Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Longest Night

Sunday, December 23, 2007

(Despite appearances to the contrary, this is not the Dead Deer Journal, but, as they say, stuff happens.)

Imagine the terror. Alone in the long dark night – the longest night of the year – the young whitetail was pursued relentlessly by a pack of strong, vicious, hungry beasts. She tried to run, but her sharp hooves kept breaking through the crust on the deep snow, slowing her down and causing her to stumble. The coyotes, seemingly floating over the smooth surface on their wide paws, came on, closing the gap. Finally, when she could flee no more, they were upon her, tearing at her flesh, scattering her hair. It was over quickly, but how could such a thing ever end soon enough?

I can only imagine what the attack was like, but the tracks, blood and remains in the snow told the tale. We went skiing on Moose Hill Farm on Sunday morning, the first day of winter. We had just started and were only a few minutes from the parking lot when, in the distance, I saw a dark form in the snow in the middle of a large hay field. I had heard that there was a significant population of coyotes in the area and I knew there were many whitetail deer, so even at a distance I had a feeling I knew what I was seeing. As we approached, I could clearly see the looping path where the predators drew the first blood, then tore into the coat scattering the hair, and finally, where they began to feed. A few organs had been pulled away and left in the snow. The head and legs were intact, but the carcass was stripped to the vertebrae.

Shooting is illegal in our town. Hunting of any kind is very unusual. Constant development pushes the deer into ever-smaller natural areas and their population density soars. Over-browsing, disease and car-kills are inevitable. It’s only natural that – given just enough room – predators will move in.

This is the way it should be; the way it has always been. So much of the beautiful life around us is sustained by killing. To a caterpillar, even the most colorful and delicate warbler is a heartless predator. But, the death of a deer, with its brown hair and red blood, its big black eyes and white backbone stripped of flesh, is death on a scale that people really notice.

To me, the amazing thing is that it happens here. Moose Hill is less than 20 miles from Boston. The towers of downtown can be seen from a high point in this same field. Within a mile or two in every direction are fancy suburban homes with backyards where pets and children play.

It crossed my mind that this death should be kept a secret. Roaming packs of large meat-eating predators may be more than we suburbanites can tolerate. I see an earnest TV news reporter interviewing a soccer mom and a NASCAR dad on their manicured lawn next to the minivan. They are calling for action to protect their children and cockapoo. If we would just put some townhouses and a lifestyle mall up there, we wouldn’t have to worry about these things.

My reaction to this deer kill is a little different. Knowing that there are large carnivores at the top of the Moose Hill food chain authenticates the wildness of the place. There is enough contiguous wild space to sustain a complete ecosystem with checks and balances. All around, we may be screwing things up by fragmenting the landscape, but on Moose Hill life is returning to a more natural state.

I look forward to the day when I am sitting in the woods, quiet and alone. I hear a sound behind me and I turn to see large yellow eyes staring into my wide blue ones. After a moment of indecision, the big coyote lopes away. Excitement mingles with fear in a way that must be primordial. I never look at these woods in the same way again.

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At 11:47 AM, Blogger robin andrea said...

That is quite a scene to come upon, mojoman. Disquieting, raw, and intimate. We don't often get to see the remains of such a battle. No malice in the coyote, only hunger. Still, the deer falls just the same.

At 8:59 PM, Blogger Deb said...

You had a rare chance to see nature at work. Ravens and eagles will pull every shred of meat off the carcass, then the mice will gnaw the bones to nothing. It's too bad we humans are fragmenting the landscape at an alarming rate, and disrupting the natural predator/prey relationship in the process. Deer in high numbers are not good, and they will die, but a lot of people would see that and cry outrage, kill the predators. I know, I work for a natural resources agency and I see all the time signs that the majority of people are disconnected from the realities of nature, like you so eloquently recounted.

At 6:59 PM, Blogger Larry said...

Gruesome-but that's nature.Not just all beauty and good times.-It's about survival.-I'm hoping to get a picture of a coyote this year.-I've seen them watching me before.

At 9:56 AM, Blogger Lilly said...

Sometimes, when I'm walking, I imagine what it would have been like 100 or 200 or 1000 years ago along that same path. Certainly, when the Europeans first landed in North America there would have been a radically different balance of animal life. I suspect that there were many more deer in New England than humans. I imagine that after a while, the one deer turned to another and complained, "These damned humans are overpopulating and pooping all over the back yard!"

I heard a suburban gentleman say the same thing about deer just the other day!

At 12:20 AM, Blogger T.R. said...

Popping in from Nina's Nature Remains to find your exquisite essay. It's a beautiful piece of writing...I'm hooked.

At 2:39 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Mojoman, I just caught up on your most recent posts. Enjoyed all of them.

At 6:06 PM, Anonymous Joan said...

Often, I hear coyotes in the middle of the night. Across the road, a farmer has set traps for them because the county gives a bounty of $25. I have mixed feelings about them--they do help cull the huge population of deer but also have demolished sheep herds around here. Interesting blog!

At 1:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


You are starting to worry me. I read your latest report and your profile. My view, you do have the right stuff, just chose a different path. And you are mistaking drifting for really living life as it should.

I recommend a combination therapy involving good liquor, a little Willie and Waylon, stories of the past, and a hunt for Mahogany.

Your friend in St. Petersburg, and I don't mean Florida.

At 3:17 PM, Blogger MojoMan said...

robin andrea: Yes, this is the way it has always been. I'll always feel bad for the prey, but as long as we humans haven't done anything to mess up the natural balance of things we should recognize this as the way nature works.

deb: I'm sure such scenes are more common in the wilds of Minnesota, but here in the megalopolis, it's a rare opportunity to witness the drama of predator and prey.

Larry: You're a great photographer and I hope you show us a coyote photo soon.

Lilly: Oddly enough, I'm pretty sure there are more deer now than there were a hundred years ago, the problem is, they are having trouble finding places to live. Our culture is changing so much. Fewer people hunt all the time so more deer survive, but we keep bulldozing the places they live.

t.r.: Thanks for stopping by. You can be sure I'll return the favor.

paul: Good to see you back. I look forward to more reports on your Arizona homestead projects.

Joan: The conflict between predators and livestock is an old and difficult issue. Around here the greatest risk is to household pets. We don't grow or raise much of anything here anymore.

St Pete! Great to hear from you! Having you tell me I have the "right stuff" is like hearing it from John Glenn himself. Maybe some day we can talk about it over a bottle of wodka.

At 9:30 AM, Blogger Maryanne Stahl said...

beautiful writing. thank you.


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