New England Ecology

March 29, 2021

(Or Eat the Damn Deer)

This week the garden finally thawed out. I can see the grass and soil and the lower trunks of trees again for the first time in months. And right along with that, I see enough deer droppings to cover an acre in an inch-thick layer. I know this because the cleared portion of my three and a half acres is just over one acre… and that’s about covered in deer poo. (OK, yes, I’m exaggerating. A little.)


Deer droppings

So it is time to have the deer discussion again. This has been a recurring theme in my world ever since we moved to New England and I planted apple saplings as deer food. Or that’s their version of the story. Other unwitting deer buffets include six cherry trees, three walnuts, twelve each of the blueberry and hazelnut saplings that I intended as an edible hedge on the veg patch, several hundred-foot rows of corn, all the peas I ever planted, same for all the sunflowers, two really expensive apothecary roses (though never the rugosas), a whole slew of willow and viburnum, every strawberry that dared show its rosy cheeks to the sun, and possibly several hundred dollars worth of tulip bulbs.

Meanwhile, the deer diners have left tips in the form of small, blood-sucking parasites that gave my aging dog Lyme disease and hastened her demise. They also latched on to my body frequently enough to merit several trips to the doctor to be tested. (Four negative, one “probably but can’t confirm” because the little buggers go dormant. They may still be in there, causing periodic mayhem.) The deer also tromp all over things to get to their preferred foods. Sometimes they just rip things out of the ground for fun. I’ve found pumpkin plants heaped up and shredded to a pulp, squashed cabbages with hoof imprints breaking the heads in half, radishes (I ask you!) that were uprooted and tossed aside — all for no apparent reason. Deer are almost as destructive as humans.

Which is funny, because I am starting to believe that deer — the white-tail variety — may be a human creation. Not quite domesticated. No, they’re terrified of actual humans. But they definitely have traits that could only have been adaptive in partnership with humans. Much like rats. Maybe exactly like rats. Only rats that are huge, stupid, and don’t eat the garbage but prefer the food you are growing for yourself.

Remnants of mast forest

For many thousands of years, the humans in this part of the world engineered vast game parks targeted largely to ruminant browsers. Brushy undergrowth was curtailed. Berry plants and mast trees like chestnut and oak were nurtured. I suspect competitor species of all sorts were kept in check because that’s what good farmers do — and this was definitely farming.

Indigenous peoples did plant grain fields and gardens, and they kept some small animals near their homes. These relationships were never quite like pets, nor livestock, but more like animals that mostly fended for themselves and could be eaten in a pinch. Keeping an animal that had to be fed was very likely ludicrous to them. I don’t know that I’ve read anything that says as much, but there is much giggling implied in early colonial accounts of Native attitudes toward settler farming techniques. “Why bother with that? Animals can feed themselves.” At any rate, by the time the colonials arrived, deer had been bred to maximize feeding themselves and minimize the effort it took humans to acquire that food.

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And that is where the selective breeding project was abruptly halted. The Native inhabitants were forced out of their forest gardens, and Europeans could not figure out how to maintain these Edens. Early diarists talked much of the land of abundance given to them by their god. They praised the parklands rich in hardwoods, deer and wild fruits. They took to growing maize with enthusiasm, even if they complained about the bread it produced. A few even recognized the work that went into creating this wonderland. But nobody stepped up to maintain it, and it soon fell apart.

Perhaps they could not comprehend how it was done. Native farming was a complete antithesis to European methods. Native farming was not even recognized as farming (it still largely isn’t). Moreover, if settlers were to recognize the work done and the creativity in the methods, they would be forced to acknowledge that they’d stolen productive homelands from other humans.

The settlers needed to believe that the food forests constructed by the Natives were “just natural”, unimproved, certainly not the work of thousands of people over thousands of years. Similarly, they needed to believe that settler farming methods and ways of being were superior, that they were meant to supersede the benighted locals. They said as much in their written accounts — where presumably they might have used somewhat guarded language to describe their emotions and actions because these words would be passed on and preserved. Often they used terms gleaned from crusading language. They were destined, ordained, anointed, chosen to bring order and light, to cleanse and conquer the dark, demonic wilds. Imagine what their daily thoughts might have been if these were the terms they chose to display to posterity.

Nevertheless, they did not maintain the food forests. First, they set about cutting trees down and eradicating native animal life. They hunted most animals to local extinction, if not absolute extinction. They clear cut most of the Northeast. If you look at images from the early 18th century, there are no trees, even on mountains. It is so different now that I think most people believe these are imaginary landscapes. But no. If you go for a walk in the New England woods these days, try to find ten trees of greater than four feet in diameter. These are the trees that made it through the centuries of clear-cutting since the settlers arrived. There are very few. (And yes, most hardwood trees would live that long if left alone.)

What passes for grass here

The settlers tried their farming methods on the cleared land. They largely failed. This is not a place that will grow grains in straight furrows. It does not even reliably grow pasture grass. Soils are thin and rocky and quite acidic. Soil moisture goes through irregular swings between boggy and dry. Much of the region’s precipitation falls outside the growing season. And the growing season is very short. Accounts written by new arrivals to this part of the world invariably describe cattle that sickened and died, wheat that rotted in the fields, all sorts of vegetable production attempts that met with disaster. Even mules seem to have found the region lacking in nutrition. Those people who wanted to farm as their ancestors had done generally moved west soon after arriving here.

