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Book review: "The Hidden Life of Deer"

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In the North Country, we see whitetail deer grazing in fields and leaping across roads at dusk. Author Elizabeth Marshall Thomas sees far more than that. Betsy Kepes reviews her new book, The Hidden Life of Deer, Lessons form a Natural World.

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Betsy Kepes
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Don't feed the deer. We've all heard that warning, but in the fall of 2007 the oak trees in southern New Hampshire didn't produce any acorns. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas worried about the turkeys and deer on her land and decided to give nature a hand. She put a line of corn out in the snow at the back of her farmhouse.

Daily, a flock of turkeys paraded from the woods down the open pasture to the corn and groups of deer joined them, moving single file through the deep snow. Most of us would have enjoyed the wildlife but Thomas does more. She's an opinionated naturalist and anthropologist who observes and studies until she finds patterns or as she says, "I am always looking for intent in life forms, asking myself what does this plant or animal want."

At first the deer eating the corn all looked alike but when Thomas realized they always traveled in the same small groups she had a way to remember and categorize the deer she observed. A big beautiful doe led the "alpha" group, and she kept low status groups of deer away from the corn. Thomas writes: "Blessed are the poor, but not in deer cosmology".

Thomas is a chatty eccentric who loves to anthropomorphize what animals do, saying, for instance, that one deer was "despondent" and "very needy". She passionately defends the animals that live on her land. Her neighbor Don hits a bear with his truck and wants to shoot it because as it lumbers off it seems to have a broken leg. Thomas says the bear is on her land and she won't let him shoot it. When a policeman arrives, she won't let him shoot it either. She writes: "The officer wondered aloud if I might have been drinking. Don said, "She doesn't drink. She's always like this."

When she tracks the bear the next day Thomas finds no blood and no body. Five years later a huge bear discovers her hummingbird feeder and when he leaves the porch, he walks, "like a dog with hip dysplasia, his front left leg buckling with every step." Her bear is back.

Thomas, now a great-grandmother, spent her late teens and early twenties in the Kalahari Desert with a community of hunter-gatherers. These people still lived what she calls the "Old Way" and from them she learned to track and hunt animals. Years later she decided she needed to know more about predators, in this case humans. She signed up for a New Hampshire hunter safety course, a decision that dumbfounded her family. Thomas writes, "In a class of about thirty people, most of them macho types who were surprised to find a tree-hugging grandmother in their midst, my grade [on the final exam] was 98 percent, the highest in the class by far. Oh, the good feeling."

The Hidden Life of Deer will make you think, and perhaps fume. I found it to be an enjoyable book by a quirky wildlife philosopher. Others might find it to be full of New Age bunk. But after reading the book, I bet both sides will never see a whitetail deer in quite the same way again.

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