Thursday, February 9, 2012

Lessons from the Other Side of the Hedge

This post is going to be on tracking, life, death, and how it all works.  Many people don't like to know or see some of the images I am going to post so if you are sensitive, this would be a good time to not read this post.

In the late 1990s I had a young woman from Chicago come and stay with me for awhile so that she could learn some homesteading skills.  She was afraid that Y2K would send us all back to the dark ages and she wanted to learn how to care for herself before that happened.  She was a nice enough young lady and I had nothing much going on so I told her to stay and she could learn by doing first hand.

This time of the year rolled around and it was time to start tapping the maple trees so off we went into the sugar bush.  Now that particular year we had some pretty deep snow and then in January we had an ice rain on top of the snow.  This made a crusts over the snow that was pretty thick.  We went out in snowshoes and barely made a dent in the ice crust.  We had been tapping for a couple hours when we moved to a more upland area in the sugar bush.  As we topped the hill we came across a grizzly sight.  Seven deer lay dead, their throats ripped out, their back legs severed, but very few of them had been eaten.  The young lady wondered what horrible person could have done such a thing. 

The tracks and sign told the story though.  A pack of wolves had come across these deer that were floundering in the deep snow.  The deer's sharp hooves broke through the ice crust and made them fall into the deep snow.  It was almost impossible for them to run.  The wolves, on their other hand, had their weight spread out on their giant paws and could easily run across the ice crust.  The deer didn't stand a chance.  Their two best weapons, their sharp hooves and their speed, were useless in those conditions.  The wolves, their predatory instinct triggered, killed every struggling deer they could reach.  They had so much meat that they didn't eat much of it and so left it lay.

When I explain what had happened to the young lady she did not believe it.  She had read that wolves only kill the sick and injured and they only kill to eat.  I said for the most part this is true, a Wisconsin wolf weights between 60 and 90 pounds usually, while a deer can weigh 200 plus pounds.  No intelligent animal is going to go up against another animal that is three times its size unless that animal is injured or sick.  And they certainly are not going to waste calories killing something that they are not going to eat...normally.  But wolves are predators with a strong instinct to hunt.  The deer floundering in the snow triggered that predatory response and the wolves killed because they are wolves.

The young lady would not believe me.  To her wolves were a good and noble creature that lived only to clean up the dying of the forest.  There was no telling her that wolves are beautiful magnificent creatures, but they were still hunters.  It is only humans that label this as bad.  Nature has no such labels.  In life the wolf is a superb hunter that has adapted through the ages to survive by killing.  It is not bad because of this, it is not good because of this.  It is a wolf, nothing more.  To see it as a villain shows a lack of understanding, but to see it as a hero does the same thing.  If you are to live with nature and love it, you must love it for what it is, not for what you want it to be. 

I am reminded of this story because yesterday while out tapping trees I walked the ridge because this weird winter there is no snow on the ridges.  It makes walking much easier.  Of course, it makes it much easier for wolves to walk there too.  So, as I crossed a deer trail I came across wolf scat filled with deer hair.

There is really no mistaking that this wolf had eaten everything on this deer, including the hide.  See, this year, with little snow, the deer have the advantage and it is the wolf that is floundering.  No eating the choice cuts of meat and moving on.  Wolves, especially the young ones will starve to death this winter.  It is the nature of...well...nature.  Some years the wolves do well, some years their prey does well.  When one does well, the other one doesn't.  That's just the way it is.  The wolves this year will eat EVERY part of their kill, breaking apart the bones and eating the hides.  Even that will not be enough but the strong will go on to breed.

So a bit further on my walk and I came across the snow covered carcass of a young buck.  the large, four toed tracks told the story of how the pack wore this young, inexperienced buck down until they surrounded and killed him.  Buck deer are weak this time of year because during the rut (breeding season) they do not eat.  Hey, if you only got to have sex once a year you might not eat during that time either.  :-)  But this is just before winter sets in and often they go into the cold time of the year without enough fat stores on their body.  This young buck was probably starving and weak, giving the wolves an easy target.  However the drama unfolded, this was a wolf kill that the wolves would return to.  I detoured my tapping trail so to give them the room.

You can see the antler in the top center of the picture

When we humans decide to "get back to our roots" and live close to nature, we need to shed many of our judgement calls.  Good and bad, right and wrong, black and white all are human calls and have nothing to do with the actual real world. 

I enjoy the deer when they come into the yard at night.  They are a graceful animal that can run full tilt through a hedge and only leave a couple hairs to show they were ever there.  But for me wolves are the true test of whether you live in a wild place.  If you can't cut it living with a apex predator, you should stay in the city, living on paved sidewalks and believing that four walls keep you safe.  But if you step off that well traveled road and instead walk where there are no paths, remember, the human created fairy tales mean nothing here.  This is where reality starts.

1 comment:

  1. What a great place you must live in to be able to see all those tracks (and great that you know how to discern them) and be so close to nature.