monster buck

This morning was foggy and rainy. The five inches of snow that had fallen overnight turned to slush and began to melt. For those few deer hunters who were out in this weather, the hunting was excellent. They spoke of climbing into their trees before daybreak and listening to coyotes sing.

monster buck 2

The head of a four- or five-year-old whitetail buck is significantly larger than the head of a younger deer. The hairs around eyes and muzzle are longer, and one can even find whiskers on its lower jaw — where a chin would be if deer had chins.


The antlers are thicker and have a wider spread, with longer tines. I was struck anew by the strangeness and wonder of the cervid family: This animal sprouts a pair of trees from its head every year, uses them to battle with other males, then sheds them in the middle of the winter and starts growing new ones in the spring!

What about the meat? I asked. Oh, we grind it all up, they told us. Bucks have a strong taste to them during the rut. Prized as they may be for trophies, it’s the does that are really the best eating.

slush track

By mid-afternoon the sky had cleared. The snow was so wet, it practically splashed when I stepped in it.

drainage ditch

The melting and settling gave the landscape an almost shrink-wrapped appearance, accentuated by the long shadows of a low sun less than two weeks from the Solstice.

barn door

With tonight’s return to sub-freezing temperatures, I am hopeful that winter has come to stay for a while. I can hear it howling up on the ridge.

33 Replies to “Beast”

  1. Dave, why do I find the top photo of that beautiful, dignified, dead animal so sad? Why does the hunters’ approach make me angry? Is it knee-jerk sentimentality on my part, a sentimentality that doesn’t exist in nature? Yet I admire your unsentimental description of this animal and your cool questions to the hunters and your photos which are marvellous.

    1. Hi Natalie – Thanks for the comment and the kind words about my photography. Assuming that isn’t a rhetorical question, I’d say yes, I’m afraid that does strike me as knee-jerk sentimentality on your part. When I see a white-tailed deer, I see a beautiful yet also delicious creature that happens to be incredibly destructive to forest habitat in the absence of its natural predators. And I feel that hunting, when done with respect for the animal by people who truly love nature, can be a very powerful way to connect with what is most human and most natural in ourselves. It was the sentimental preference for “innocent,” livestock-like prey animals and the fear/hatred of predators and predation that led to the eradication of mountain lions and wolves here in the first place, and still prevents their reintroduction to most parts of their former range.

  2. A beautiful beast, that one! Those hunters must have been happy. I’m with you on the unsentimentality, Dave, not only because it is up to us to control these populations now, in the absence of natural predators, but because I’ve seen the suffering of deer in overpopulated winter deer yards. No animal rights activist would enjoy seeing emaciated, starving animals, or deer with their legs cut by crusted snow because they’ve been forced to forage faraway for food.

    1. As a vegetarian I’d agree with all you write here Beth. While killing wouldn’t come easily to me, when wild animal populations become inflated beyond the means of the land to support them, then good husbandry is essential. Darwin’s realisation of the sheer waste involved in natural selection and his understanding that this earth was never some benign Garden of Eden where lambs gambolled with lions… and I find that particular notion very belittling of the unquantifiable diversity of creation… forever defined the way in which we must struggle to balance a world on which our species has had the most catastrophic effect.

      Here in the UK we’ve eradicated all the larger predatory mammals with the exception of the fox. I’m wary of traditional ‘riding to hounds’ because of the undoubted cruelty involved in it. As Wilde so succinctly put it “the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable’. But it seems to me that having driven to extinction those very creatures that would have better balanced our country environment, we’ve ended up with uncontrolled rabbit populations that wreak devastation on crops and gardens alike. (We have yet to build the securely ‘enclosed garden’ here at Ty Isaf that will allow us to grow vegetables that can survive the rabbits.) The fox is wily and has retreated to the suburbs to scavenge there, where the die-hard aficionados of fox-hunting… banned during the present government’s term of office but definitely due for reinstating should the Conservatives come to power at the next election (no surprises there) seem not to be interested in the animal’s unchecked proliferation.

