Out of the gray woods steps a trio of does. They move with trepidation as they enter the the old pasture, which is just now starting to green up in the early spring sun. The big old doe leads the way, stopping every few steps to cast her black nose into the wind and twist her radar-dish ears for any sign of predators.
They have come to graze in the twilight, eating the sweet grass or early spring that was once meant for cattle and horses but is now a fine repast these final months of pregnancy. In just a few months, dappled fawns will be dropping, and the does will be stamping and blowing as the coyotes come slipping through the thickets. By then, the coyotes will have their own young with insatiable appetites for milk and regurgitated meat, and the flesh of fawns will play a major role in determining whether their pups survive until weaning or not.
But that drama is now a long way off. The best these three does can do now is eat the nutritious grass and feed the new life that stirs within them. This is the only thing they can do now to ensure some sort of good start for their babes to come.
Although they seem awfully banal to people living in West Virginia, where they menace flowerbeds, vegetable gardens, and long night drives on lonesome country roads, the white-tailed deer is actually one of the oldest hoofed mammals still in existence. Valerius Geist, a Canadian biologist and deer expert, believes the species is over 3 million years old, a sort of living fossil among a family that includes the giant moose and the diminutive muntjacs.
In those three million years, it watched as the last of the bone-crushing dogs fell to the wayside. Borophagus, a sort of bulldog-coyote of this bone-crusher lineage, was probably among its first major predators, but it was unable to compete with the first jackal-like wolves that were just starting to come on their own. That lineage of jackal-like wolves would evolve into bigger and harder running forms, Edward’s wolf was the first to menace the white-tail. The came Armbruster’s wolf, which grew heavier and more powerfully built, eventually become the dire wolf. The Pleistocene coyote, somewhat larger than the modern species, came long to eat the scraps and lift the fawns in the thickets. A plethora of big cats, including the largest species of lion and the odd wandering jaguar took deer when they could, and the saber-tooth and dirk-toothed cats did the same. Massive short-faced bears probably took the odd deer as well. Whitetail noses and radar ears were made in this world of fell beasts.
They were here to watch the first woolly mammoths come trundling down the continent along with the long-horned bison that gave rise to our buffalo. They were run of persimmon groves by mastodons, those little furry forest elephant, now lost in the long march of time. The whitetails grazed among the three-toed horses and the early forms of the modern species, and among there number were twelve species of pronghorn, a tribe that consists of only a single species of these “fake antelope,” which wanders the Western plains and deserts. The whitetail shared its meals of willow twigs with the stag-moose, a cousin to the modern species that ranged deep into North America and, like all the rest, now extinct and mostly forgotten.
When Europeans came, the whitetail lived among the modern bison and round-horned elk. They were hunted by cougars and wolves of the modern species. Indigenous took them for hides and meat and sinew, and the first Europeans used them in much the same way.
But Europeans fed a market economy. Deer hides were worth quite a bit, as were those of buffalo and elk. Venison was also good meat, and the game herds shrunk. The elk and the bison disappeared, as did the wolf and the cougar. European civilization believed it had conquered nature here and now.
But the whitetails held on. Conservation laws were enacted in the early twentieth century. Deer from other parts of the country were brought in, and the recovery began.
The deer in this new world, free of competitors and predators, found themselves in a paradise their kind had never known before. They grew fat on acorns and dropped many fawns, and in few decades, they had grown strong and numerous in their new kingdom.
So numerous that some would argue they are a pestilence. Others become beguiled by the ivory-colored rapier crowns that the bucks wear in autumn and spend long days in the autumn on a quest to hold these rapier crowns in their own hands.
When I cut into a venison backstrap steak, which I’ve pan-fried medium rare so that it is still oaky and earthy and juicy, I savor the bites. The flesh I eat is captured sunlight that beamed onto the oak trees in June, which became the acorns. The acorns fell and the deer devoured them, and this particular deer died to become the backstrap that my steak knife is cutting through.
But just as the venison is captured June light, it is also profoundly native. This is the flesh of the last surviving wild ungulate to roam these hills, a survivor from the age of the great beasts, when it was one of many things wild and free.
Though the elk may bugle again on some mountainside in Southern West Virginia, the whitetail is the one that withstood the onslaught .
The does to continue to graze in the pasture, but the wind shifts so they can catch my scent. And they bound for the timber, native beings who hold stronger title to the land than I ever could. They now escape into a paradise of oak groves and autumn olive thickets, an eden that they inherited only through the caprices of man.