Iím lucky enough to live in a rural area where whitetail deer are plentiful. Sometimes they wander into my yard, but mostly I catch sight of them as they leap across the road in front of my moving car. Either way, they are as ephemeral as mist, and they are experts at avoiding human scrutiny.
Elizabeth Marshall Thomas has done us all a favor by recording her observation of the deer who visit her property. The Hidden Life of Deer is not a textbook, nor is it a field guide to wildlife as would be written by Ďexperts.í It is rather one womanís thoughtful and appreciative notes on what she has seen to be true versus the many myths that so many of us accept as fact.
As she points out in her introduction, we humans tend to think of ourselves as the purpose of life; we assume that the planet is ours and that we are the final word on how it is and should be. Thomas may also have internalized this view at some point, but her study of the wildlife in her own backyard quickly relieved of her that erroneous notion.
ďÖ[C]ompared to many of the other species, we [arenít] important at all except for the damage we do. We do not rule the natural world, despite our conspicuous position in it. On the contrary, it is our lifeline, and we do well to try to understand its rules.Ē
Simply by watching what animals such as deer and turkey actually do then thoughtfully reviewing what she has seen, Thomas is able to sort out the truth about feeding animals, about the social rules within groups of deer, and about the unexpected but clearly evident abilities of wildlife to use tools. Readers who still believe in the Ďdumb animalí theory of nature will have a hard time disproving her theories.
While deer are the focus of the book, itís inevitable that other species will get involved in the telling of this experiment-turned-lifestyle. The turkeys who take meals with the whitetails are as intriguing as the more graceful title subjects; even mice have their roles to play in this story, and Thomas is one of the few humans who has witnessed the remarkable singing mouse.
Some may suspect that the author intends to chastise those who donít agree with her appreciation of wild things. Actually, Thomas describes herself as a tree-hugger and clearly she is an animal lover. Nevertheless, she accepts the practice of hunting and in fact, shows great respect for the ethical and skilled hunter who lets her claim his first kill of the season as her own.
The Hidden Life of Deer was my reward at the end of a long, frenetic day, and I only wish it had been several thousand pages long. The authorís writing style is completely without pretension, gentle, and evocative in its simplicity. She acknowledges several authorities in this book, quoting from their publications from time to time. For my money, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas is the only authority on the subject worth reading.