Deer in Winter

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(Host) Commentator Willem Lange is conflicted about deer. Out in the woods, they’re fair game; but the ones in his yard are members of the family. And it’s almost Christmas.

(Lange) “If they see you, look directly at them and stand absolutely still. Don’t wiggle your ears or flick your tail. After a while they’ll get tired of staring and leave.” I’m sure that’s the advice white-tail does give their fawns in spring, because we’ve seen them do the same statue routine a hundred times. They learn it by imitation. Watching bears and their cubs, you can see the kids copying everything their mothers do. We don’t do things that way, which I suppose is why bears are still bears, and we often don’t know who we are or what we’re here for.

Mother and I love to watch the deer in the spring, when the does bring their fawns up out of the swamp in the early mornings, browse the clover and ferns on the pond dam, and ease up into the hardwoods for the day. They seem to know which neighborhood dogs are aggressive, and which houses provide snacks from the garden.

There were more this year than ever: one herd of five ladies who stashed the kids when they came out to graze; half a dozen fawns whose progress from shaky legs and spots to graceful, red-coated adolescence we watched all summer.

The standard alert in our house is, “Deer in the yard!” Mother eases out onto the sun porch with the dog, and the two of them sit and watch. The swamp beyond the pond is the deer’s nursery. The woods there are lovely, dark and deep, padded with soft, long swamp grass, and dotted everywhere with beds.

When the guns began to boom in October, they disappeared during the day. At night they prowled the yard again. The dog muttered in her bed and stalked over to the window, growling till we told her it was all right: we know; she should go back to bed.

Now the snow lies deep. They’ve been scratching under the oak trees and sniffing around Mother’s bushes. I leave snowshoe tracks in the swamp now to make their lives a little easier. They walk the garden paths at night like tea party guests, and one even strolled through Mother’s little arched arbor with the Christmas lights draped over it.

In the middle of the swamp there’s a junction of deer trails, with several beds and lots of droppings. Few of us can view a scene like this without feeling sympathy for the poor creatures who sleep out every night of their lives, rainy, buggy, or far below zero. Shouldn’t I spread some hay down there? (The experts say no.) Or perhaps leave a pan of deer chow from the feed store? (No again, say the biologists.) But it is the Christmas season, and it’s really cold down there at night!

This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire. I gotta get back to work and leave the poor dears alone.

Willem Lange is a contractor, writer and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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