Orchards did well, however, as did sheep and goat farming. Still do today. These are agricultural things that closely matched the indigenous ecology. Browsing ruminants and trees. That’s what the Indigenous people sculpted this land to grow. When the settlers confined themselves to towns and occupied themselves with manufacturing, the ruminants and trees came back.

Of course apple trees and sheep are rather dependent on humans, so these were not the species that reclaimed the hills and abandoned fields. Opportunists moved in. Birches and poplars and sumac. Hemlock and juniper and pine. Ash, maple and oak followed. But so did imported invaders like tree of heaven, bittersweet and buckthorn. Moreover the aggressive native species that used to be held in check by the native ecology — human and non-human alike — grew rampant. New England is smothered in poison ivy and wild grape. Pest insects probably outnumber beneficials now that bee and butterfly populations are crashing. And then there are the deer.

After dwindling to a remnant population from habitat loss, deer rebounded. They still suffer from a lack of territory, but unlike wilder species, deer will live close to humans. It is what they are bred to do. They prefer open woodlands and meadows, which are not naturally widespread ecosystems without copious intervention from fire and flood — or humans wielding both. So deer have long associated human landscapes with food. They even seem to prefer cultivated plants over wild plants. They certainly go for the fruit tree saplings over the native hardwoods. (I think they’re sort of lazy when it comes to seeking out food; they’d rather just eat what we plant “for them”.) And they have few predators. So they exploded in number and moved right into our backyards.

Selective pressure from deer on New England gardens has resulted in an alarming number of highly poisonous plants in the average yard. Out in my garden there are foxgloves, monkshood, hollies, hydrangea, lenten rose, and several enormous yew trees — in addition to the ubiquitous rhododendrons. I don’t even like rhododendron, but that’s what will survive deer predation. Down the road, they’re growing datura, which sends my heart into palpitations just looking at it. And then there are the prickly things. For example, hawthorn. A whole bush of ouch! And the only non-invasive rose that can grow here is the intensely thorny menace, the rugosa. Luckily it makes beautiful flowers and huge hips, but it’s not anyone’s favorite garden plant.

This is not a problem that will be solved by cordoning off some given territory and “rewilding” it. I am not sure that’s a thing anywhere, to be honest. Humans have lived everywhere that humans now live and have been integral to every ecosystem they’ve inhabited. There is no wild that does not include humanity. New England is a stark example though. Conservation land in this region makes it abundantly clear that what was here in precolonial times will not come back without human management. There was no part of this land that was not, over thousands of years, carefully maintained to maximize production of human food. In that long time period, the species that lived here became adapted to human stewardship and partnership. And they still are! But the humans that live here now are neither stewards nor partners.

I think it’s a problem that could be solved if we were to “rewild” ourselves, though not in a “go out in the woods and live like irresponsible Thoreau wannabes” manner. We need to become an integral part of our world again. To solve the deer problem, we need to use the deer as humans bred them to be used. We need to eat them. Or bring back large predators who will do that for us. However, I suspect that large predators wouldn’t live as intermingled with humans as deer will; predators were not bred for that. So even with predator reintroduction, we may still have deer eating the garden unless we eat the deer.

Full disclosure: I’m largely a vegetarian (hard to eat completely veg as a loca-vore in a high latitude climate). I also am not very good at killing animals. So, I’m part of the problem. I complain about the deer; I know what will take care of my deer issues; but I just don’t want to eat the deer. And this is exactly what I mean by “rewilding” ourselves. We have to drop quite a number of behaviors and preferences that are created in a dualist culture — one that views humans and “nature” as separate entities. A “natural” human would laugh at my reluctance to eat deer.

What I think needs to happen is a recreation of something similar to what this place used to be — a food forest, maintained by humans, tailored largely to human preferences, but meeting the needs of many other organisms in the process. Because a forest is many organisms! It can’t exist as a monoculture that benefits just one or two species. It is intermingled and interdependent life. Moreover, every food forest is different. The life that grows in New England will not survive in New Mexico. It may not survive even in Old England. Obviously, what worked in 17th century England did not translate across the Atlantic, and sugar maple trees are not abundant in the UK today — not for lack of trying.

So we need to rebuild integrated and localized ecosystems that serve as farms. We need to adapt ourselves to living within these ecosystems again. And to do that in New England, we need to eat the damn deer.

©Elizabeth Anker 2021


Teaser photo credit: By James St. John – Odocoileus virginianus (white-tailed deer – buck in velvet) (17 July 2018) (Newark, Ohio, USA) 3, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=84774037

All other photos courtesy of the author

Eliza Daley

Eliza Daley is a fiction. She is the part of me that is confident and wise, knowledgable and skilled. She is the voice that wants to be heard in this old woman who more often prefers her solitary and silent hearth. She has all my experience — as mother, musician, geologist and logician; book-seller, business-woman, and home-maker; baker, gardener, and chief bottle-washer; historian, anthropologist, philosopher, and over it all, writer. But she has not lived, is not encumbered with all the mess and emotion, and therefore she has a wonderfully fresh perspective on my life. I rather like knowing her. I do think you will as well.

Tags: food forests, rebuilding resilient food systems