The Hidden Life of Deer by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

So, technically this isn’t children’s literature? And by technically, I mean entirely: nothing about the packaging or marketing of this book is directed toward children. Fortunately, “children’s literature” as we know it began as a marketing ploy, and to a large extent the classification of this book as middle grade or that book as YA remains a PR/advertising scheme, so I feel entirely justified in ignoring such trivialities.

And who reads only what is designated for their age, anyway?

“Quirrell! Man!” – Voldemort and Quirrell in A Very Potter Musical, act 1 part 7

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s The Hidden Life of Deer is just the sort of read a teen or preteen would pick up by accident and love. The prose is easy to follow, the narrative voice is engaging, the observations are fascinating.

Here’s the inside cover flap:

In the fall of 2007 in southern New Hampshire, the acorn crop failed and the animals who depended on it faced starvation. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas began leaving food in small piles around her farmhouse. Soon she had over thirty deer coming to her fields, and her naturalist’s eye was riveted. How did they know when to come, all together, and why dd they sometimes cooperate, sometimes compete?

Throughout the next twelve months she observed the local deer families as they fought through a rough winter; bred fawns in the spring; fended off coyotes, a bobcat, a bear, and plenty of hunters; and made it to the next fall when the acorn crop was back to normal. As she hiked through her woods, spotting tree rubbings, deer bed, and deer yards, she discovered a vast hidden world. Deer families are run by their mothers. Local families arrange into a hierarchy. They adopt orphans; they occasionally reject a child; they use complex warnings to signal danger; they mark their territories; they master local microclimates to choose their beds; they send countless coded messages that we can read, if only we know what to look for.

Quite apart from the observations, the new information about deer, and Marshall’s down-to-earth (and sometimes wry) tone, this book delighted me with its unique blend of scientific inquiry and sense of wonder. Scientific studies are incorporated into the narrative of the author’s observations in terms easy for lay readers to understand. Marshal has studied her subject, and she points out gaps in the scientific literature on whitetail deer. She admits her own ignorance on certain areas of whitetail behaviour, and the initial errors in and obstacles to understanding her observations. Permeating the whole is a strong sense of relationship with one’s surroundings; of being part of nature and not separate from it. The openness to wonder and sense of curiosity translates through the page, leaving the reader to marvel at the world of – first, nature, and second, knowledge – waiting to be discovered.

I seemed to be getting nowhere. Then one day, it came to me that my thinking was all wrong. I was viewing the deer as an aggregate of individuals. But deer are no more that than we are. I may be an individual, yes, but only in a way. Otherwise, I’m my husband’s wife, my children’s mother, and my grandchildren’s grandmother, and thus am considerably more than just an out-of-context member of my species. As such, I’d be hard to locate in a crowd. The observer would need to have learned my various features, just as I was trying to learn those of the deer. If he saw another woman about five feet two with short gray hair (how many of those could there possibly be?) he could get us mixed up.

But together with my family I’d be easy to spot. Reliably, our group would have the same number of big ones, middle-sized ones, and small ones every time. We would come as a group and leave as a group, although we might mix with others when we got there. But once an observer had identified our group, he could then note a few special characteristics of some of us… (p. 26-27)

Also worth mentioning is the story’s humour, and awareness of the foibles, flaws, and absurdities of fellow humans. On a related note, Marshall devotes an entire chapter to (forestalling the inevitable avalanche of criticism by) explaining why, in direct contradiction of the advice (orders?) of the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department and the University of New Hampshire Forestry and Wildlife Program, she fed the deer. Marshall goes into great detail on her reasoning; even so, I imagine that despite this chapter she still received angry letters on the point.

Readers interested in deer, turkeys, mice, animal observation, hunting (of either the photographic or the rifle-toting variety), oak trees, microclimates, adventures involving cougar urine and bobcats, or well-written nonfiction – enjoy.

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