Heart and Blood

The intersection between deer and humans is tangled with emotion and economics in the US. Though it was published a decade ago, this exhaustive look at the ecology and history of that relationship is still the best primer on the subject I’ve found. When I spent two months researching and writing about the deer debacle in California’s Point Reyes National Seashore (there are controversial plans to eradicate white fallow deer), Nelson’s insight was priceless, especially to a neophyte. A cultural anthropologist and hunter, Nelson looks at deer management mishaps, from contraception on New York’s Fire Island to predator introduction on Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay. His own hunting ethos echoes the mindful conservation of the Alaskan Koyukon people, with whom he traveled for several years: from tongue to testicles, he wastes nothing. The book opens with an unarmed Nelson stalking a doe on a remote Alaskan island and closes with the author witnessing the birth of a fawn on the same island. Nelson visits sprawling game ranches in Texas Hill country where hunters can pick off deer from stands strategically placed by feeders. He joins a group of anti-hunting activists in the Wisconsin woods as they sabotage those in camouflage on opening weekend, when some 650,000 hunters fan out in the forest hoping to bring home fresh venison. And along the way, Nelson continues to drop great historical tidbits: the etymology of American slang “buck” for the paper currency is a legacy of the rise of market hunting in the 1830s when an entire deer carcass would sell for about a dollar. Whether you’re a hunter or someone who enjoys theories of wilderness and writing in the spirit of John McPhee, this book will no doubt change how you feel the next time you spot a deer.

– Zachary Slobig

Heart and Blood: Living with Deer in America
Richard Nelson
1998, 416 pages
$21
Available from AmazonSample excerpts:

I know myself as a predator, know the hunter inside me, know the communion of meat and blood that shapes my body from those of deer. And considering how I stalked this animal- slipped through the boundaries of her solitude, hidden my inimical shape, and used the wind to conceal my encroaching footsteps-I wonder how I can feel so innocent. Perhaps it’s because I haven’t brought a rifle, not even for protection against blundering into a bear. I’ve come to hunt only with my eyes, a luxury of the twentieth-century world, where freezers and grocery stores foster the illusion that life sustains itself without taking other life.

Whenever we bring home a deer, we hang it from a beam in our cool basement for easy skinning and butchering. For me, this work is another way to experience the elegance of the deer’s design and the wonder of transforming its life into my own, as I sever joint from joint, laying aside each part. Next, we spend many hours over cutting boards in our kitchen, paring meat from bone. We use virtually everything, from heavy quarters to sinewy leg muscles, even the smallest bits meticulously sliced from the ribs, brisket, backbones. Then we wrap and freeze the venison for our year’s supply of roasts, stews, and ground burger. The hides and hooves we give to Native American friends who use them for traditional arts.

Besides excellent flavor, venison has less fat and more protein than beef. Also in areas like the Texas rangelands, where deer fed on natural vegetation rather than eating crops treated with fertilizers and pesticides, the meat is ‘organically grown’ and free of chemical additives or hormones.

If the characters in Bambi’s world are distortions of real animals, the forest they inhabit has almost nothing in common with an actual environment and almost totally lacks a sense for ecological relationships. Rabbits, mice, and grouse live in harmony with carnivores like skunks, raccoons, and great horned owls. Herbivores take an occasional nibble, but predators never eat.

This is what I’ve most desired for years, although I felt sure it was utterly beyond reach. Even if I’d gone to an enclosure or a zoo, the timing was just too implausible. And yet I’ve now seen a wild deer born, and on this wild island where my love for deer was born. I remember what the Koyukon elders teach: that everything that we receive from nature comes to us as a gift. The fawn and I live from these same earthly gifts-the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat. Looking at the fawn, I see myself, being born and flinging out into the world, to live and grow and die, and someday to feed other life, nurturing generations in turn. Because I hunt in these muskegs every fall, our fates might someday conjoin. For this I feel neither guilt or sadness, only gratitude and joyful affinity.

Related items previously reviewed in Cool Tools:

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Tracking & the Art of Seeing

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Firetowers, Lookouts & Rustic Cabins for Rent

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ECOlogical Calendar