Monday, May 13, 2013

Al Cambronne's "Deerland"

Al Cambronne is a writer from northern Wisconsin. His work has appeared in Canoe & Kayak, Cooking Wild, Deer & Deer Hunting, Meatpaper, Sierra, and The Washington Post. His new book, Deerland: America's Hunt for Ecological Balance and the Essence of Wildness, was published in April 2013 by Lyons Press.

Cambronne applied the “Page 99 Test” to Deerland and reported the following:
Deerland explores the major role of deer in the environment and in American culture; in both cases that role is much larger than most of us realize. The U.S. now has about 30 million deer, a hundred times more than just a century ago. They routinely disrupt entire ecosystems. They ravage our gardens and suburban landscaping, and every year they kill and injure hundreds of us on our highways. No wild animal larger than a skunk or raccoon is anywhere near so numerous and widespread.

Still, deer are magical. Their mere existence makes the woods feel wilder. They signify far more to us than just meat, antlers, or a graceful, mysterious creature slipping through the shadows. In our collective imaginations they’ve become an archetypal symbol of the wilderness experience—or at least of a gentrified country lifestyle.

It’s no wonder, then, that so many of us want to see more deer. What’s surprising is the things we’ll do to make that happen. Page 99 of Deerland comes about halfway through Chapter 4, “Feeders, Baiters, and Plotters.” In that chapter, I tell about three different practices: feeding deer recreationally, hunting deer over bait, and planting small “food plots” with crops specifically chosen to please the palates of deer—deer that may themselves be harvested as they’re harvesting their very last mouthful.

All three of these practices have one thing in common: someone is spending time and money to manipulate the diets and behavior of deer. As different as their motives might seem, they all want the same thing. Millions of Americans have become feeders, baiters, and plotters because they want to see more deer. It’s a simple enough desire, and a very natural one. Its consequences, however, are not.

Within that chapter, page 99 comes in a passage about “the Great Bait Debate, and a Mysterious Thing Called Fair Chase.” The gear, tactics, and values of American hunters have changed dramatically over just a single generation, and hunting deer over bait is a big part of that story. Hunters often wax philosophical about a rather nebulous concept they call “fair chase.” As well they should. Fundamentally, fair chase is about more than just the ethics and esthetics of shooting deer over a pile of corn; it’s about the meaning of hunting, the essence of wildness, and the very nature of nature.

In the first full paragraph on page 99, I attempt to explain all this more simply:
As much as hunters enjoy a beautiful day in the woods, and as much as they claim it doesn’t really matter whether they get a deer, they tend to make these statements with less conviction after they’ve experienced a certain number of deerless days in a row. Still, if deer invariably showed up on cue precisely three minutes after hunters loaded their rifles and stepped into the woods, then that wouldn’t feel quite right, either. Not too hard, not too easy. Just right.
But hunting is just one part of the story I tell in Deerland. After an insider’s tour of America’s Deer-Industrial Complex and a peek inside subcultures that are unfamiliar even to most hunters, it’s time for the “consequences” part of our story. To learn more about the ecological impacts of overabundant deer, I head back out into the woods—but this time with botanists, ecologists, and foresters. Next, I venture out into the field—literally—with USDA wildlife specialists to get a first-hand look at how hungry deer can make farming even more of a gamble than it already was.

To learn more about deer-vehicle crashes, I ride along with a state trooper for an entire eight-hour shift. Along the way, I learn about a lot more than roadkill. Then, to better understand the aftermath of these crashes, I visit a backwoods body shop that owes over 60% of its business to deer. When business is slow, the owner goes fishing and tells his wife to stop worrying. Someone will hit a deer soon.

Then, as I talk with experts to learn more about the problems associated with overabundant deer in America’s cities and suburbs, I learn that once again there are plenty of tough questions, but no easy answers. All too often, balance remains elusive.
Learn more about Deerland at Al Cambronne’s website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue