Lee’s Stories

Lee’s Stories

home >> Science and Nature >> What does it take to be a deer?
posted on July 8, 2010 | Science and Nature
What does it take to be a deer?

Bucky the deer eating leaves from
a freshly felled alder tree.
Photos by Lee Gass.


Our neighbor Diane
was working in her garden one
autumn when
she heard an apple fall to the
from one of Klaus’s trees across the road.
Within seconds, she heard and then saw a deer run
to get the apple. 
She didn’t know where the deer was
when it heard it fall, but it had to have been far enough
away to surprise her, because it surprises her every
time she tells the story. 
It makes perfect sense
for deer to pay attention to things like that,
especially because they like apples
as much as we do. 

I’d do the same
if I were a deer and had
what it took. But what does it take?
How did it know an apple was falling, for
example, and know to get there fast? Kids
Sir Isaac Newton’s big idea about gravity came to
him when an apple fell while he read under a tree.
According to the story a light bulb went on in his
head when an apple fell, and after that moment
everything was different.
If the light
bulb of gravitational attraction
went on in Newton when
his apple fell,

what kind of light
goes on in a deer to connect
the sound of an apple falling some
distance away to a treat if it gets there
Do they need to understand gravity
as scientists understand it to function in the
Probably not.  After all, we obeyed
Newton’s  laws long before he came along
and so did deer.  It’s probably not
anything like that for deer
or human beings

For many kinds
of reasons, animals probably
don’t under stand gravity in anything
like the way we do,
now or ever.  Diane’s
observation definitely does show what
deer do when apples fall, though,
and invites us to think
about it.

You might think
what that deer did was just
an automatic, unthinking, knee jerk,
instinctive, response to the sound of that
kind of fruit falling. B
ut I don’t think that makes
much sense, either here in this case or in general. 
one thing, there were no fruits at all within hundreds of
kilometers that sounds anything like apples when
they fall while those deer evolved. 
Apples have
grown on Quadra Island for only a few
deer generations and only a few
more anywhere near.

It makes most
sense to me to think that
deer learn early in their lives to
attend closely to apple trees at the right
time of year, listen carefully for the sounds
of apples falling, and not waste time getting
there when they do.
They  likely learn it from
parents, and from sibs who got there first,
but inherit interest in
sweet juicy fruit
tastes and smells.
But they still
have to learn
what to do
those skills.

Even earlier
in their lives, if they were
lucky, they browsed abundant fresh
green alder leaves, late in summer when
that salad is out of reach, and remembered
that too.
What they inherit is how their eyes,
ears, and noses sense things, how their
brains work, and how fast they can
Maybe deer have to learn
every year about apples,
but it doesn’t seem
likely to me.

You remember as well as I do
how good good apples are,
and you can imagine
hearing apples
When you do
that, you’ll “hear”
the size and firmness
of the fruits, and it might
surprise you to realize how
much you “hear” of the quality
of the many kinds of surfaces they
land on.  That’s just you, right now,
on your first try, imagining hearing
this event, whether or not you’ve ever
heard it before.
And you’re not even
a deer! Imagine imagining it
if you were a deer. I’m
serious here.

invest an imaginary
deer with whatever sensory
and memorial powers you imagine
deer to possess and place it in a certain
place with respect to Lu’s garden, over across
the valley, beyond Diane and Tom’s place, down
by the waterfall with soft, warm afternoon air
flowing over its shoulder, past Klaus’ apple trees
with their hard green useless summertime
apples, through Diane’s garden and over
to Lu’s kale. (The deer can’t smell
the kale). What do you


You may not
know that tree of Klaus’s
has very good apples, but I’ll bet
all the deer in the area know it.
I’ll bet they
learn these things once, early in their lives, and
reap the benefit as long as they live.
The longer
I study the behaviour of wild animals and the
more I think about what they actually can
do, just in the process of living their
lives, the less useful is the
whole idea of

Nearly everywhere
anyone has looked closely enough,
there is an abundance of strong, rich, clear
evidence of learning and remembering in a very
wide range of species, including insects and
More impressive is putting two and two together to
apply that knowledge, surprisingly intelligently,
to practical problems in their everyday
We saw it all the time
in hummingbirds. 

