Like many gardeners in this land-rich country, I often wake up on a weekend morning to see a graceful herd of deer grazing beside my vegetable garden, browsing my young fruit trees to a nub.
I am increasingly troubled by one thought: Why aren't we shooting and eating some of them?
Obviously, I'm not a vegetarian. But I'm not stupid, either. I think our relationship with the animals that we use for meat is extremely morally fraught and complex. Science increasingly shows how intelligent animals are and that distinctions are between our brains and emotions and theirs are muddy at best.
However, I'm not sentimental about what makes for a healthy landscape, and I think well-managed meat animals are part of it. We've driven away most of the natural predators of the deer. Now it's up to the hunters to make sure their populations don't get out of control.
I'm convinced that we humans have a role to play in the ecosystems around us as carnivores. I used to buy my beef, for example, from an amazing woman farmer around my age who did not eat meat. But she finally concluded that she really, really needed the manure to fuel her vegetable crops, and so began offering beef to her customers.
And check out this excellent counter-intuitive piece by Judy Schwartz that argues that the best way to save overgrazed grasslands is…with cattle. Well-managed cattle encourage a species-rich environment.
I only buy grass-fed meat from my friends, who raise their animals in the most natural way possible. I look at the deer and think…grass-fed. What's the difference?
The difference, of course, is that somebody has to shoot and gut the deer on my property.
It could be my husband, who is an amazing shot, but it won't be. He grew up in a deer hunting culture, and some of his fondest memories are of whiling away the dawn hours in a stand in the woods with his grandfather, a former cowboy turned landscape architect, waiting for the deer to come by. But today, as an adult, he wants nothing to do with hunting any more. I'm not sure why. Repulsed? Too busy? I'll have to ask at some point.
A cautionary note was also sounded by my German aunt. She had hunted and fished with tremendous enjoyment her whole life. But at her 80th birthday party, she astonished me by saying, "It's a difficult thing, to kill a deer. Those eyes." She was struggling against the cancer that would kill her, and it clearly made the death of a deer a weightier thing to her.
After 20 years in the vegetable garden, I am coming around to a different conclusion. I think a certain number of those deer should be harvested.
That's because my feeling about growing food has deepened over the years. It feels less like something I do and more like something that happens in collaboration with my piece of earth. In gardening, I am simply collecting the amazing riches of my landscape and doing it in a respectful way that doesn't run the place down at the same time. It's not so different, cutting broccoli out of the garden, and hunting for boletes in the woods, or sauteeing the purslane that shows up as an uninvited weed in my planting beds. It doesn't seem as if picking off the occasional deer is much different either.
Of course, I don't know how to shoot a gun! Just musing. But I'm curious if any of the vegetable gardeners among our readers hunt.