      Last weekend a rough old boy arrived unexpectedly on our doorstep (we’re the end of the lane here, so no passers-by) enquiring as to whether we have any problems with rabbits, foxes or weasels, all deemed as vermin by some country-dwellers. We thanked him for his offer of charging about our garden with a gun, but demurred. This year the rabbits seem not to have been the problem they were in 2008. Any weasels are welcome to what’s left. And as for Reynard, well the men lining our chimney last week told us that they saw a sleek, well-fed male in our paddock, almost nose to nose with Pip the gentle mare. He’s welcome to what Winter pickings he can find. There’ll be no guns at him here.

      1. I don’t understand viewing foxes and weasels as vermin, but we have a neighbor in the valley who feels that way, too. Deeply engrained in the culture, I think. I had heard there’s a movement in Scotland to reintroduce wolves — I don’t know how that’s going. I gather that forests would grow back in many areas up there if the deer populations were controlled, but the hunting lobby is fiercely opposed.

        It is tough to garden without going to war against the wildlife. After many years of that, we were happy to give it up and start buying all our fresh vegetables from the local Amish, who began selling produce in the adjacent valley about 15 years ago. It was easier to keep the groundhogs, rabbits, and deer away from the vegetables with just a low fence when I was a kid, and we had a succession of dogs in a doghouse right beside the garden. But now without dogs we see a lot more wildlife of all kinds around the houses. So it’s a trade-off.

        1. I almost wrote the following to go with my “deer” comment yesterday. In our region, coyote and even wolves are regarded with contempt by hunters. They blame them for killing off the deer. As far as I know, hunters continue to be permitted to kill any coyote they see (without limits). In certain townships in Ontario, I believe wolves can also be killed, although there has been a lot of controversy over the matter. I find it ironic that, in recent years, the same members of the hunting lobby have been pleading for extensions to the deer hunt season and increases to the number of deer they can take because they say the deer are overrunning the country, doing crop damage, and causing car accidents, etc… (that part is probably true). In some county forests, sharpshooters are hired to kill a certain number of deer each year. I used to attend forest advisory meetings on behalf of a hiking association, so was quite familiar with all of these goings ons (hiking trails were often closed during some of these controlled kills). I find it problematic that there are hunters arguing for unlimited killing of coyote to protect the deer population, while at the same time, asking to up the quota for deer kills. There’s something wrong with their reckoning skills.

          1. Well, it’s simple: such hunters just don’t want the competition. In PA, too, there’s an unlimitied “season” on coyotes. But the slob hunters here are also opposed to the habitat-focused deer management program of the state Game Commission, and want to see a deer behind every tree — as was the case until just a few years ago. The good hunters tend to be more supportive of the new program, whcih has also made possible stags like the one in this post, due to restrictions on the minimum antler size of legal buck kills.

  3. Funny to come here and see this, right after posting about hunting & hunting culture! As usual, I come down squarely on both sides of the fence. Ow.

  4. Dave,
    Your explanation of your views, which I share, on this subject is always so well done, so clear and logical…thank-you

  5. I have an antler from a buck that lived on our farm for a few years. He grew up as an orphan living in a field of cattle. He wasn’t too shy of humans. One day, he came up behind me while I was kneeling down cutting brush. He let out a huge bugling snort that scared my dog so badly that she trotted home without looking back to see if I was coming along. Unfortunately, he did get shot, but the hunter did not track him, so my neighbour found him dead in our woods. She borrowed my wire saw (the one I used for cutting back goat buck horn scurs when necessary), and cut off the antlers. She kept one and gave me the other. It’s incredibly heavy, smooth and sharp. The mass of an antler speaks to me of the great energy that is required to replace it each year.
    Although I’m a vegetarian, and I like deer, I don’t mind hunting if it is done properly and the meat is not wasted. I am infuriated by people who shoot animals and then don’t bother to track them, or who just take the head and maybe one or both hind ends. Last week, I read something in the news about someone in Oregon being charged for killing and elk and just taking the hind end. Apparently, there’s a law against wasting meat, which is as it should be. The other thing I don’t care for, is when some dude drives around with a dead bull elk or buck deer in their pick-up truck box, seeming to find a need to take it round to the beer store, Canadian Tire, and several other stops around town. sigh.

    1. Yes, it can be sad to lose certain animals to hunting, no doubt about it. We really hate seeing certain bear disappear from the property each year during bear season, for example (we don’t allow any predator hunting or trapping, but the property’s long and narrow, and most of our neighbors do allow bear hunting). The guys I was talking to yesterday told of seeing a wounded, young bear in the Far Field around dusk, walking on three legs and nursing the fourth.

      There really is no excuse for wasting the meat. Hunters in this state can drop off properly tagged carcasses as participating butcher shops for the Share the Harvest program, which donates the meat to local food pantries. (I’m not crazy about the term “harvest,” by the way — what’s wrong with saying “the kill”? I hate how squeamish we are about death.)

      1. I do like “Share the Kill” better. The Grim Reaper seems to harvest euphemisms: “passed away,” “passed on,” and even — this one kills me — “passed,” as if adding “on” or “away” would be too direct. (Though maybe it’s out of an abundance of tact: are the bereaved believers in an afterlife (“passed on”) or not (“passed away”)?)

        Anyway, I can’t process “he passed” without first thinking that he passed gas.

        1. Ha! I think it might’ve been the Christian Science Monitor that popularized that euphemism originally. For many decades they refused to print that anyone had “died.” Pernicious belief, that death is an illusion. But just this morning in the HuffPo I noticed an esssay by some newage guru to that effect. Well, I guess it’s comforting to realize that it isn’t just the political right that’s anti-science.

          1. Since my husband died, I’ve noticed that when I say that Don died, some people seem to show surprise. Most times, when others talk about his death, they use “passed away”, often even seeming to muffle those words as they speak. I find it very odd that people find it so difficult to say die, died, or death.

      2. Many people have a similar aversion to the term roadkill or roadkilled wildlife. Among biologists who study such things as the impacts of roads on wildlife use DOR (dead on road) in their reports. Yes, indeed, animals do die when vehicles run over them. I think some of the resistance to using the word roadkill is that it implies that somebody or something killed the animals, and that they didn’t just die of their own accord.

        1. Yes, I think for a lot of people roadkill is seen as tragic but unavoidable, kind of like they’re victims of some Manifest Destiny of the automobile.

  6. Well, like Dale, I sit on both sides of the fence and ouch, yes, it’s painful. With one eye I see the absolute logic of all the responses here and with the other eye I see the head of that dead buck. And I take back my semi-rhetorical question: no, I’m not being knee-jerk sentimental! What’s most human and natural in ourselves undeniably includes the hunting instinct but also the “Omigod-I’ve-just-killed-this-wonderful-creature” instinct – and thank goodness for the contradiction. Unfortunately I’ve never lived in close proximity to deer, bears, wolves, foxes etc. so my knowledge of the problems of animal management/conservation etc. is superficial at best.

    1. What’s most human and natural in ourselves undeniably includes the hunting instinct but also the “Omigod-I’ve-just-killed-this-wonderful-creature” instinct – and thank goodness for the contradiction.

      I’ll go along with that.

  7. He looks like the fellow that hit me on King of Prussia Rd last year. I was going about 25 miles an hour approaching an intersection and he came off the campus of Cabrini College and collided with my front right end behind the headlight, right after I saw his head and antlers appear in my lights. Poor fellow, I don’t really think he survived, though he managed to stumble away to nearby residential properties. He was definitely an older stag but I didn’t get a point count on him. Those guys have beautiful muscular necks to support all that antler weight, it’s impressive.

    I lived in the same neighborhood growing up as I do now, and it’s amazing to me the way I spot wildlife like I never did as a kid. Sometimes I feel like I’m living in Teletubby land, every time I step out the door I’m practically tripping over the rabbits. That’s probably why I see fox and plenty of birds of prey on a regular basis too, such as Red Tails, American Kestrel, Sharp shinned hawks, Coopers hawks, etc.

    I’m not sure if remediation of the Superfund Site in Havertown, one of the worst cases of groundwater contamination in the country, which I live about a mile away and downstream from (see has allowed a lot of the wildlife to come back, but I’m liking it. Also, bird feeding and perennial flower gardening has encouraged a lot of finches, hummingbirds and woodpeckers back. I’m not saying it’s like really being in touch with the land or natural ecology, but I live in a twin on a quarter sized lot cheek to cheek with hundreds of folks and their dogs, and I’ll take it any way I can get it.

