- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 22, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE HIDDEN LIFE OF DEER: LESSONS

FROM THE NATURAL WORLD

By Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

HarperCollins, $24.99, 256 pages

Reviewed by Claire Hopley

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas began feeding the deer on her property almost by accident — though most likely she would describe it as a natural train of events. The chickadees at her bird feeder ate only the sunflower hearts, kicking everything else to the ground. The squirrels found them, so she put out enough seeds for them, too. Then a small flock of wild turkeys began coming to feed as well. Knowing they liked corn, she began putting it out, and eventually 53 turkeys were showing up.

Realizing that the turkeys had to fly back into the woods — an effort that would use the extra calories they gained from the corn — she decided to leave the corn at the edge of the field where they could get it with less expense of energy. Toting it out, she practically bumped into some deer. They hadn’t spotted her because she was wearing a white bathrobe and the field was snow-covered. The next winter was tough for deer because the oaks in her part of New Hampshire produced virtually none of the acorns that they eat in winter.

It should now be easy to guess Ms. Thomas’ response: she put out daily piles of corn for the deer.

Another response will also be easy to guess for anyone who lives in the country. Wildlife authorities advise that feeding wild animals is a bad idea: it helps more of them to survive and thus destabilizes the ecology that keeps their populations in balance with local food resources.

Ms. Thomas has no truck with this argument whatsoever, as she makes clear from the first pages of her “The Hidden Life of Deer.” She points out that despite this general warning against feeding wildlife, we are encouraged to feed birds, and many people do so with pleasure to themselves and benefits to the birds. She goes on to argue, “We have done plenty during our sojourn on this planet … to the detriment of nearly everything else so … I see no reason, at this point in our history, not to offer the occasional helping hand to an animal in need.”

She was told that the shortage of acorns in the winter of 2007-08 was the result of the fact that nut-bearing trees like oaks take an occasional year off because otherwise predator animals would increase to the detriment of the trees. In other words, one of the mysteries of nature is that oaks fall in line with the authorities who discourage the feeding of wildlife because it boosts their numbers. Ms. Thomas does not, however, find this fact to be mysterious at all.

Humans, too, are part of nature, and from this we can know that while animals — and indeed trees — behave differently from us, in many essential ways their needs and motives are like our own.

Once the deer were coming regularly, Ms. Thomas began studying them. At first she tried to identify individuals. Though she found this impossible, she did learn to recognize groups of does and their fawns. Within a herd some does hold a premier position and other deer families will wait until these top deer have fed before eating themselves.

In some cases, lower-ranked deer will not be able to feed at all. She also found that sometimes two family groups would coalesce when feeding, but each group went off to its own shelter in the woods, taking advantage of small differences in microclimate to keep warm and alert to differences in elevation or vegetation that enable them to see what is happening in the wider world without exposing themselves.

As Ms. Thomas records her deer observations, she also notes the activities of other animals: the turkeys, the black bear, even in one case a monarch butterfly. She confesses to being considered “a tree hugger,” but that didn’t prevent her taking the course that qualifies New Hampshire residents as hunters, and she actually went hunting with a friend who was a lifelong and expert hunter.

Her motive was not to shoot a deer but to discover how hunters behaved and what they knew. Her conclusions were neither an endorsement nor a denunciation of hunting, but a description of the part it has played and should play in the life of the land.

Notably, Ms. Thomas frequently evokes the Earth as Gaia, a reference to the idea developed by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis, and briefly defined as a homeostatic feedback system operated automatically and unconsciously by all biological entities, leading to broad stabilization of global temperature and chemical composition.

Orthodox scientists greeted this idea with derision when it was proposed in the 1970s, but its predictive power as an hypothesis has won it adherents who will be cheered by Ms. Thomas’ book. Its title focuses on deer, but just as she was led to feeding and studying them by her experience of feeding chickadees, so she is often led from her observations of their habits to wider observations.

Readers will thus be frequently intrigued by her commentaries. Some are general — as in her remarks on humans as animals of the savannah who have migrated round the world, both keeping and losing their African characteristics. Others are particular as when she notes the eradication of New England’s deer in the 18th century, or the widespread need for animals to give birth in the presence of other females.

Indeed, reading her small well-written book is both informative and delightful. It is hard to imagine anyone coming away from it without a treasury of new insights into our planet.

Some readers will change their attitude about the wildlife we live among, while others will disagree with some of Ms. Thomas’s conclusions. But it is unlikely that anyone will close the last page without having come across a lot that gives food for thought — and considerable pleasure, too.

Claire Hopley is a writer and critic in Amherst, Mass.

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