“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.