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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

December 1998

Deer illustration © John LewisHunter illustration © John Lewis

Deer to our culture

In Heart and Blood, anthropologist Richard Nelson reflects on the ties that bind people to white-tailed deer.

John Lewis

Wisconsin's deer culture
Ethics, the most important part of the hunt
On hunting's opponents | Too many herbivores
The risk to other resources
Common ground for hunter and nonhunter
Our place in nature

Wisconsin has produced truly remarkable writers and thinkers in the realm of environmental ethics and conservation. Like Aldo Leopold and John Muir, Richard Nelson is committed to examining our relationship to the natural world. His writings incorporate years of experience studying and living with native people whose cultures and philosophies evolved from centuries of intimate knowledge of the earth.

Nelson was born in Madison, Wis. in 1941 and raised in neighboring Monona. His intense interest in wildlife led him to study biology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. However, the tendency of western science to break down the study of living things into small components like cellular biology and biochemistry obscured much of what fascinated Nelson about animals and the relations people keep with them. He switched his field of study to cultural anthropology.

"It was clear that native peoples knew all about these animals and all about the natural world," he recounted in an Anchorage Daily News interview. "So I went into the study of anthropology-the study of humans-in order to learn about nature." A research paper on the Eskimos of Thule, Greenland focused his interest on northern cultures whose way of knowing animals is crucial to their survival.

Nelson spent years working and living with Alaska's Inuit people. Then he studied the Koyukon and Gwitch'in cultures learning their hunting methods, their views of the world and, especially their ways of interacting with animals.

Illustration © John Lewis

During his first extended stay with the Inuit in Wainwright, on Alaska's North Slope, Nelson lived as closely as possible to the native, traditional ways while doing research for an arctic survival manual for Air Force pilots. Nelson's travels, mainly by dog team or skin boat to pursue seal, walrus, polar bear, and fish, produced field notes which were used by the Air Force and later developed into his book, Hunters of the Northern Ice published by the University of Chicago Press in 1969.

Many of Nelson's unique approaches come from his gift of observation and his apprenticeship with these native cultures. In the 1960s, many hunting and cultural traditions were still being practiced before the widespread influx of snow machines, government housing and other cultural intrusions .He maintained the skills of one trained in western science, but he was also open to cultural ideas that reached beyond the industrialized world. In his accounts describing the Koyukon Indian view of the northern forest in Make Prayers to the Raven (1993), he attempted to record "native natural history" and " a different concept of humanity's proper role in the environment."

As an example, he wrote, "Porcupines are great wanderers despite their labored gait, as anyone knows who has followed their tracks winding almost endlessly through the forest. They are given a special power to know the landscape, I was told that this is the Koyukon reason why people should never set traps for them." One of his best known books records his reflections of three years hunting and exploring an island on the southeastern Alaskan coast. The Island Within, (North Point Press, 1991), won the prestigious Burroughs Medal for natural history writing. In it, Nelson examined the workings of natural systems incorporating the wisdom of native mentors.

Wisconsin deer culture

His latest book, Heart and Blood: Living with Deer in America, (Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), brought him back to Wisconsin, to California, to Texas, and to the Northeast Coast to examine contemporary relationships with deer and deer hunting through an anthropologist's eye.

In Wisconsin, he joined a hunting group on Opening Day of the deer season. At the start of another season, met with anti-hunting activists. His reflections about deer hunting make interesting reading.

"I doubt there is any place that deer hunting involves so much ritual as it does in this state," Nelson told the Wisconsin State Journal. "One of every three Wisconsin males over the age of 12 hunts deer, and 46 percent of the state's households [in the late 1980s] have at least one hunter in residence," he reported. "These figures, however impressive, give little sense of the cultural and emotional weight of deer hunting among Wisconsin's people. Schools in many towns avoid rampant truancy by officially dismissing students when deer season begins.

"For the same reason, factories, stores, construction projects and a whole range of other businesses close their doors and, despite fanaticism over football in these parts, games scheduled during the hunting season are often played before half-empty stands.

