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“April is the cruelest month,” says T. S. Elliot. I know that snippet, not because I am a literary scholar of any sort, or a regular reader of poetry. I know that snippet because in the whirlwind of cultural references we all navigate, bits of relevance snag and stick. April is the cruelest month for northern deer, and I am a deer biologist.

A friend had me searching old photos for a book he’s doing and there are winter weather advisories tonight for Wisconsin and these things converge. I am searching for northern white cedar pics, the key habitat component for winter survival in northern deer. When I crossed the parking lot, a wet heavy southeast wind pushed me and smelled like mud. By tomorrow night, the wind will shift and cold Canadian air will wring a late snowstorm out of the humid southern air while we in Wisconsin’s tropics get more gray rain. Spring snow and ice in the north – a rhythm that I remember with the tactile push of wind and sleet in my face.

My imagination picks its way through the winter-rank understories that I carry in my history. Brown vegetation pressed flat by snow – now bare to the gray sky – cedars and cold water in the low parts.

Deer don’t so much die during the depths of winter. They die during wan spring when nights are still cold and patchy scratchy corn snow lingers in the shadow parts. Some simply run out of energy before green-up. By April, spring has already tried for a bit, but winter is making a last heroic rally. Sufficient new growth has not yet arrived — and the late spring storms disproportionately, for many, sap a northern a deer’s depleted reserves beyond recovery.

Starvation has a posture and a smell. They settle in on their own legs, covering with thick belly hair the thin limbs where their body heat leaks away. They crawl under a balsam thicket or the lee of a big tree or a patch of south-facing sunshine. They die with their heads reflected back on their elegant necks, rolled over to the uphill side. You can imagine the last-breath sacrifice gassing itself out like a ghost dissolving in the lonely dawn. At necropsy, their marrow looks like cranberry jelly, their livers are dark and thin, and their skin peels free from wasted bare muscle. It smells sweet and your hands are cold.

It’s a uniquely human response (we suppose) to lament the quickness, now still in the woods. It’s normal, even laudable. For years, I deluded myself about scientific detachment, about objectivity and distance. Such is the value of pretense. Deer suffer and die in the spring. The graceful movement sputters and stops. The liquid limbs grow cold and stiff. The bottomless brown eyes grow opaque and gray. I’ve seen it up close and on my wet knees.

Don’t look away though. This is how it works. Bear cubs are emerging with their mothers from winter dens, born during their mother’s hibernation and nursed on her fatty milk while she fasted. The deer carrion restores the mother bear to wean and feed the cubs. Wolf pups are on the way. Bobcat kittens. Crows and ravens find the starvation carcasses first, and then the coyotes and bears. Eagles peel away the drying hide with surgical precision. Songbirds pick at the bones and glean the insects that are attracted. Insects and microbes dismantle the leavings. Mineral-stressed rodents gnaw on the bones that then get brittle and dry – returning elementally to the soil. In the end its remnant hair and the deer’s last supper – acid-soaked rumen contents, that weather away in the rain.

The soil, that spot, then flushes with soft green plants in May and June. And a weanling fawn learns to graze…

Deer are at the hub of an economy of sunlight energy. Plants capture it and make it available. Deer aggregate it for a time and then, in death, they disperse it to fuel thousands of others’ lives – creeping, crawling, fluttering, flying, singing, surging, birthing, and growing.

Creation isn’t a fairy tale. It’s not a Disney animation. It’s a dense and complicated novel written in a language we only barely understand. Even so, we engage with our emotions as well as our intellect, but plots twist.

The northern forests co-evolved with deer and the heterogeneity created by predators and spring storms. Warm the climate or feed the deer and fewer deer die in the spring. Warm the northern forest and forest plant communities degrade in the face of too many spring-hungry deer. Warm the forests and they lose browse-sensitive species – typically ephemeral spring wildflowers. It’s already happening.

We impose our values. We seek to manage the cruelty, imagining that we have a better way. We invite unintended consequences until our humility catches up with our hubris. That is the legacy of the Fall.

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

black and white photos: USDI National Park Service, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Public Domain.

Tim Van Deelen

Tim Van Deelen is Professor of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He grew up in Hudsonville, Michigan, and graduated from Calvin College. From there he went on to the University of Montana and Michigan State University. He now studies large mammal population dynamics, sails on Lake Mendota, enjoys a good plate of whitefish, and gains hope for the future from terrific graduate students. 


  • Dale Wyngarden says:

    Wow! What a great morning read. Your gift for wrapping wisdom in words that would would be the envy of poets is remarkable. Thank you.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    It’s a dense and complicated novel written in a language we only barely understand.

  • Gary VanHouten says:

    This exquisitely well-written piece about the very harsh realities out there remind me of a poem by another favorite poet:

    Dead Doe

    Amid pale green milkweed
    wild clover
    a rotted deer, curled,
    after a winter so cold
    the trees split open.
    I think she couldn’t keep up
    with the others–
    they had no place to go–
    and her food,
    the frozen grass and twigs,
    wouldn’t carry her weight.
    Now from boney sockets
    she stares out on this
    cruel luxuriance.