    1. Hi, Shannon! Yeah, actually older suburbs can provide pretty good habitat for a lot of critters, especially if people have lot of shrubs as well as trees. (Not to mention all the birdfeeders.) It’s no substitute for species that require grasslands or large forest tracts, of course, but a lot of edge-dwellers and habitat generalists can thrive there, as you’re finding — and I think it is very important to get in touch with that kind of land, too. This place is nowhere near pristine, either: timbered multiple times since 1815, plowed, pastured, riddled with invasive species, etc. But what makes it both painful and endlessly fascinating to watch is the perspective borne of life-long residence. Which is actually something I think we Pennsylvanians excel at compared to other U.S. residents: we tend to stay put, or leave for a while and then return. I think you and I are both good examples of that. The trick is convincing friends and neighbors to pay attention to the wildlife, too, and channel their intense local-rootedness into support for conservation.

  8. Some years back, Rick Bass wrote a great short story, Elk. It’s about the surprising difficulties that can confront those who hold fast to their resolve to carry out of the woods all the meat of a large kill. I’ve looked for it on-line in years past. Now The New Yorker is offering it in abstract. I wonder o they now offer abstracts of poetry as well? It’s an interesting document, reminiscent of a Cliffs Notes’ jumble, but with a higher content of gorgeous language intact.

    There’s also an essay of Bass’ on line, Why I Hunt: Each year during such pursuits, I am struck more and more by the conceit that people in a hunter-gatherer culture might have richer imaginations than those who dwell more fully in an agricultural or even post-agricultural environment. What else is the hunt but a stirring of the imagination, with the quarry, or goal, or treasure lying just around the corner or over the next rise? A hunter’s imagination has no choice but to become deeply engaged, for it is never the hunter who is in control, but always the hunted, in that the prey directs the predator’s movements.

    David Petersen also writes from the perspective of a hunter. He gives a long and interesting interview in the latest Sun magazine. He rails at high-grading deer populations and recommends more doe tags (meat hunting, not antler hunting). I’ll transcribe a portion: Interviewer: Carl Sagan said,”A sharp distinction between humans and ‘animals’ is essential if we are to bend them to our will — wear them, eat them — without any disquieting tinges of guilt and regret.” How do you respond to that? Petersen: Hunting has been around longer than the distinction he’s referring to. For hundreds of millennia prior to the advent of agriculture — which reduced wild animals, via domestication, to soulless “property” — our human forebears hunted, killed, and ate animals, just as animals hunted, killed, and ate them. Throughout all that formative time — a time that made us what we are now, both good and bad — humans everywhere on earth had an animistic spirituality in which animals were not lesser beings but equals. The only difference was in “job description”. Hunter-gatherers believed — and the few tribal societies that survive unblemished by agriculture or missionary invasion still believe — that prey “willingly” give themselves to right-minded predators for consumption. But they just as strongly believe that our duty, our debt of reciprocity, was to honor and respect the animals who gave their lives and whose lives are taken. This animistic spirituality, in my view, provides the highest moral guidance as to how we should relate to animals. But with the spread of agriculture and domestication, animism was replaced by increasingly human centered dogmas that conveniently put us on a higher plane than “soulless” animals.

    Sorry about all that, Dave! In this cold time of year I think on our historical dependence on animals. I think of the many tens (or hundreds) of thousands of years of the chilly Pleistocene when no human in Europe could have made it through the winter had they not lived in the skins of animals. We’ve no respect for animals, to whom we owe everything. We call them livestock. We call them game. It’s we who are the dependents, but being as we are, we’re really good at ignoring the reality of the situation. Personally I can’t think of a higher calling than to be prey. What’s up with that lamb of god, sheep in the fold stuff anyway?

    Rereading the Peterson interview I came across Paul Shepard, whose book, Coming Home to the Pleistocene sounds very tasty. From the Powell’s review: (It is Shepard’s) guiding theme, the central tenet of his thought: that our essential human nature is a product of our genetic heritage, formed through thousands of years of evolution during the Pleistocene epoch, and that the current subversion of that Pleistocene heritage lies at the heart of today’s ecological and social ills. Petersen, the hunter, quotes Shepard as a reliable authority that the late Pleistocene megafauna extinctions where due to climate change, not human predation. That sounds awfully convenient to one with a hunter’s perspective. In the years since Shepard’s death in 1996, Paul Martin has made a pretty good case for anthropogenic extinctions.

