Living on the Edge

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Published on: May. 2, 1999

Last revision: Nov. 2, 2010

not with moles, weeds, insects, diseases or any of the other things that usually plague gardeners, but with deer, which chew the tops off choice items in his garden.

Every serious deer hunter has observed the way deer feed in the wild; a little of this, a bite of that, a bud here, a blade there. They also leave 150 pound hoofprints. A group of two or three deer with fawns, as I found when I decided to put out a strawberry patch down home, can lay waste to a garden simply by walking through it.

Deer are selective opportunists by nature. As an old man who had lived in his life among them told me, "A deer will nearly starve to keep from getting shot at, but if you don't molest him he'll live in your truck patch." That explains why, during a late night thunderstorm, I saw a doe standing at the intersection of my quiet street and a busy avenue, waiting to cross, like some town-wise dog. That was an unmolested deer if I ever saw one, living on the "truck patches" of urban landscapers.

It helps, when trying to figure out why all these wild things choose to live in proximity to humans, to remember that they were here first. It is us living in their habitat that creates the seeming oddity, but the edges of our environment match the edges of theirs so well that we can co-exist.

Evidence of a territorial imperative can be seen close to home. My next door neighbor has a giant dog named Skybear who, for an hour each evening, is allowed to roam the neighborhood. On returning from a weekend in the Ozarks, we found that Skybear had left us a coming-home present-a 25-pound groundhog he had caught and killed and left under the spirea bushes beside the porch.

We have lived in this house for six years, and you would think that in that time one of us would have seen a groundhog as big as a beaver or found evidence of his foraging. The fact that we didn't is ample proof that people and wildlife, as a general rule, work different shifts and inhabit only the edges of each other's territory.

One of my old deer hunting friends explained to me one time about the solitary nature of a black bear that someone had killed in a neighbor's hog lot back in the 1920s. It was his contention that only a drought that killed the berry crop made the bear an interloper on man.

"Why I must have lived neighbors to that bear for a year or two," he told me. "I'd see his track sometimes on the spring branch, but I never did see that bear. He was a regular old hermit . . . kept to himself. I figured no harm to let him tithe off my blackberries."

When you get right down to it, I suppose, all of us are "tithers" in our small pieces of the earth we occupy and even pretend to own, which for us is more a matter of record keeping than anything else. The Native Americans thought that owning squares of land was the ultimate nonsense.

And the wild geese too, are tithers, paying humaê at least with the soul-stirring sounds of their travels above us and at most with the hunting of them. These marvelous birds live in a world that more and more decides where they can light down, their future dependent upon the edge of man, and what places he can find it in his heart to spare.

What I wonder, especially when I mow my lawn, is just who lives on the edge of whose place.

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