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Hungry Deer and Pissed off Gardeners: An Interview with Erika Howsare

by Ashlen Renner

I don’t know what is going on with my TikTok algorithm, but I’ve been getting a lot of deer videos on my For You page: Deer crashing through convenience store windows, doorbell camera footage of deer waltzing into a house like they owned the place, and, of course, deer eating snacks out of people’s hands.

Deer are controversial animals. We love them for their beauty, but then hate them when they’re munching on our gardens. Author Erika Howsare’s new nonfiction book The Age of Deer meditates on our complicated feelings about deer through a personal journey through research.

Both lyrical and precise, The Age of Deer honors and complicates our ideas of this common animal and the habitats where humans and deer converge. I was excited to interview Howsare, who is Phoebe’s nonfiction contest issue judge, about these ideas to answer the age old question: Why do deer go so viral?

Erika Howsare

Ashlen Renner: Starting off, how did you land on deer as a subject for your book?

Erika Howsare: Well, people keep asking me this question, and it definitely has roots in my childhood. I grew up in a deer hunting culture. It wasn’t something that my immediate family did when I was growing up, but it was certainly something that other folks that I knew were into. I would hear people at school talking about deer hunting, including teachers. I remember once a middle school science teacher showed us a picture of himself and his sons with a deer that they had killed in the back of their truck. There was something very intense about that world that felt like a very dark and mysterious realm to me.

It stuck with me, and I remember that in grad school I actually wrote a piece about deer that dealt with some of those memories of deer hunting culture, in my childhood. And also that piece actually got into some of the other themes that ended up in the book like deer on the roads and deer damaging people’s gardens. I think I had a sense even in my MFA days that deer might be like a pretty rich topic. 

I think deer have a way of lurking quietly around the edges of things. At some point, within the last 5 or so years, I realized there’s just a lot of deer in my life experience and my consciousness. I don’t know what it was, but something made them come into the forefront of my mind. I thought, “Oh, this is a really, really good topic to tell stories about ways that we are shaped by what we think of as nature and how we, in turn, deeply influence the natural world.

AR: What I found interesting about your book is the way that you unpack what nature is. You also get into how humans affect the balance of nature. What does it mean to have a perfect balance, or does that even exist? 

EH: The balance of nature idea seems to have pretty deep roots in Western culture. It goes back to at least the ancient Greeks, and it has biblical roots as well. You could trace, through the history of Western science, the way that idea has been a continual thread as we kept on updating our ideas about how the world works. This idea that everything is set up to be a perfect system, and it sustains itself in this perfect and eternal way is our conception of nature — the universe as some total system that all the elements in it are interlocking and balancing each other, and it’s all working out in some divine way. 

One of the ways that that idea is still influencing us is that people are constantly  referencing deer populations as being too low sometimes, but more often it’s too high, and they’re looking to rebalance them. There’s an assumption or an underlying concept that there’s a correct number of deer, and we should be adjusting the numbers that we have to get to this “perfect number.” It just doesn’t appear to be true when you really start digging into the science around it. It’s incredibly complex. Incredibly nuanced. It’s not even very feasible to count deer to get an accurate count of them.

AR: When we’re talking about deer populations, most people, at least around here in the suburbs, think like there’s too many deer, and I wonder how true that perception is. Or are people just annoyed that the deer are encroaching on their yards and eating their plants?

EH: It’s both. I mean, one of the really interesting things I learned early on was that there are 2 ways to look at what’s called carrying capacity. For a species in a habitat, there’s the biological, and there’s the cultural. So, the first part of your question was maybe addressing the biological issue: are there really too many deer for this habitat to be able to support in a healthy way? And then the part about people getting irritated, that’s the cultural carrying capacity.

And so, these are two different numbers that are not the same. So, if you may be getting to the point with your local deer population where people are starting to feel irritated, they feel unsafe when they’re driving, they feel like they can’t grow a garden, and they’re getting really pissed off about it, or they’re complaining about Lyme disease, and they’ll jump to “We have too many deer! We gotta get rid of it.” That’s very obviously a human-centric way of looking at it, as if everything should be arranged so that life is convenient and safe for people.

The biological part of it is very complex, but there is a fairly broad agreement among ecologists and conservation biologists that there are some habitats, including where you live, where the deer numbers are too high for the habitat, that the habitat is suffering because of excessive eating by deer.

AR: You mention this in the book, but I keep seeing all of these like YouTube videos or TikTok videos of deer in places they shouldn’t be, like crashing into buildings or eating out of people’s hands. Why do you think deer are such a galvanizing subject for people? And why are they so entertaining online?

EH: Well, they’re beautiful. And they’re also big, right? These are two very obvious statements, but they do matter. We don’t have a lot of large animals around us anymore. If you’re talking about the majority of people in our country, the large wild animal that they might get to see on a regular basis is deer, and that’s a result of many other animals becoming extinct or just locally extirpated. I think there’s some deep part of us that misses that world that’s full of animals. I think part of our psyche is still very interested in deer because they represent the last large animal standing. We know that animals like them have been completely vital and essential to our evolution and our becoming who we are.