    – Jim Harrison

  • James Schaap says:

    Now out of the classroom for a decade, I’ve come to believe that when I failed as a teacher it was because I didn’t somehow engender enough awe. True faith rises when we’re on our knees, astonished. Your incredible essay should be required reading, no matter what the class. Thank you.

  • Henry Hess says:

    Your essays are a joy to read. Plus I always learn something. Thank you!

  • Jo Taylor says:

    This is so very beautiful. Thank you much!

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    This is such a wonderful piece of writing. The sentence Daniel quoted is exquisite to say the least. I will be using that in a sermon, at least write it on a card and tape it to my laptop for continued contemplation.
    The essay presses me in another matter. Over 20 years ago, we brought our cats to the vet and a conversation struck up about hunting. The vet relayed that he was strongly against hunting until he was tasked to travel with the DNR to tag deer that had starved in the spring. He confessed that after tagging over 1,000 deer his thoughts on hunting had changed. It seemed to us that in Michigan at least, where human presence and activity has expanded, many natural predators have moved farther north, leaving the deer to proliferate without natural restrictions, which led to larger populations of deer and more death by starvation. I’ve always understood this as one the best arguments for careful hunting of the deer population. Your essay presses me to consider there is a greater complexity at work. I am convinced that human intervention (even in climate change) has unknown ripple effects. In light of this, I’m wondering what I should think about hunting. I’m inclined to continue to support the practice and to support my expanded family to do so with faithful stewardship, but is that wise? I have much to learn. Thanks again.

    • Eric Van Dyken says:

      Hi Rodney,

      It is indeed wise for you to support the practice of hunting, for a number of reasons. One of the main reasons is that it is integral to the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. You can read much about the success of this model. One site that gives a quick and helpful synopsis is here:

      Beyond the accolades of the NAMWC, more broadly speaking there is an even greater impact from sportspeople than just what is gathered and spent in mandatory fees and taxes. Consider also the work of the many voluntary conservation organizations such as Ducks Unlimited, Delta Waterfowl, Pheasants Forever, Quail Forever, National Wild Turkey Federation, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and the list goes on. Hunters, fishers, trappers, etc. are the original conservationists. They put their money where their mouth is, and through their efforts untold millions of acres have been preserved, studies have been advanced, and game and nongame species alike have benefited.

      In the county in which I live in Minnesota, we are in the Prairie Pothole region and as such have dozens of Waterfowl Production Areas (federal, funded by Duck Stamp dollars) and Wildlife Management Areas (state), among other public land categories. These lands are open to any and all public and are teeming with a host of game and nongame species of wildlife and other natural beauty. I am a hunter, but I spend more time simply exploring our public lands than I do actually hunting them. Groups like Pheasants Forever and Ducks Unlimited continue to pursue and acquire more and more land locally for preservation and typically for transfer to public ownership.

      So, by all means, if you love the wildlife and wild places in your local, regional, and national situation, support and thank the sportspeople that you know, even if you pass on the activities yourself. Even better, buy a Duck Stamp – they are beautiful in their own right!

    • Tim Van Deelen says:

      Thanks Rodney. As you maybe remember, I wrote a post about hunting a few months ago. Deer hunting in the Midwest (particularly MI, MN, and WI) is among the most creation-honoring ways to get meat if done thoughtfully and carefully because it offsets climate-costly and often ethically sketchy commercially produced meat. There’s more to say but Kimmerer’s chapter on the honorable harvest is the roadmap for me. The Great Lakes forests have an inverted age structure meaning that what was once largely old growth is now mostly second growth interspersed with edge. This super-charged the habitat for deer reproduction and they are now so abundant that they cause widespread ecological disfunction – and beyond the point where they can be regulated by predation even if predators were at “natural” abundances. Deer also have a remarkably “flashy” population biology – meaning they recover very quickly in response to population reduction. Removal by human hunters doesn’t really impact the spring carrion supply because some deer starve even during mild winters and hunting is a surprisingly inefficient way to reduce deer numbers (in part because deer hunters demand that managers be very conservative). Climate change will exacerbate deer-sourced ecological disfunction in the Great Lakes and hunting can only help to create some of the heterogeneity needed by browse sensitive plants and the communities they support.

  • June De Wit says:

    Welling up in wonder here. Thank you for this beautiful read

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    Such a beautiful read! I wish I could share with you the picture we have of a three-legged doe who we have seen for the last two years in our yard. Her back right leg is gone, just below the joint. She appears to have adapted, keeping up with the rest. We find her resilience and adaptability to be quite remarkable – she often uses the stump as a fully formed leg, resting her weight on it when eating. Something so satisfying, seeing her appear to thrive.

  • Marilyn Paarlberg says:

    No words except awe and gratitude for the complexity and wonder of nature, and for your giftedness in conveying it.

  • Daniel Bos says:

    That is the cruelest blog.
    First you evoke our sympathy for the poor, starving deer.
    Then you pull the rug out from under our lament for the cold, cruel northern Wisconsin spring and make us wonder why we do not have the same sympathy for all the other forest life and for ourselves in the face of the inexorable warming of all our seasons and of our whole world not just for spring in Wisconsin.

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