Friday, January 9, 2015

Winter Deer

The garden fence will need fixing come spring. We enclosed our vegetable plot years ago, primarily to keep the dog – and later the toddling children – out of the plants growing there. The wire fencing has been sagging for a while now, between the sturdy wooden posts. But this early winter the fence has been pushed from merely drooping to downright dilapidated by regular visits from a neighborhood deer.

We first spotted her from an upstairs window at the back of the house, the week before Thanksgiving. A shape shifting in the dusk drew my eyes to the rectangle of field enclosed by that slightly sagging fence, where the doe was pacing and sniffing around the garden near the compost heap. The pumpkins that had been our Halloween jack-o-lanterns were at the top of the pile, broken into softening shards, their autumn orange fading but still bright against new snow.

I called the kids – now far beyond their toddling days – and we peered into the growing dark to watch the deer as she examined the fence, repeatedly lowering her head to sniff at its edge, then wagging her ovate tail in apparent frustration, the discarded pumpkin bits just out of her reach.

Two days later she was back, this time as light crept into the day rather than out of it. She repeated the routine of pacing, sniffing and tail wagging. After several minutes of deliberation and scouting her options, the doe gave a final tail wag, twitched her big ears, and with easy grace hopped the leaning garden gate. She stayed within the garden, munching composted pumpkin, until the dog went outside 20 minutes later.

We see deer often in the fields around our house, along with the narrow paths they trod from the field into the cover of the forest. Some seasons we are able to identify the regular cervine visitors to the old apple orchard in the field. Last fall we enjoyed daily visits from a large doe and two smaller ones who came together, always a trio, to pick at the fallen apples or stretch their necks to reach the fruit still clinging to branches. Often they were joined by a young buck who sported only a single spike.

There was an abundance of apples last year, and even after snow had covered the field, the deer came to scrape through the white in search of the frozen morsels below. On the very morning after the last day of the final hunting season, a six-point buck strode regally through the field toward the mountains, not bothering to pause for apples. We’d never seen him before and haven’t since.

This year the apples were not as plentiful, and we haven’t seen deer as often in our field. Our winter deer, the one who raids the compost heap, seems to be our only regular for this season. Often at dusk or before the morning has fully brightened to day, we’ll notice her large ears and twitching tail in the garden out back. She has become quite bold, actually, and we often find her standing just beyond the garden, gazing thoughtfully at us as we come down the driveway after school in the afternoon.

By the time we are out of the car and in the house, the deer is in the garden. She stoops to nose the pile, searching for the best scraps – carrot peels, stalks of wilted lettuce, browned apple cores, perhaps – then raises her head as she chews placidly, dark eyes rimmed in white surveying the landscape, ears turning toward every sound.

When we open the door to let the dog out, the deer is immediately alert, and with one smooth, powerful leap she is over the fence and out of the garden, her white tail waving with each high bound through the field.

She is lovely to watch, and our compost scraps seem easy picking in what must be, for a deer, a very long, hungry winter. But I know we’ll have to break our winter deer’s bad habit. I wonder, as I watch her in my garden out back, if this is the deer who ate the tops off every carrot in the small garden boxes in the side yard, and nibbled every lettuce down to the stalk there as summer faded to fall months ago. There are no fences around those boxes, and we’d never had an issue with wild vegetable thieves before last year. Perhaps it’s time to enclose those veggies, too.

Yes, the garden fence will need fixing come spring, and maybe a jolt of electricity added as well.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her Blog: Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the January 9, 2015 edition of the Littleton Record.

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