And then of course, the fact that they’re very adaptable and they can live among humans means they’re going to be coming into contact with us and our pets and our cars and all these other parts of our modern lives. They are natural internet fodder for that reason. They’re just around a lot, and so there’s lots of opportunities for funny or sad or crazy things to happen that involve deer.

AR: While you were researching for this book, how did your idea about what deer mean to you change over time?

EH: Well, this is what’s interesting about writing nonfiction. There’s research, and then there’s the personal journey that results from that research. So, I did start the book from a fairly cerebral place where I thought, “Oh yeah, great subject. Like, this will bring up all kinds of great questions, and I’ll be able to go down all these roads in terms of the research and make these points, and it’s gonna be a really great opportunity to dig into these intellectual questions.” 

What I wasn’t expecting was how much it would change me as a person. It gave me a lot more appreciation for the fact that deer are here at all because, of course, with the story of their population decline and then recovery, it’s actually really lucky that I, that any of us, get to see deer in our lives. 

There’s this resonance that they have in mythologies and tales from around the world. They play this role of messengers and guides, and I started to feel like deer had come into my mind and guided me to all these very interesting places that really affected me. One example is, I found out about these earth skills, ancestral skills gatherings where people are using lots of deer parts in order to make things. And I thought, “Well, I’ll go to one of these as a reporter and do my journalism thing, write stuff down, try stuff out, and talk to people and get quotes.” But I was just completely swept away by the experience.

A lot of times in journalism, you do something once, and you write your story and then you move on, but this really drew me in, and I went back to the gathering the following year with my kids and stayed longer and did more things. It just feels like I’m following that path even though I don’t need to anymore for this project, but I just found it really, really intriguing to be around people who know how to either hunt or scavenge deer bodies from the road. The intimacy that they have with these animals as a result of those practices is very inspiring to me. 

AR: Have you taken up hunting deer since starting this project? Or is that something you feel apprehensive about? 

EH: Well, I don’t know that I’ll ever get to the point where I’m the one holding a weapon. As I write about in the book, I got to go hunting with my brother and my family members in 2021 as I was researching for the book. And then in 2022, I could have skipped [the hunt] since I had plenty of material already, but I really wanted to, and it was meaningful for all of us that I came back. 

The way that they hunt cooperatively in a group means that there is a role for me to play even if I’m not holding a weapon, and there are other people in the group in the family who show up every year, and they’re part of the team, but they’re not shooting. It really just amounts to walking through the woods. So that’s something I can do, and I’m happy to do it. It’s something that connects me with my family and with that part of the earth where I have some deep roots there in that part of Pennsylvania.

AR: For me, personally, I ate deer meat for the first time this year, and it was good. I know a lot of people like eating deer meat, and it is, during certain times of the year, part of the regular rotation of what they eat on a day-to-day basis. I’m curious if deer meat has become part of your family’s diet, or are we still sticking to the grocery store?

EH: We do eat some deer meat. Not real often because we are not harvesting our own deer, but that’s not to say that we wouldn’t if we had the opportunity. It’s an occasional thing that depends on someone being generous and sharing some venison with us, which my brother does sometimes. The other day, a friend came to visit and brought some venison that was given to him by a friend of his, and it is a treat. 

It feels a little bit like communion. It’s very different from eating generic grocery store meat. I find that I really think about how this deer came to me from this person who was in this place. The deer lived its life, and it’s a connection to a real part of the world. It’s excellent to know that what we’re eating is a native mammal. It’s really part of this habitat and has been for millions of years, and it’s not a domesticated species that originated on a different continent. You cannot get food that’s more truly of our home land. 

AR: So before we close out, what is your favorite deer fact?

EH: Well, the first thing that comes to mind is the fact that we think of deer as herbivores, and they are, but they also have a little bit wider range in their palate. Sometimes they eat bird eggs out of the nest, and there was at least one story that I read where they had been observed eating dead fish on the shores of I think it was Lake Michigan.

There’s more nuance to deer than we thought. They don’t only eat our hosta plants and oak tree seedlings that we hear so much about them eating. They also eat other stuff. It just gives you an appreciation for their adaptability. Deer are more complex than we tend to realize, and they’re participating in the world and the ecosystem in all kinds of ways that might be fairly surprising.

AR: So if you left, like, scrambled eggs out in a field, the deer might eat it?

EH: They might. I mean, you’d need a game camera to know if it was them or some other animal, but somebody’s gonna eat those eggs.

AR: Alright. So what’s next for you? Do you have any other projects going on?

EH: I don’t have anything really underway at the moment.Writing a nonfiction book turned out to be fantastic fun. I definitely want to do it again, and I do have several ideas about what that might look like, but at the moment, I am pretty occupied with the work that goes into publicity for the book. 

I’m simultaneously trying to let people know about a podcast that I made that is a companion to the book. It’s called “If You See a Deer.” It expands on some of the things in the book and brings in a couple of new elements. Some of the people in the book are also in the podcast, and it’s a fun bonus for anybody who likes audio stuff.

AR: Very cool! Where can people listen to it?

EH: It’s on Apple Podcasts and Spotify and all the major places to listen to podcasts.

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