    I’ve found Shepard’s “Coming Home to the Pleistocene on Google books and it looks very tasty, at least in precis. He’s a small town Missouri boy raised with the run of the woods. In the contents a section is described which explores “how we got so smart”. He attributes our smarts to our interaction with prey animals, “participating in complex, competitive strategies that brought with them the ability to think ahead, consider our actions and develop the capacity for metaphor” (Capacity for metaphor — my word!) He sounds just like Bass, and like Petersen, both of whom must be derivative of him. Sheperd seems to be a fascinating thinker, but I was little worried to see Norman O. Brown’s name come up so quickly in the short except I read on Amazon. I rubbed up against Brown’s “Love’s Body” years ago. It had great appeal but was too crazy for one who was already a little too crazy. I remember a very long discursion on the equivalence of money and shit and way too much Freud. Living at home as a twenty-something and I certainly didn’t want to read about incest with my mother on any terms. The google turns up this characteristic Brown fragment: in orgasm, all the splendor and misery of representative government ( I’ll have to take another look at that book.

    Thanks, Dave, once again for turning my wheels. I’ve been fascinated with the mythic, hidden Pleistocene for years. I’ve loved how Paul Martin said that we can’t understand what’s around us until we are aware of all that has so recently disappeared in extinction. Paying attention, as you do, to the animals and plants that are present is only sensible, they’re all we’ve got. Maybe you know of Shepard cause he sounds an awful lot like you. In the contents of “Coming Home” he outlines section VI: “Romancing the Potato (What fun language!)
    The idealism of domestication is like other ideologies that have arisen in history — a blanket repudiation of anything prehistoric except as the concrete model of inferiority. Agrarian power and domestication of plants and animals brought consequences that were not only practical but also profoundly psychotic for all succeeding generations.

    Now if only Ortega y Gasset’s “Meditations on Hunting” were available on-line. No worries though. The larder’s full, thanks to Shepard’s “Coming Home” hanging heavy on the Google meat rack. Hey! – a hunting metaphor. And after that “Love’s Body” awaits. I’m so effin’ rich!

    1. Hi Bill – Wow, what a comment! Thanks for taking the time to write all that out.

      Funny you should start by referencing Rick Bass, whom I just saw at Penn State Altoona the week before last. An excellent reader and speaker, by the way — well worth going out of your way to see. I’m not familiar with the essay you mention, but the guy who invited Bass to come read — the poet Todd Davis — is hunting in the woods on the other side of the field right now. I can see his pickup truck from my window.

      Haven’t heard of David Peterson; I appreciate your sharing those quotes. The Sun has always been a pretty provocative magazine.

      Back in 2005 I posted some quotes by E.O. Wilson and Need Noss, excerpted from essays in which they speculated on the importance of our hunter-gatherer evolutionary heritage to the way we see the world. Wilson:

      The [human] brain evolved into its present form over a period of about two million years, from the time of Homo habilis to the late Stone Age of Homo sapiens, during which people existed in hunter-gatherer bands in intimate contact with the natural environment. Snakes mattered. The smell of water, the hum of a bee, the directional bend of a stalk mattered. The naturalist’s trance was adaptive: the glimpse of one small animal hidden in the grass could make the difference between eating and going hungry in the evening. And a sweet sense of horror, the shivery fascination with monsters and creeping forms that so delights us today even in the sterile hearts of the cities, could keep you alive until the next morning. Organisms are the natural stuff of metaphor and ritual. Although the evidence is far from all in, the brain appears to have kept all its old capacities, its channeled quickness. We stay alert and alive in the vanished forests of the world.

