Few animals have taught me more than the whitetail deer.
Growing up in the woods of Pennsylvania, tracking deer was a pastime that kept me grounded and connected to my natal environment. Deer taught me to read the forest and gave me a fluency in a language I desperately wanted to learn. They were always there, always accessible to the interested, and yet they were always wild. Walking barefoot through the hemlock groves to catch a glimpse of these cervids in the conifers was an act of meditation. Their transformations through the seasons taught me about ecological time, from the red-coated evenings of late spring grazing on clover to the electrifying crispness of an early November morning watching an old buck break the tree line into a lightly snow dusted cut cornfield. Summer nights were spent cruising dirt roads and counting deer and nearby fields. In high school, I skipped my junior prom and instead went spotlighting in the Endless Mountain region of Pennsylvania. I've yet to read a single peer-reviewed study on whitetail deer and I've never once empirically evaluated any deer data but yet I feel as though I understand deer more than most. This pure, informal study of animal behavior kindled the passions that have led to a career in ecology and conservation.
Throughout my life deer have sustained me in many ways, so perhaps it should come as no surprise that during this pandemic quarantine I came to rely on deer once again. Isolated in rural log cabin on the outskirts of Shenandoah National Park, my regular patterns of field work in remote areas of Africa were abruptly halted with the spreading virus. As someone who finds inspiration in motion, the prospect of months of stationary seclusion in the States admittedly didn’t jibe with my personal or professional plans. But this period of time has afforded a precious opportunity to develop a more indigenous intimacy of my local surroundings. It began rather unexpectedly in early April, as I heard the distress calls of young fawn caught in the fence of a nearby cow pasture. As I extricated this deer from the wire and watched it clumsily plod down the stream, I experienced one of my first pure moments of joy and hope in this pandemic. Over the next few months I watched as its white speckled pelage faded into the muddied grey of its adolescent autumn coat. I watched in reverent silence as it bedded behind my compost head and unabashedly rooted for it as it – along with its mother- fled a pursuing black bear. These near daily interactions with my deer neighbors have given me such a valuable respite from the almost inevitable call of the screen. In this moment, especially as I live alone, it is very easy to immerse myself in work to give myself a sense of control. These deer have given me an incredible gift in reminding me of what initially drew me to this field. I watch them without agenda. I watch them for only the joy of knowing that I share this space with such beautiful beings. I see them every day and I will never tire of it.