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Homage to Guy de la Valdène

Part I: Marking Time Making Game

'Hunting can be a good experience for your soul, to the degree that you refuse to exclude none of the realities of the natural world, including a meditation on why you hunt, perhaps an ultimately unanswerable question.'

–– Jim Harrison, Introduction to Guy de la Valdène's For a Handful of Feathers

Guy de la Valdène was remarkably generous, sociable and large-hearted to the countless sportingcelebrities, friends and acquaintances, well-heeled and otherwise (myself included), who benefitted immeasurably from his presence. But before I met him in 2003 (via my friendship with Jim Harrison); before I had the exquisite pleasure of hunting quail with him on his beautifully managed northern Florida farms –– El Consuelo and Dogwood –– behind his French Brittanys and English cockers or in the company of Harrison, Jimmy Buffett, legendary southern outdoorsman Jimbo Meador, dog man extraordinaire Dr. Charles Harvey and others; before I worked with him as a contributor to two of my anthologies, Afield: American Writers on Bird Dogs and Astream: American Writers on Fly Fishing; before I exchanged a couple of hundred emails and letters with him on every subject under the sun, I knew about him through his pal Harrison's early writings of the 1970s and 1980s, which led me in turn to Making Game: An Essay on Woodcock, his first book, a one -of-a-kind love letter to that iconic bird.

An American-born, French aristocrat and hereditary count who traced his ancestry back hundreds of years, de la Valdène was well known in international sporting circles as an independently wealthy socialite, angler, hunter, bird dog man, photographer, filmmaker and gourmand. He was also a brilliant writer on field sports. His four nonfiction books are as incisive and memorable as we are ever likely to get from a contemporary outdoor essayist.

His upland hunting books comprise a perfect trifecta that deserves the widest readership possible. He had a genius for evoking in readers the often aching, fragile, seemingly indescribable and often contradictory, aspects of the chase (and its surrounding allied elements and dilemmas) in language that is clear, honest, moving and poetic.

Everything de la Valdène wrote bespoke character, elegance and insight. He was an artiste to his core.

“I found that since the beginning of time woodcock have been praised by writers, poets and artists,” he claims in Making Game. He should know, he was one of them. His books sing with precise observations of the natural world, deeply nuanced understandings of the sporting world's cultural/historical activities, ethical protocols, environmental pitfalls, candid truths and self-evaluations about his own economically and socially privileged, but richly experienced life. And yet, his work, full of sharp opinions and crystal-clear observations, always shows a relatable common touch. “I see my life as a collage,"" he writes in Making Game, “made up of prismatic fragments and facets, abstractions pasted one on top of the other.”

I'm a sucker for well-written, literary sporting books, so much so that I can measure the arc of my own hunting/fishing life as much by the impactful books I've read along the way as by the number of trout caught and released, wild birds flushed and good-going dogs I've partnered with. Making Game is one of those influential books. It was first published in a limited, hard-bound edition by a small independent publisher, Willow Creek Press, in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in 1985. I don't know what the book's print run was, but it was surely small and rare enough that I did not come by a copy until many years later. In 1990 it was republished in a run of about 2,000 and repackaged, with Guy's newly added introduction and a bibliography (with numerous titles of French-language books on woodcock), neither of which appeared in the first edition.

Guy de la Valdène surveys the flats off Key West in this painting by his pal, Russell Chatham. (Photo/courtesy of Tom McGuane)

The visionary publisher was Clark City Press in Livingston, Montana, the brainchild of entrepreneurial artist Russell Chatham, who provided the 121 sketches as well as the dust jacket painting for his friend's book The eye-catching dust jacket features an original Chatham landscape painting, “Making Game,” that depicts a stand of autumn-yellow north country aspens. The volume is handsomely printed on excellent quality paper and formatted with wide margins, so that from the get-go it not only invites perusal but also accommodates underlining or scribbling in the margins, if like me you can't read without a pen in your hand. Many of the original Chatham sketches of tiny flying woodcock, exponentially repeated, adorn the book's margins, to remind us, I like to think, that there is always a flight in progress that precedes, or perhaps accompanies, the flow of words.

When I first got my hands on a copy of the Clark City edition of Making Game the same year it was published, Bang! My admiration was immediate and lasting.

Its effortless voice, personal style, attentive observation, well-researched information, refreshing candor, poetic language and contrapuntal narrative structure captured my attention then and have held it for the past three-plus decades. His sentences linger long after the book is closed. Speaking of woodcock's cryptic coloration, he writes: “The feathers, woven like bracelets on an artichoke, at times blend together and at other times are notched, barred, edged and tipped in purposeful kaleidoscope of patterns.” Fine, evocative, tonal writing, so good, in fact, that I often despair of ever being able to write anything even half as good myself.