Illustration © John Lewis

The depth of emotions and cultural importance surrounding deer hunting are hard to overemphasize. "Hunters are after something that cannot be gained simply by hiking in the woods, looking at animals, or taking pictures of wildlife," Nelson writes in Heart and Blood. "It's something deeper and more powerful in the human psyche...something that eludes the grasp of language and might be comprehensible only to those who actually experience the hunt.

[As a hunter] "I believe this sense of fulfillment reflects, more than anything else, the fact that I am an animal, and that I am driven by the same hungers that motivate any other creature – the squirrel in the forest, the vole in the meadow, the bear on the mountainside, the deer in the valley. I share with every other creature on earth the need to sustain my life by eating other organisms ¬ just one of the earth's living creatures, but also one with them. At the deepest level, all forms of life are interchangeable: animals eat plants, and plants are nourished in turn by animals. There is only one kind of life, shared equally, identically and universally among the earth's organisms. We pass life back and forth – the fire that burns inside us all-creating a spectacular network of interdependence."

Ethics as the most important part of the hunt

"I learned from Koyukon elders that morality and ethics are the most important part of hunting, and the same message is crucial for hunters everywhere in the country today. If people want to protect the privilege of hunting, they must do everything possible to eliminate discourteous and irresponsible behavior, and they must follow a strict code of ethics including:

  • placing the safety of other people far above every other consideration;
  • showing flawless courtesy toward landowners and nonhunters;
  • taking all possible measures to prevent animals from suffering or being wounded or lost;
  • wasting no usable part of any animal;
  • only hunting for animals that will be thoroughly, respectfully utilized.

In The Island Within, Nelson said, "Koyukon people show the same respect toward nature that is shown toward humans, acknowledging that spirit and sacredness permeate all things. If I understood correctly, their behavior toward nature is ordered around a few simple rules: Move slowly, stay quiet, watch carefully, be ever humble, show no hint of arrogance or disrespect. And if they follow one overarching commandment, it is to approach all life, of which humans are a part, with humility and respect, all things are among the chosen."

On hunting's opponents

Even if all hunters met these aspirations, a certain segment of society advocates letting deer populations regulate themselves, without hunting. Nelson comments:

"I was intrigued that many people considered four-legged predators and starvation 'natural' and therefore acceptable ways to control deer numbers, but they judged human predation 'unnatural' and therefore unacceptable. Perhaps this represents a tendency to separate ourselves from the rest of nature, as if we were exempt from the biological processes that sustain our fellow creatures. These processes most vitally include death & whether the deaths that keep us alive are carried out by our own hand, or by the gardener's, the farmer's, the rancher's, the fisherman's, the hunter's.

Illustration © John Lewis

"Humans are not merely observers of the ecosystem; we stand among its dominant, participating members. Whether deer die from starvation, predation, or some other means, including hunting – people will play a role in those deaths. If this is "unnatural," it's also inescapable. I can't help wondering why a relatively slow death by predation or an even slower demise by starving is easier for many of us to accept than a far quicker death at human hands.

"The supermarket is the agent of our forgetfulness.

"Organisms we buy in stores and array on the table are our makers, the creators and nurturers of our bodies, until eventually we die and nourish other organisms in turn. As a society, we could benefit enormously by finding ways to remember, acknowledge and celebrate this process, to accept with gratitude and respect the plants and animals who keep us alive, who weave us into the living tapestry of earth."

Deer equally pervade the culture of those who do not hunt and many people don't realize that tie. "It doesn't matter what you eat. It doesn't matter what you sit down to the table for," Nelson told Leslie Boyd of Gannett Newspapers. "Deer have a tremendous impact on hay and alfalfa, major forage for dairy cows. Thousands and thousands and thousands of deer are shot every year to protect the alfalfa which is used to feed the dairy cows. So when you drink milk, there's a good chance deer were killed to protect the milk. When you drink wine, deer love wine grapes. Soybean is one of the all-time favorite foods of deer. So this politically correct bean in fact is protected by hunting. If you are eating a soy burger so you think you are not taking animal life, you are wrong."

Home development also complicates the deer/forest relationship. "We have created the most perfect environment any deer could conjure up with the mix of forest for cover," Nelson says. "Every time somebody opens up a little patch of forest to build a new house, they're improving the deer habitat. People create it, then they plant it with tasty shrubs and delicious vegetables-a gourmet restaurant for the deer. And the deer are adaptable creatures. They come in after the table is set and people think there is something wrong."