      Paul Shepherd has been a big influence on my thinking. I’ve read The Others: How Animals Made Us Human and Nature and Madness. It’s rare to find a philosopher with an in-depth knowledge of ecology and anthropology. The main problems I have with his thinking are his tendency to overvalue hunting to the virtual exclusion of gathering — which after all is responsible for at least 75% of the diet in contemporary hunting-gathering peoples — and his tendency to romanticize the Paleolithic. I do feel that the evidence is very strong now that human hunters caused the great megafauna extinctions, a view first championed by Paul Martin, as you say. Once we left Africa, we found these wandering bonanzas of meat that didn’t know how dangerous we were or how to avoid us, not having evolved with us. And yeah, it can be spooky to find out about all the plants and ecosystems today that are still showing the effects of the loss of megafauna species as browsers or seed dispersers. It wasn’t really that long ago — the blink of an eye.

      I remember your referencing that Ortega y Gasset essay in a previous discussion here, but I admit I haven’t tracked it down yet.

  9. This post has given me a staggering amount to think on. Thanks Bill for opening such a rich box of delights. And will you all look at the diversity of comment Dave has originated with ‘Beast.’ Fantastic. Three cheers for our host!!!

    Now Dave, where’s the beer?

    1. Glad you’re finding the discussion so useful, Clive. Bill’s comment is so meaty (pun intended), it almost makes me ashamed at the brevity and shallowness of my original post. (Almost, but not quite: shamelessness is a blogger’s most important attribute.) I’m sorry there’s no way to order a round of beers in cyberspace yet!

  10. Dave sorry my comment was jumbled, and with repeats. I lost it when I attempted to post it due to a DNS server error or something like that, which I suspect was due to having kept the window open over long. I’ve learned to periodically paste my longer comments to a word document, so I had an only somewhat obsolete copy to work from. When copying from your comment box all indentation is lost, hence I got lost and impatient reconstituting and updating. The art form of commenting is wild and wooly — more Pleistocene metaphors! — and things get lost and rearranged.

    Great E.O. Wilson quote. Good points about foraging. I wish I was a better reader. I’d read Wilson if I were.

    So you know the Shepard corpus.

    Neat to think of your poetic correspondent, Mr. Davis laying in wait up your mythical hill.

    Can’t remember having mentioned Mr. Gasset earlier. I’m really surprised that essay isn’t on-line. Maybe it is on-line but not in English. I’d like to actually read it.

    I’ve had a chance to peek at a more of Mr. Shepard. A very interesting person outside of his intellectual life, as a seasonal park employee he created an imbroglio which brought ongoing logging in the Olympic National Park to a halt. In the process he both got himself fired from the park service and alienated members of the green movement. I also wonder if he wasn’t the lead instigator in the idea of nature porn, judging from the succinctness with which he formulates it. And I love his neologism “resourcism”.

    I’m so glad you and Mr. Shepard are “friends”. He seems so 70’s to me – I love it! I was fascinated with his support of immanence and essence and the way that it shears off from your own distrust of those ideas. I think he says the rejection of essence is a malady of abstraction.

    I’m also struck by my vacillation from devastation at your posting of the condor(?) windmill kill to my hearty embrace of Pleistocene hunting mechanics.

    1. Bill, it didn’t seem jumbled to me, but I’ll take your word for it. I’ve thought about bringing back that plugin that allowed people to edit their comments for a set time after posting, but I’m afraid of slowing the load-time down too much, what with all the other stuff I’ve already got running.

      I’m not such a great reader myself, so no need to apologize there. But even a book read slowly and from the beginning can be forgotten — which is good if it’s a novel and you want to read it again, but not so great if it’s nonfiction.

      I keep wanting to spell Shepard’s name Shepherd — which he would’ve hated, I’m sure! Did he really invent the term “resourcism”? I forgot. I use that a lot.

  11. I Have an antler
    I found along with the bones
    in my woods Outback
    the deer population here
    is greatly reduced from the vast
    hoaerds of a few years back
    when seeing 11 or so in the backyard
    happened almost nightly

    this year’s garden
    between the deer and the
    never-ending rain
    saw a harvest of nil
    even with reduced populations
    next year:
    a fenced in garden

    as for now
    it is winter
    and I am invigorated
    by the demands of the season
    I’m hoping for beaucoup snow

    1. Well, I certainly hope we get more snow than last winter — what a bust that was!

      Deer numbers have been declining here, too. This year I think many of the hunters won’t fill their tags. Some folks are suggesting the failure of the acorn crop last year led to fewer fawns being born this past spring.

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