Here’s another
Deer love roses.
They also love kale, peas, straw-
berries, blueberries, and everything
we grow in our garden to eat.
why we have a deer-proof fence
with good gates. 

The story that follows
unfolds in this photo of the western end
of our 60 x 90 foot garden.

deer5534The centre point of
the action and the focus of the
deer’s attention in what follows, which
was Lu’s kale, was almost exactly where the
Eternal Flame was, years later in this
image taken facing west.

warm day
last summer, Lu
and I were working in
the garden when a young
buck came out of the upper right
corner of the photo.
He moved slowly
and carefully to near that corner of the
fence, where there is no gate, then
snuck slowly east along the
south fence line, toward
the left in the photo.

I had never
seen deer move like
that, so I hope you’ll forgive
me for suggesting he snuck, but I
think he did.
I also think terri-
hummingbirds sneak,
that’s another story.

When he rounded
the southeast corner, he
snuck north along the east fence.
Then, more and more carefully and
as if on tiptoes, snuck back into the
photo again along the near fence, more and
more slo-mo as he approached the gate,
which we had left latched open.

I had watched
the whole thing.  I knew he
snuck because he had something to
sneak about and knew he would never
check that gate that way in the daytime.
If we’re not there, they just stride right
up and check it.  I was interested to
see what would happen
he reached the gate.

One careful
step at a time, slower
than you can imagine deer
move, he entered the garden with
his eyes glued to the kale, only 4 or 5
body lengths inside the gate.
In the photo,
the kale would have been in the upper left
triangle of the gate that year and I was
only a little farther away and when
he was halfway to the kale
I said, in a loud voice,

“Now just a minute there,
Buster! That is our kale, this
is our garden, you’re not invited,
and you can just turn right
around and walk back
out again!

He stopped, looked
deeply into my eyes, apparently
contemplating what I had just told him,
and continued his slow approach to the kale.
stepped closer. 
He stopped, didn’t look at me, then
continued, so I came even closer and repeated my verbal
for him to leave. Each time I spoke he stopped,
then continued and I was no more than a couple of body
lengths from him when he finally stopped, looked
at me for a long time, then turned slowly and
sauntered as slowly and arrogantly as a
teenaged boy back to but not
really beyond the gate.

He turned
around again and
watched while I closed and
latched the gate, almost in his face.
Never once did he lose his cool, even
as he dissolved slowly from our
awareness and disappeared
back into nature.

There’s a lot
at stake in this anecdote,
even without the poetic license I took
in telling it to you.
Being attracted to kale
and roses is easy to understand. Deer have noses
and keen sense of smell and I have no doubt that a
garden like ours is an olfactory beacon for
not only as a whole garden (ours is different
than Diane’s),
but as each and every
one of the dozens of distinct
smells it emanates.

Deer also
know where our
garden is, know what Lu
grows, know exactly where
and how ready to eat each is,
and whatever else they know
about it,
even if they’ve never,
even once in their lives,
stepped inside it.

of deer in gardens,
deer definitely know what
gates are for.  We see them inspect
both garden gates, and piles of poop
confirm that they hang around the gates
a lot.  Pity the poor
garden if anyone
leaves a gate open! No pity for
the one who left it open.

I see no
real alternative than
to think deer learn this stuff,
as individuals, whether by paying
attention to other deer or by just
paying attention. 
another example.

We heard about a
well-fenced garden not too
far from here that began to suffer
serious nightly deer damage, but with
no visible evidence of how deer got in or
Then they discovered that the deer had
been crawling under a 10 x 20 foot shed, through
a long, low, narrow passage too small for a human
head or shoulders to fit
and with a 90 degree corner
in the middle!
To get to the garden, the deer had to
scoot through the dirt in a direction that did not
lead toward the garden. If deer were the
simple, instinctual creatures we may
like to believe in, this would be
harder to imagine.


consider Bucky,
this story’s real hero
and the subject of the images.
(Lu called him Bucky with 3 year old
granddaughter Willa and the name stuck.)


If I fell
an alder tree this time
of year, deer will be eating its
leaves a few minutes after the tree
hits the ground.
Maybe they start coming
when they hear the chainsaw. Maybe they wait
for the crash.  But however they know to do it,
it takes them no time at all to arrive.
with alders, though.  Hemlocks and firs
falling don’t interest them at
all and they don’t come.

