‘We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then and have known ever since that there was something new to me in those eyes, something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view‘ Thinking Like a Mountain – Aldo Leopold
On the first visit of the year to a customer’s garden I started, as usual, with a walk around to assess how the garden had fared over the winter. It looked much the same as the last time I saw it in December, except for signs that deer had been in. Stem tips on shrubs had been nibbled – Escallonia, Euonymus fortunei and Photinia seem to be favourites, along with the bulb foliage of bluebells and tulips. All had been deer-pruned. There were also fresh droppings on the lawn and some hoof marks on the flower beds. A bit of a nuisance, but nothing unexpected for a rural garden in winter.
Deer-pruned foliage on bluebells
This was in the main garden; there is also a smaller, simpler garden on an adjoining plot. This area is mainly laid to lawn with some mature shrubs around the edges and this is where I had a nasty surprise. There was something on the lawn. From a distance it could have been a large wood pigeon lying on its back. Not too bad, I’ve come across dead pigeons before. Edging closer, it was clearly not a pigeon and what I’d taken for wings turned out to be ears. It was an upside down deer’s head, covered in slimy fur. The skull was empty and it looked like it had been there for some time. I speculated that it had been picked up by a large bird of prey, either a buzzard or a red kite, which had taken it there from more open ground in order to have a more private dining experience.
I reached out with a stick to turn it over and was hit by a revolting stench of decay. ‘No, not today’, I said to myself and letting it drop to the ground again I returned to the main garden. On leaving, I pencilled a note to owner to let her know of my find, admitting that I couldn’t face dealing with a rotting deer’s head that day. It stayed in my mind, though, the sight and smell of it and the thought that it would very likely still be there on my return.
As one does, I had nurtured a glimmer of hope that the owner’s son, a healthy man of similar age to my own, might have kindly removed it, but the rotting deer’s head was still there on the lawn, reeking and slimy, still to be dealt with. Standing there looking at it, a sinking feeling settled in me as I visualised what needed to be done and that I would be the one to do it. I truly didn’t want to have to deal with that rotting deer’s head. At that point the owner appeared – she said she’d got my note and that her son had gone out to look, but ‘couldn’t see’ the deer’s head in the middle of the lawn and that’s why it was still there. She herself couldn’t be expected to deal with it; she’s over 90 and isn’t up to digging holes. As I talked to the owner I found myself becoming slightly hysterical and kept bursting out laughing, maybe at the thought of the grossness to follow.
As she was about to have lunch, I suggested that she step away while I dealt with it. I dug a hole, took a deep breath, scooped up the deer’s head on a fork (the slime had made it stick to the lawn) and, trying not to look at it, plopped it in the hole and covered it over as fast as possible. I marked the spot with a couple of canes to remind me not to plant anything there for a good while and then looked at my fork. The tines were covered in hair and slime.
Working outside, often alone, gives you time to reflect and while I was dealing with the job above I reflected on a few things. How can someone honestly say they can’t see a deer’s head in the middle of the lawn? Not even a young deer, but an adult. Not only that, but it’s on the property where they live and it’s quite close to the house; they know it’s there and yet do nothing about it. Why? I know people want to go and see their friends and that everyone is so very, very busy, but there’s a rotting deer’s head on the lawn. It stinks, it’s covered in slime, your mother can see it. It could have been dealt with at the weekend, but the wretched thing is still there.
No one wants to pick up a rotting deer’s head. I certainly didn’t, there were countless activities I’d have preferred. The thing is, something like that won’t go away on its own, at least not for a good long while, and while it’s there it will stink and the grass underneath will start to die. You’ll need to make a point of avoiding it, either by looking the other way or just not going to that part of the garden. Try not to breath too deeply when you do have go anywhere near it, either, or you might be driven to actually do something about it.
It occurred to me that the rotting deer’s head was symbolic and simply ignoring it and waiting for someone else to deal with it is characteristic of the world we live in. The rotting deer’s head on the lawn is pollution, increasing resource scarcity, lack of clean water, soil depletion, homelessness, all that is wrong with the world around us, and the popular solution is to look away and wait for someone else to sort it out. Somebody else’s problem.
Why does it have to be somebody else’s problem, though? Why is it that people don’t care about something so close to them? The road to an answer may partly lie in a quote from the American author and ecologist (amongst other things), Aldo Leopold who said in A Sand County Almanac, ‘We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect’.
Leopold wanted us to consider ourselves not as masters of the earth, but as part of its community. This is a way of perceiving the world that I have gradually come to myself and now hold close to my heart. Given enough time alone outside, working with plants and wildlife, I like to think that many people would come to see the world in the same way. As it is, most people spend their time indoors and think little of the outside world beyond looking at it through a pane of glass. From a distance, they might see bright little flowers blooming in a lawn and think nothing of eradicating them to restore the ‘green tarmac’ look, disregarding how many species are making use of those flowers for sustenance, or that flowers in a lawn don’t look so dreadful and, that when viewed with a non-dominating eye, they are extremely beautiful.
The sad conclusion I’ve come to is that unless humanity somehow persuades itself to spend more time outside than indoors then, collectively, we will never ‘see land as a community to which we belong’ and if the time should come that we do, then it will probably be too late to do anything about it. The symbolic deer’s head will lie rotting and stinking on almost every lawn, in every country, the world over.
Realising that there is a mass failure to recognise that we truly are part of a ‘land community’, I sometimes feel both rage and despair and my work seems futile, but I can no longer turn back. I recognise that community very clearly and feel that I am a steward of it, that the central part of humanity’s role should be as stewards, that we should care for our land as our community and not as a slave. One day the community we belong to might be acknowledged, but that time seems far away. Until then I can only continue what I have begun, to care as best as I can for the community of which I am part and preserve the ‘fierce green fire’ of the land.
‘A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise‘ The Land Ethic – Aldo Leopold