Thursday, May 18, 2017

The 'Bounds of Habitation' and the Whitetail Invasion

From my In the Sound of the Bells column in the May 11 issue of The Potomac Almanac.

After last week’s spot of yardwork, I feel like a real permanent resident of Potomac.  I now have a deer fence.  A “heavy duty” deer fence, to be precise, no mere agglomeration of netting and iron stakes, but a 7.5-foot-tall fence, its posts sunk deep into the ground, bound by high tensile wire top and bottom, staked every foot into the ground. 

I’ve been wanting to plant a raspberry patch for years, and we identified a great spot in the backyard.  I researched the varieties I wanted to use and worked out a plan for a raised bed.  But if it would all be for naught if I didn’t find a reliable way to keep out the local wildlife, if the saucy, bovine creatures that saunter through our yard and the woods around us really deserve the name. 

I had invaluable advice in the matter from Leigh Alexander, one of my vestry members, an expert in the defensive side of suburban horticulture.  Leigh helped me get the fence and then turned up, his “gripple iron” in hand, to spend several hours straightening posts, tightening nettings and staking things in place.  Though I was immensely pleased with the results, a half-dozen naysayers have already predicted that the persistent creatures will be munching berries within the month.  We shall see. 

I don’t know if anyone has studied the number of semi-wild deer around Potomac, but the number per acre must be quite remarkable.  I grew up on a small farm in Western Maryland, where we would often see a few deer in the pasture at sundown, and hundreds were bagged by hunters in the surrounding hillsides in the weeks after Thanksgiving. 

But my parents never considered putting up seven-foot deer fence around their vegetable patch.  Season and shade controlled the garden center’s displays, not “deer resistance” (carefully phrased, of course, to be sure no one would ever assume a plant “deer-proof”).  Our deer were timid and easily spooked.  Increasingly they had predators (coyotes, and these days, sometimes, bears).  It’s more dramatic for them, I expect, but better for both them and us.

Occasionally, I can be as sentimental about a doe’s eyes or a new-spotted fawn as the next would-be poet.  But the costs associated with living in such close proximity with these large animals are very high.  Even though the local residents seem remarkably nonchalant about oncoming cars, I’d hate to imagine how much damage they do to fenders and windows every year in communities like ours.  They are voracious eaters, and though I’ve tried to plan my flowerbeds carefully around the things they don’t like, it’s clear that many neighbors have just given up on the whole project.  They destroy the undercarriage of our forests, destroying habitat for smaller wild animals.  Lyme disease and related tick-borne illnesses, are of course, the most frightening costs associated with their presence for humans and pets.   

The deer themselves, though, must surely suffer for the change.  They seem fat and happy this time of year, but when winters are severe, the overpopulation can be devastating for them.  At a deeper level, allowing a wild animal to become so deeply habituated to human contact seems to deprive it of its true dignity. 

The Bible’s poetry’s, for example, is rich in metaphors about deer, but these are wild deer, elusive and swift.  The Bible assumes deer who amaze us by the quickness of their delicate hooves and the majestic antlers perched oddly above their slim bodies.  “Like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks,” begins Psalm 42, “so longeth my soul after thee, O God.”  The passage evokes an animal rushing for miles across the desert hills, searching for a distant rill.  The local grunter’s enthusiasm for azalea buds and midnight forays into the tulip bed stand in rather sharp contrast.  The desire is surely present, the grandeur, not so much.

It’s good for wild things to be wild, and tame ones to be tame.  God, in His creative wisdom, the Scripture, has “fixed the bounds of habitation” for the different kinds of beings (Acts 17:26).  Humans find it perennially tempting to fiddle with such bounds, assuming that the results will be predictable and entirely under our control.  We’re currently living through the consequences of one of those projects gone awry, the reintroduction of white-tailed deer to our region in the first half of the twentieth century. 

The bright and determined are on the job, they tell us.  There will be some culling along the canal in the coming months, and the natural resources experts have other projects in mind.  Perhaps someday we’ll be able to enjoy deer as they are meant to be seen, running swift and free, far from the likes of us.  Until then, I’m keeping that fence staked down tight, and hoping the local population has never really developed a taste for raspberries.  

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