More times
than I can remember I’ve
bucked a freshly-felled alder into
firewood starting at the butt while one,
two, or maybe even three deer munched
leaves from the other end of that
same tree,
paying no mind
to my logging.

Recently I
took down a whole small
grove of alders that were doing
poorly in the shade of large conifer
trees nearby and the dryness of the soil,
maybe 30 small trees in all. Bucky, another
male, and 2 young does worked shoulder
to shoulder with me for a couple of
days, usually only one or
at a time.

They weren’t
at all bothered by the chain
saw, and were less skittish while
I worked than while I didn’t, presumably
because my action was more predictable
and less likely to surprise them then.
often allowed me to approach within a few
body lengths, usually continuing to munch
even as I dragged tops and branches
and threw them into piles
for chipping.

Only rarely did
anything I did alarm them, even
during chipping.  If you’ve ever heard
a wood chipper chip, you’ll recall its very loud
noise that comes in fits and starts. 
None of that
kerfuffle mattered a whit to any of the four of
them.  Just alder leaves.
They took more
breaks than I, but kept at it til every
last alder leaf they could
reach was gone.

When I took
the top picture, Bucky
was swallowing about one alder
leaf every 3 seconds. Paying attention
to me must have slowed him down some,
he did take breaks.  But even so, that’s a lot of
alder leaves in the 2 or 3 days before the mess
was cleaned up.
It’s also a lot of nutrition
from food that is normally out
of reach. And a lot of
deer poop. 

Something similar took
place as I picked salmonberries
for ice cream a few days later, pruning
as I went and leaving the prunings in piles.
Bucky and his friends stayed right on my tail,
and by morning when I dragged the left-
overs to the burn pile (salmonberry is
difficult to chip), they had
eaten the leaves.

How much
learning does it take
to be a wild animal? How much
of what kinds of intelligence? 
For about
40 years, they paid me to wonder about things
like that and I don’t seem able to help it.
I still do,
especially while I do other things like living here
on this land, helping Lu in the garden, bringing
in firewood, carving rocks for a living, and
wondering how people learn things too. 

These stories
relate in several ways to
animal stories in
Jorstad’s for Breakfast,
including that I talk to wild animals.  I don’t
expect them to understand my language,
but want my speaking to be part of
what they experience of me.

Other stories
describe challenges of growing
up wild in a wild world. What a Relief!,
On the Diaper-changing Behaviour of Robins,
The Wind Hoverer, A Small Matter of Maternity,
and The Deep Meaning of Creativity all address
that issue, but with reference to different species.
In  particular, one of the stories in
Jorstad’s for
is about a deer who failed to obey
Newton’s Laws and paid for it with its life.
All of my stories about Teaching &
Learning address it for
human beings.

My wondering about
the inner lives of animals relates
to Antonio Damasio’s wondering about
human consciousness in
The Feeling of What
. On another level, it also relates to Eugene
Gendlin’s wondering about how humans benefit
from therapeutic relationships in Focusing,
and to the core of the many challenges
Teaching & Learning.

My ‘Even bacteria!’
exclamation above refers to

An Exercise in Thinking, Writing, and Rewriting,
where students confronted the likelihood
that bacteria remember things.

Since I
published an early version
of this in 2010, we’ve stopped having
burn piles.  Anything I can’t buck for firewood
or chip for the garden we can either compost it, even
salmonberry now, or drag it to low places on the
property, break into small enough pieces to touch the
ground, and let it rot.  It’s amazing how fast they go
away in this climate.  The organic material is
still there, still flammable but moist, and
it burns slower, cooler, and less
dangerously than if we left
it above the ground.

Here are the
three best things about this
way of doing things.  I’ll tell you
the least important of them first.  It’s
better exercise than the burn pile method,
and more fun and also more time-consuming
too.  Even better, we no longer emit incompletely
combusted noxious gases and particulate matter
into the atmosphere just to be rid of what grew
here, AND its carbon is still here, decomposing
slowly, releasing slowly while its carbon
and other nutrients nourish the
rich soil life of the rainforest.

Then it enters Lu’s
main compost

First published in the Vancouver Observer.

Edited February 2021

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