The other evening I was coming home up the driveway in the car, having dropped my daughter at the train station — she was carrying a bouquet of pastel-colored flowers in a glass vase in the crook of her arm, as a gift for one of the moms who has hosted her at innumerable sleepovers in Montauk this summer — when I came upon a circle of animals convened in intense conversation by the old holly tree transplanted from Point Woods by my great-grandfather on the occasion of the birth of my Aunt Mary in 1929.
A crow, two white-tailed bunnies, and a deer of medium size were standing in a circle, facing one another, not a foot separating them, heads down and eyes locked as if discussing a conspiracy. The car tires crunched on the gravel, and the crow flew away into the spreading elm that overhangs the telephone wire, then the rabbits hopped away one by one, then the deer looked over her shoulder at me, paused, and ambled off with the slow gait and twitching tail that, as the mother of a teenager, I recognize as the pace of sassy silent defiance.
I’d give a dime to know what they were talking about.
Madame Deer participating in this strange cabal at sunset is a very familiar personage to me: She is the mom of the two adorable, Bambi-spotted does who live in my backyard. And when I say they live in my backyard, I am not exaggerating for effect. Successive generations of this family, which now numbers four, have bedded down on my small acre in the heart of the village. They used to sleep under the three-story-tall conifers that stand sentinel between me and my nearest neighbors at the west side of the property line, but in the last year I’ve noted a shift to the eastern border. Their home base is in the thick shrubbery that edges my garden of hostas and ferns — hostas and ferns being all that’s left — and shields the view of the East Hampton Library parking lot.
In daylight and in shadow, they just hang around on my front or back lawn. The does are in the backyard right now, their bandy little legs tucked under their curled bodies as they sun themselves. The dad most often makes an appearance at night, sometimes coming straight up to my front doorstep and locking eyes though the living-room windows with Sweetpea, my dog, who barks and wakes the house. He, Sir Deer, king of his castle, his home is his castle, does not budge.
Everyone complains that the deer have eaten all their flowers (and I concede that it is a boring subject), but it has only just come to my notice this last week that, no, the deer have not eaten the neighbors’ flowers. All up and down Buell Lane and Dayton Lane, my neighbors’ houses are beautifully adorned with bowers and buntings of blue hydrangeas. My neighbors’ houses positively float on waves and oceans of hydrangeas, bobbing like houseboats in a Nikko-blue sea. This house, my house, used to have a pretty row of hydrangeas out front, but it was winnowed by the deer down to one hydrangea bush, and that last one this year produced exactly one small, sad bloom, and that one bloom was, of course, consumed by the deer, so now I have a pathetic clump of stalks by the corner where my bedroom is. Literally — as the kids say, literally — the deer ate all my flowers.
Here is where we get into the darker chapter of my cute deer story. (And perhaps the animals who cohabit my yard have intuited my feelings on this matter, and that is why they have been holding meetings. Maybe they have indeed targeted my garden, as part of a campaign with intent.) I’m in the camp that believes the deer have got to go. They’ve got to go. Deer are gentle and adorable, and because they are large they capture our imaginations and our sympathy in ways smaller creatures — like sandfleas, rats, chickens (delicious!), octopuses (smart but still delicious!), or even squirrels — do not. But we need to face the fact that their appetites have unleashed an ecological extinction. They have destroyed a great deal of other animals’ habitat over the last 30 years.
I realize some experts say this isn’t so, but it is so. I remember the understory of Northwest Woods as it was before, say, 2000. So many plants and species have vanished.
And here I would like to point out that the experts also told us — when we reported a feature on how the trees and underbrush in Northwest Woods were literally (literally, kids, literally) disappearing a few years ago for EAST magazine — that the woods weren’t seriously ailing, but were simple undergoing one of nature’s harmless life cycles. Wrong. No. The woods were disappearing in 2017, and now, finally, they have largely disappeared. Not just thinned because they were clearcut for housing and not just gnawed to Hades and back by that invasive beetle, but attacked on several fronts at once: development for housing, invasive beetles, and voracious hordes of deer. I.M.H.O., you can write a letter to the editor denying the culpability of the deer, but you’d be wrong. Deer have thrown the ecosystem entirely out of whack.
Did you know that a century ago, deer were rare enough hereabouts that the appearance of one made the news? From page five of the May 15, 1908, edition of The East Hampton Star: “A full grown deer was seen to cross the East Hampton turnpike road, recently, near Whooping Boy’s Hollow.” Stop the presses!
Until this summer, the experts also had me convinced — and maybe still have you convinced — that our overpopulation of deer wasn’t necessarily responsible for the presence of so many ticks and the epidemic of tick-borne diseases. The experts said that ticks were just as likely to ride in the back of a gray mouse, opossum, vole, fox, or other creature we haven’t articulated reasons to dislike or blame. My mind has been changed by personal experience on that score, too.
When is the last time you walked the woods without fear of Lyme disease (which has had a crippling impact, including cognitive or neurological effects, on thousands of East Enders) or alpha-gal (the life-changing meat-protein allergy transmitted by lone star ticks)? When is the last time you lay down in the dunes to make out with a lover or look up at the constellations on a starry night? Or let your kids loll on the grass and roll down the hill like Jack and Jill? Or waded knee-deep in wild flowers? We have been robbed by tick disease of being in nature in many ways that have been meaningful to humankind since humans first stood on two feet and walked.
But you know what happened this summer? I started work on Share the Harvest Farm on Long Lane in April, and have been copiously sweating my way through the harvest three days a week all June and July, and never once picked up a tick. No one on the rotating staff of about 12 farmhands has picked up a tick this entire summer. Literally, no one. We wade through weeds and high grass, we crawl on our hands and knees through thickets, eight hours a day. And? Nothing. No ticks.
We know there are raccoons on the farm because they leave trails of raccoon tracks, with thumbs, that look like miniature human or gremlin prints on the reflective plastic ground cover between the rows of tomatoes, and sometimes they knock over a garbage can. We know there are rats and mice because they take buck-toothed chomps out of the radishes. There is a fox den not far from the farm stand. I’ve seen one of the foxes eating a dead rabbit, and he and I have held each other’s gaze across Elbert’s Field, where the cabbages and kale grow.
But there are no ticks on the farm. There are no ticks because there are no deer. The farm is surrounded by a fence that is 13 or 14 feet high, so high even the most skilled and graceful Olympic-champion show jumpers of the Hamptons deer world cannot leap their way in.
Maybe tick diseases are the animals’ and birds’ way of getting back. Nature’s revenge. A campaign of vengeance and resistance in reaction to the crimes humans are committing against Mother Earth. (Because, at root, all of this, obviously, is our own damn fault.) Kind of like two summers ago, when the orcas of the Atlantic began their long campaign of coordinated attacks on yachts off the coast of Spain and Portugal. I wouldn’t be surprised if next time I accidentally break up a secret meeting, Madame Deer raises one hoof in a power salute.