Oh, Deer

I wish I had written the elegant essay below. But it was Lisa Russ Spaar, poet and gardener, who wrote it for The New York Times. Her experience with deer is not new to us gardeners, but her acceptance of them might be. What is your tolerance level for deer in your garden?

The Deer in the Garden

Credit Susan Stava for The New York Times

Eight deer of various sizes are grazing the winter azaleas and fringe of monkey grass just outside the front window. Several young ruminants are right up next to the house, tugging at a tattered rhododendron, occasionally bumping the window screen. Although the dog is flipping out in the hallway below, barking sharply, indignantly, the herd is unfazed.

I’ve taken the dog out on her leash and rushed toward them, though her lunges and cries, like mine, only seem to amuse the deer before they reluctantly, elegantly and temporarily, move off.

Occasionally a doe looks up and gazes at me through the plate glass before blinking placidly and lowering her head to resume feeding. Behind this posse of four-legged bodies is a blinding stretch of snowy yard, where the car of one of my daughter’s friends is wedged into a gritty drift. On the back fender, splattered with road salt and slush, is a familiar bumper sticker: COEXIST.

Not long ago, it would have been rare to see one deer, let alone a whole drove of them, in the yard, especially in broad daylight. The road I live on in Albemarle County, Va., used to be an old dairy byway lined with large working farms and long stretches of woods. Several of the older houses still stand, one of them ours, built well over 100 years ago. At a curve in our road, just before the two-lane thoroughfare enters the city of Charlottesville, there is what I call a “Connecticut moment” — an 18th-century mill and creek on one side, an auto-body shop on the other.

Those former expanses of scrub and woodland meant that although we shared turf with the usual “suburban” fauna — squirrels, rabbits, groundhogs, raccoons, an array of feeder birds — the larger wildlife creatures (bears, foxes, bobcats, deer) had their own, natural habitat. A neighbor down the road, a longtime resident, wryly recalls how he and his wife used to try to lure the shy deer out of the woods with salt licks in the winter months. Now, due in large part to the uprooting of long-established trees and the razing of farms and underbrush over the past decade to make way for ubiquitous townhouse developments with ironic names like Treesdale and Dunlora Forest, those of us who attempt to grow things in our yards spend a lot of time trying to keep the deer at bay.

As a poet and professor who spends much of her waking and dream life engaged in and obsessing over written and spoken acts of language, I have for decades found sanctuary in what a colleague of mine calls the necessary “other art.” For me, the “other art” is gardening. I’m not a particularly gifted or ambitious grower of plants, but as the descendant of generations of farmers, I find the nonverbal pleasures of digging, sowing, transplanting and helping things grow to be a meditative counterpoint to the other exigencies of my life.

Anyone who gardens knows that flexibility, patience and the willingness to fail — and, as Samuel Beckett said, “fail better” — are part of the deal. Vicissitudes of weather, seed and plant stock, funguses, distractions and, yes, insects and varmints of all shapes and sizes remind us, as Theodore Roethke put it in his famous villanelle “The Waking,” that “Great Nature has another thing to do / To you and me.”

Still, the “invasion” of the deer herd took me by surprise one morning about five years ago. Sure, I’d seen occasional deer scats on the margins of the yard, but imagine my dismay when I went out that May dawn to check on the “Iceberg” rose bushes — which just the day before were full of buds poised to open, each a perfect white-chocolate promise — and found every bud neatly chopped off and eaten. A few pearly shreds littered the mulch, trampled with deer tracks.

That was the spring the deer had already mowed down all of the tulips; later, they would lop off every single day- and peace-lily before moving on to the late summer climbing roses. In subsequent seasons, I tried just about everything I could think of, short of fencing, which wasn’t feasible, to keep the deer from decimating my garden beds: bobcat urine (how do they harvest this, I wonder?) and another granulated product that my son said smelled disturbingly like ramen noodle mix; Liquid Fence (why grow those roses anyway, only to have them smell like a mix of rotten eggs and vomit?); human hair swept up from a local salon; peeled off shavings of Irish Spring soap; burlap tents (easily knocked aside or bitten through, it turns out); and even pinned-on squares of clothes dryer sheets. I’ve run at flocks, waving my arms, shaking grocery sacks, throwing beechnuts, banging pans. I’ve taken the dog out on her leash and rushed toward them, though her lunges and cries, like mine, only seem to amuse the deer before they reluctantly, elegantly and temporarily, move off.

Last summer, I dug up all of my lilies and roses and gave them to friends. I put in aromatics and other “deer-resistant” plants — cleome, muhly grass, catmint, butterfly weed, woolly yarrow. But what I’ve learned, finally, is that there really isn’t anything hungry deer won’t eat, including a precious fig tree (a Mother’s Day gift from my son), bark as well as fruit, and last year’s Halloween pumpkins, butted off the front porch and devoured in the driveway.

Will I give up gardening altogether? Probably not. It occurs to me that as I age as a poet,hoping to refresh my practice over these several decades — to risk new things, to fail better — I’m also learning to revise, in tandem, my “other art.”

My experiences with these now familiar, cloven-hoofed denizens of my yard (and I have gotten a few poems out of my bouts with them) make me think that “surrender” may be my new “other art” — and I don’t mean “surrender” in a forsaken or defeated sense, but instead as an almost relieved acceptance of what I can’t, or won’t, control — a lesson I hope I’ll remember, as a poet and a person, as the years pass.

A few weeks ago, after an overnight snowfall, I looked out the kitchen window and saw about 10 deer chasing one another, young and old, some leaping in place butting heads in the light powder that was still falling. I realized that they were playing. I wouldn’t have stopped them for the world.

Lisa Russ Spaar is a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Virginia. Her most recent books are “Vanitas, Rough: Poems” and “The Hide-and-Seek Muse: Annotations of Contemporary Poetry,” a collection of essays

4 thoughts on “Oh, Deer

  1. Deer, lacking predators that used to keep the population in check, are an ecological disaster. They are destroying our forests. I don’t see them in this sentimental way at all.

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    1. I agree with you, James. I am not sentimental about deer. They are an ecological disaster. I think the USA should allow culling. It seems almost cruel to me that the deer population swells due to the lack of predators. They are not living healthy lives. The deforestation is a big problem. Thanks for your comment.

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  2. I didn’t want to erect a 10 ft deer fence so we built raised beds which have pvc ‘sockets,’ which hold smaller pvc ‘hoops.’ On the hoops we can throw a deer net on or some plastic film to make a temporary green house. While the initial effort involved some set up time, the end result is that we can grow food earlier in the spring and into late autumn. The “Tuff-lite IV” film has lasted many years (probably over 10 years), but the deer netting only lasts a year or two. The netting is relatively cheap though and it has the added benefit of keeping out the birds.
    I have to agree with the both of you about the need to cull some deer.

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    1. Your solution sounds like a good idea. My garden is all ornamental, and formal so my solution was a deer fence. However, not all of the garden is fenced, so sometimes the deer get in. Since I live in the suburbs of Boston where space is limited I find it an insult to injury to have all the downsides of suburbia with the hindrance of deer. And before someone says something about suburban sprawl decimating the natural habitat of the deer, which is true, I must point out that that argument does not apply to my suburb, which has been a suburb for over 100 years.

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