By my reckoning, beginning with Edmund Davis' quirky Woodcock Shooting in 1908, to Tom Huggler's estimable A Fall of Woodcock (1996), and through Greg Hoch's delightful Sky Dance of the Woodcock (2019), there are a total of 30 individual books and booklets from U.S. publishers that are devoted entirely to American woodcock, of which half a dozen predates Guy's book. Some are scientific, some are tactical/instructional, and some are lyrical. Making Game eschews such top-down formulas and patterns and instead mixes elements as required. Guy's beautifully written, edgy, elegant book is part natural history, part hunting memoir, part sonata, part philosophical inquiry, part chef's book, all of which combine to make it one of the undisputed classics of woodcock hunting and an absolute must-read for all upland enthusiasts. The various elements work in concert and point to a deft, eloquent way of talking about hunting a prized game bird that is both unflinching and soulful.

Among the many things I love about Making Game is that it treats woodcock with dignity, integrity, respect and honesty. “By the way, as part of respect for the bird, and for the sake of accuracy, I call woodcock just that: woodcock. I detest ‘timberdoodle,’ ‘bog sucker,’ ‘wood snipe’ and all other local names,” de la Valdène writes. Showcasing the woodcock as an honorable, worthy game bird in an exalted niche all of its own, starts by calling it by its proper name, not by using a diminishing moniker. A world-class wing shot, Guy was a straight shooter in all things.

Guy de la Valdène inscribed this copy of Making Game to his friend Bob DeMott and his partner Kate Fox. woodcock. It reads, “For Bob and Kate, Looking forward to your visit next year. All best. Guy” (Photo/Bob DeMott)

The book's double entendre title, “Making Game,” refers both to a bird dog's becoming birdy and engaged with its quarry and to a chef's preparing game for the table. Guy excelled as both a hunter and a chef, and it is difficult at times to decide whether he prefers the rigors of the field or the gustatory promise of the kitchen: “If I kill him I will eat him and love him only more,” he writes. He makes no excuses for his own delight in hunting and consuming woodcock. A candid acknowledgment of the contradictions between his personal pleasure and the bird's population decline (all the while lamenting habitat loss) remains at the heart of his book. As a kind of coda, in his introduction to the Clark City Press edition, he writes, “I don't like to shoot them anymore. La guerre est fini. There is nothing left to prove. What I kill I eat and think of as soul food.”

The scenes of boon companions de la Valdène, Chatham, Harrison and Nick Reems preparing elaborate autumn game dinners at Harrison's home in Lake Leelanau, Michigan, or at his hideaway cabin near Grand Marais in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, are mouth-wateringly orchestrated, and their resulting dishes are worthy of genuflection, if not gluttony. “The menu,” he claims, “is never simple.”

Enlivened by the author's rarefied Continental upbringing, his colorful travel experiences and his love of companionable bird dogs, he pursues woodcock with gun from Michigan to Louisiana in autumn and winter and with banding paraphernalia in the North American spring. In half a dozen italicized episodes strategically placed at intervals in the book, he flirts with anthropomorphism by imaginatively rendering a single woodcock's perilous existence. These fanciful stylistic inter-chapters, written in a register quite different from the rest of the book, lend Making Game an unusual, one-off quality. There is nothing like it in the literature of the American woodcock.

The whole endeavor, the gathering of many facts and facets, is propelled by a question: “What are they, these small birds, that they should grab us and hold us differently than the others?” Making Game attempts to answer that puzzle, though as anyone with one iota of uplanding experience knows, that is a question that leads to a thick tangle of possibilities and requires a lifetime of pondering, so that reaching a single definitive conclusion is impossible. “To scientists, woodcock represent a taxing challenge; to me the very fact that they puzzle the best experts is but another of the bird's charms. Enigmas are revitalizing. Solutions … are often depressing.”

While all of de la Valdène's other books are commercially available in inexpensive paperback editions, sadly, Making Game is difficult to find. Both publishers are out of business.

To my mind, it is shameful that there is no inexpensive paperback edition to make this sterling book widely available for a new generation of upland hunters, many of whom in these financially strapped times might not be able to afford a rarefied hardback copy and might otherwise miss the chance to benefit from Guy's wisdom. I hope some resourceful publisher, institution or organization will do the legwork necessary to bring Making Game back into easy accessibility. It deserves no less.

Until then, Vive de la Valdène!

Bob DeMott

About author
Bob DeMott, (demott@ohio.edu), a lifelong upland hunter, co-editor of Afield: American Writers on Bird Dogs and retired English professor, has been a regular contributor to The Upland Almanac since 2018. A native New Englander, he now lives in southe