I’m interested in deer. There’s one deer, especially, that I’m interested in – the one that’s currently out there somewhere, minding its own business, unaware that, come November, I’m going to shoot it. This is most definitely my year.
But I’m also interested in deer at the macro level. Deer as wildlife, deer as shrubbery menace, deer as food source. And now, thanks to Al Cambronne’s new book, Deerland, I actually know something about them – enough, I’m hoping, to be dangerous.
Because I’ve followed Al’s blog for several years, I expected Deerland to be interesting, useful, and well-written. Blimey if he didn’t deliver! The book is an overview of deer and humans, and how they are – and aren’t – getting along. Although the deer are vastly outnumbered, with one deer to every ten humans, any human who can’t seem to keep them out of the hostas has to feel like we, the majority, are being outsmarted.
It’s not deer IQ, of course, it’s just that these animals have evolved to adapt and coexist. They are fast, they are agile, and they see and smell extraordinarily well. They eat a wide range of plants, and seem to possess an equally wide range of survival skills. It is their ability to survive that has brought them in frequent and close contact with humans, to the detriment of both.
Deer destroy woodlands, parks, and lawns. They out-compete birds and insects, and are a threat to biodiversity. They eat away some $2 billion worth of crops annually. They kill about 150 of us every year, and injure ten thousand more, by having the poor judgment to step out in front of our cars – the avoiding of which doesn’t seem to be one of their vaunted survival skills.
We also kill plenty of them. But is it too many? Or is it not enough? Deerland has the chutzpah to ask an unanswerable question – how can humans and deer reach a balance? – and then attempt to answer it. The book goes a long way toward defining what a balance might look like, and reporting on the strategies various states and municipalities are implementing to try and achieve that balance, and that’s the best any of us can hope for.
Actually, it’s not. We can also hope that the book is engaging, and good-natured, and filled with interesting deer-related characters and anecdotes. What a relief, to find that it is! Read Deerland, and you’ll find out the secret to the giant antlers of the deer of Buffalo County, Wisconsin and how that secret sheds light on the cave drawings of Lascaux. You’ll meet Dan Rogers, one of the few motorcyclists who hit a deer and lived to tell about it. You’ll learn that you should never, ever pick up a dead skunk by its tail.
You’ll also reconsider your bias (we all have it) against shooting fawns, and your habit (if you have it) of feeding deer. And, although Deerland isn’t Deer Hunting for Dummies (would someone write that, already?), you’ll also learn something about deer habits and habitat. Enough, I’m hoping, to be dangerous.
There are, inevitably, some spots where the details of wildlife management strategies threaten to swamp the interest level of the lay reader, but Al’s prose always gets you through. He’s concise and conversational; he writes with skill and verve. Describing how bucks – even three of them – can lock horns inextricably, he says, “They’re sometimes found dead in a tragic pinwheel of anger, antlers, and carrion.” About GPS systems that cost “a hundred dollars an ounce,” he asks, “Who can put a price on five ounces of never getting lost?”
I’m always a little suspicious of my own evaluations of books written by my friends. I like Al. I respect his work. I laugh at his jokes. Could all that be coloring my opinion of his book? Probably, at least a little. But his book has been well-reviewed other places (like the Wall Street Journal) , and all the things that make me like him, respect his work, and laugh at his jokes are on display in it – and I suspect they’ll make you do the same.
Go read Deerland.