The Hidden Life of Deer: Lessons from the Natural World
“Poor deer,” quoth he, “thou makest a testament/As worldlings do…” - As You Like It, Act II, Scene 1
Oak trees plan ahead. In any given area, in any given year, they produce shrunken acorns by design not disease. Such meagre bounty keeps in check acorn-eating animals. Deprived of autumn calories, many of these animals starve to death come winter. Thus fewer ravenous mouths eat healthy acorns in years following; thus more acorns survive; thus more new oaks sprout and thrive.
In fall 2007, the oaks around Peterborough, New Hampshire, resorted to shrunken acorns. This occurrence would have drastically thinned the local deer population. Enter Liz Thomas, who lives in Peterborough. She helped the deer that inhabit the woods around her family farm by feeding them dried corn every day that winter and into early spring.
The deer were lucky to have a benefactor; so are we to have the resultant book. Thomas is an anthropologist whose working life positions her to observe animals closely. She has worked with wild elephants in Africa. She has written books on dogs and cats. The fields in which she scattered small piles of corn lie outside her farmhouse office windows. This proximity allowed her to watch deer behaviour daily and take notes.
Twenty to twenty-five deer, plus an amazing flock of wild turkeys, showed up to eat the corn. Deer, we learn, divide into families of three or four fauns and yearlings with an older doe as matriarch of each bunch. Bucks, being exceedingly wary, live in deep woods. They show only in rut, when they need space to joust with other males. Thomas named the doe-led families (alpha, beta, delta, tau) and came to recognize and appreciate the individuals in them. We readers do, too.
As well as the deer, Thomas introduces us to a bear with history; a strategizing fungus; a brave elephant whose sad end will make you angry; and the habits and characteristics of numerous wild New Hampshire fauna, including the complex meanings of their scats.
The humans whom the writer encounters during her deer study make for interesting research as well. In one anecdote, remembering that brave elephant, she stares down two determined men, a cop and a neighbour, to prevent them from killing an injured animal. The author strongly disagrees on such killing and on other received wisdom concerning animals. This brings her into conflict not just with individuals but with New Hampshire Fish and Game. Whether humans should be feeding wild animals at all, for example, is a question Thomas faces squarely. Her decision—which is to feed if necessary—is reasoned with great interest. So, too, is her take on the anthropomorphizing of animals and her participation in a deer hunt.
Throughout her narrative, Thomas cites what she calls the Old Way, that time before humans were industrialized, mass produced, and virtualized. That time when we lived close to the real. That time when we could hear and read the communications around us made by many another of Earth’s elements and life forms aside from us. She also cites “Gaia” frequently. Referencing our planet as a single organism cycles us continually to the big picture, even as we witness tiny, local New Hampshire. This cosmic zooming insists on deer, humans, and all living beings as members of one family. Thomas accomplishes this purpose with the eye of a scientist and documentarian, and in poetic prose as clear as a limpid stream in the British Columbia backwoods. Come to think of it, poetry and science have similar methods and goals. Each observes acutely the particular while drawing large lessons. And so it is with this graceful, tough-minded book.