Too many herbivores

Brent Haglund, President of The Sand County Foundation, a Wisconsin-based, non-profit conservation and land organization, says "Richard Nelson's insights are interesting and important. "He helps focus attention on deer as unique animals, as important recreation and equally as a potent, destructive force.

"Those who tend our wild lands – naturalists, ecologists, habitat managers, observant hunters and watchful foresters – are as aware as farmers and rural homeowners that a large herd of plant-eating deer has the potential to destroy a lot of habitat. But the deer's overabundance won't raise a stir on fact and evidence alone. The audience needs to be willing to listen. They need to be receptive before they will respond. They need stories, and Richard Nelson weaves good ones."

Illustration © John Lewis

"Nelson makes his point that ecological responsibility for white-tailed deer is our charge," Haglund said. "But ecological damage from too many herbivores is not a one-chapter tale solely about deer. It is a 'book' with an increasing number of 'chapters' as worldwide loss of native predators and other ecological disruption allows prolific plant-eating animals to escape human control and regulation. Whether we examine elephants in Zimbabwe, red deer in New Zealand or snow geese in Hudson's Bay, animals have the potential to eliminate native plants over broad stretches of savanna, forest or wetland."

"The ecological costs of too many herbivores incur a debt on the land that will not be repaid within several human lifetimes," Haglund said, "and Nelson's writings help us appreciate this is also true closer to home. The deer herd of our era may survive and even thrive the Wisconsin winters thanks to corn and alfalfa, but our woodlots and forests cannot also survive when the herd gets too large. Many Wisconsin habitats have lost important native plant species that will never return."

The risk to other resources

Deer can significantly reduce native plants and, subsequently, animal diversity if the herd population rises. Nelson cites a number of nationwide studies. Since his book was published, at least three additional research projects in Wisconsin started or recently concluded documenting the problem. Nelson states, "Over the past few decades, especially east of the Mississippi, deer overpopulation has become almost pandemic in natural sanctuaries. Overcrowded and hungry, deer have abandoned their natural wildness, depleted vegetation, jeopardized plant and animal species, and faced starvation themselves."

High populations of deer severely feed on agricultural crops in many geographical regions outside Wisconsin. Nelson interviewed farmers in several states including pumpkin farmer John Gellerman who said "For deer, pumpkins are like the peanuts at a bridge party. One year we had expected to harvest 5,000 pumpkins but ended up with only 350."

New York orchard and roadside fruit marketer Tom Sampson told Nelson: "I hate to tell you this, but I've come to feel that the only good deer is a dead deer. People wonder how I can say that, but if you've worked for something all your life, then somebody comes and steals it, you do what you can to protect it."

Common ground for hunter and nonhunter

DNR Deer and Bear Ecologist, Bill Mytton also appreciates the dialogues that Nelson's writings may open between hunters and the nonhunting public.

"Nelson's writing is refreshing because he describes divergent views without making villains of those who would disagree with his perspective. I agree with him that the search for common ground can lead to solutions over game management debates that don't create ill feelings," Mytton said.

"Let's face it. Wisconsin's human population is changing too. More people here who do not own property, who live in cities and who have no tie to rural land. It's critical when managing deer and enjoying deer that we better understand the animals' ecology and the interests of people who have little contact with these animals."

Ourselves and our place in nature

What else can we learn from exploring the complex relationship between people and deer? Nelson puts it this way:

"We share membership with deer in the same ecological community - sometimes as simple neighbors, sometimes as competitors, sometimes as hunter and prey.

"Deer give us a way to recognize ourselves as animals rooted in the earth, beholden to the same rules of biology that govern all living things, equally dependent on the health and vitality of our environment, yet also burdened with special responsibilities because of our inordinate destructive power. We live among deer, we study deer, we cherish deer, we struggle with deer, we prey on deer, we manipulate deer, and we also have much to learn from deer."

Now working in groundwater remediation, John Lewis plans to return to his family roots, hunting and growing a more sustainable way of life.