Deer and People Intertwined
by Kevin Van Tighem
Heart and Blood: Living with deer in America
Richard Nelson, Alfred A. Knopf, New York
$27.50 ISBN 0-679-40522-4
There is an image in my memory of what must have been the very first deer I ever saw. It was west of Calgary on the road to Bragg Creek, and in my memory it was a white-tailed deer that leaped, high and clean, lean muscles rippling, over a fence as we drove past.
I remember being stunned into silence by the beauty of that animal and the elegance of its form as it fled into cover. Through all the years since then, deer have been near the centre of my life. As a kid I spied on them in the coulees around Calgary. I hunted whitetails obsessively in my twenties, and still feed my family on the deer I bring home each fall. When we bought our place in the foothills, I built elaborate defenses against them around windbreak and fruit trees - and an eight-foot fence around our garden. Driving, I find my eyes glancing away from the pavement into likely spots for spotting deer. Hunter's eyes.
Richard Nelson's remarkable book tells me that there is nothing surprising in all this. Deer and human have known one another for hundreds of thousands of years. In many ways, they are part of the same thing. When a deer and a human become aware of one another there is an electric moment of pure recognition. We know each other. Nelson's book explores the modern relationship between human and deer from his own personal perspective. He begins with a description of an encounter with a black-tailed doe on an Alaskan coastal island, lyrically written, before launching into a review of deer biology and the evolution of the relationship between deer and human.
One of the most fascinating chapters is "Crossing the Wild Edge" in which he visits a remote Alaskan island where researchers work with deer that were bottle-fed as fawns to break down their instinctive wildness around humans. If a doe is allowed to nurse her fawn, the researchers say, that fawn will never be a good research subject because it will become too flighty and wild. The tamed, but free-ranging deer of Channel Island, treat the humans as members of the herd. Researchers accompany them day and night as they range the island. Nelson describes the almost surreal sensation of being casually accepted by animals that would normally flee from humans.
"...Sitting on the moss beside Kake, I could hear her stomach rumble, a sound uncannily like distant thunder on a muggy summer night. After she ruminated for a while, a soft, white foam gathered around her lips, droplets of clear saliva slipped down her chin whiskers, and viscous strands of drool shimmered to the ground. I remembered Kathy saying that deer froth and salivate like this after they've eaten skunk cabbage..."
Later, the study finished, the researchers must confront their ethical obligations to the naive and trusting deer with which they have worked, knowing that some local hunters anticipate easy venison this fall.
Richard Nelson observes nature, deer and humans in intimate detail and writes lyrically, making Heart and Blood far more than a book of journalism or biology. It's a pure pleasure to read. In subsequent chapters he reviews the history of conservation - from the decimation of North America's deer herds in the 1800s to their remarkable recovery in the 20th century. He describes places where rural acreage owners protect deer from hunters and explores the consequences to vegetation, landscape and the deer themselves.
He visits a managed deer-hunting ranch in Texas where clients shoot deer over bait feeders, then accompanies a group of small town hunters on the opening weekend of whitetail season in Wisconsin. Trying to delve ever deeper into the nature of our human relationship with deer, Nelson even ventures into the northern Wisconsin woods with animal rights activists from a group called "Voice for Animals." Their mission: to find hunters, engage them in debate and ruin their hunts. This must have been a challenging chapter to write, but Nelson brings it off successfully, resisting the temptation to insert moralistic asides or personal opinions that would have ruined his reportage otherwise.
In his description of the hunter harassment campaign, it becomes clear that the activists are engaged in their own form of hunt, complete with post-hunt camaraderie and story telling: "Around eight-thirty a.m., Darcy's group was the last to arrive back at the park headquarters, where they met an excited knot of activists clustered in the rain, swapping tales and celebrating. All of the encounters had been peaceful, except for one, which everybody wanted to hear about..."
From the history of Bambi to the problems of crop depredation by deer in midwest cornfields; from description of the hunting culture of Koyukon Indians to his review of the problems of urban deer in Boulder, Colorado, Richard Nelson has written an exhaustively researched and deeply-felt book. This is an animal whose nature has been shaped by its herbivorous lifestyle and the constant attention of predators, not the least of which are we humans. Toward the end of the book, he returns to his small Alaskan island to hunt, kill and dress out a small blacktail.
"With darkness looming above mountains to the east, I start the final trudge. Keta dances alongside, perhaps anticipating tonight's dinner. I'll cut a few pieces of fresh venison to fry in a skillet atop the wood-burning stove - the most delicious and elemental feast I can imagine, making the deer a part of me...."
That, in the end, seems to be Richard Nelson's ultimate message, that we are a part of the deer, and the deer is a part of us. Through millennia we have coexisted in the same riparian woodlands, forest edges and seashore meadows. Humans have hunted deer; deer have eaten our crops, and we have given shape to each other. We cannot escape one another.
And as the 20th century has progressed toward the 21st, our relationship has gradually become more complex, sometimes more troubled, but no less intimate. Deer hunters especially, but anyone who watches for hoof prints in the snow or the slender shapes of deer on evening hillsides, will find that this book was written for them. Everyone who loves deer should have a copy.
Kevin Van Tighem is a freelance writer who lives and works in Waterton Lakes National Park.