeds in capturing the strange, surreal beauty of the underwater caverns in which he spends so much time. Dean’s Blue Hole on Long Island in the Bahamas, where much of his diving takes place, is ‘a brooding liquid mystery that swallowed the light from the sky. Limestone cliffs collared the hole on three sides, creating a natural amphitheatre with an abyss in place of a stage.’
Trubridge is driven, constantly evaluating and analysing his diving ability with the intention of coming as close as possible to attaining his full human aquatic potential. There is something in the nature of a rite of passage or quest in the way he searches for answers to how far underwater humans can swim: ‘every day and every dive was a venture into unexplored territory that redefined the range and ability of our species underwater’. In his successful world-record unassisted dive to 102 metres and back in July 2016, he attempts to ‘channel the calm and ease of a marine mammal’. By adopting a mantra of ‘peace and precision’ – that is, ‘the peace of a resting mind, and the precision of a body that uses the minimal amount of oxygen to move through the water’ – he is able to swim as if he ‘had been born swimming and knew no alternative’.
Because much of Oxygen focuses on diving and competition events there is a risk that it could become repetitive, as in general terms one dive is very much like another. However, Trubridge is a skilled writer, self-aware and capable of articulating his innermost journey. This book goes beyond mere sporting records to include insights into the private world and philosophies of a free-diver. In many ways it is the perfect partner to Richard Hall’s Dark Forest, Deep Sea. Both books cast a light on our innermost lives, our motivations, and how we make meaning through our interactions with the natural world.
LAURENCE FEARNLEY is an award-winning novelist, non-fiction author and essayist with a keen interest in the landscape of place. Her eleventh novel, about scent and identity, will be published by Penguin Random House in 2019.