Monday, October 11, 2010

Deer eat better than we do

There are two great ironies in my life. The first is that I don’t hunt. The second is my given name, but that’s another story for another day. Why is it ironic that I don’t hunt? One reason is that my father was advertising manager for Federal Cartridge for several years. But by the time dad joined Federal when I was in sixth or seventh grade my primary concern in life was spending as much time as humanly possible on a basketball court, especially in autumn as the basketball season approached – although I did enjoy the occasional duck or pheasant he brought home from “business” trips.

It’s ironic as well because I am in favor of hunting both as a means of gathering food and as a means of connecting to the natural world on a much deeper level. In an age when humankind is more disconnected than ever from our food chain, the immediacy of hunting your own food stands in stark relief. Yes, the animal pays the ultimate price in the transaction, but he has lived the life that he was meant to live. Our enormous disconnect from our food chain, our tendency to focus only on the price of our food, and our willful ignorance of our where our meat comes from has made possible the hideous cruelties perpetrated on livestock in order to convert them into cheap calories… and the resulting abuse of our land to produce the corn that is force-fed to animals who were never meant to eat it.

I have found, however, that if you don’t grow up hunting it’s difficult to get started later in life. That, and I’m such a complete flake that I don’t completely trust myself with a firearm. Or, for that matter, a boomerang.

When I’m not on my oaken soap box, I spend my days selling treeshelters (aka tree tubes) to tree planters who want to protect their newly planted seedlings from animal damage, as well as accelerate growth. At the risk of sounding arrogant (and yes it is possible to grow a tree "the old fashioned" way), becoming my customer is a measure of how much a person cares about the trees he or she is planting. Guess who a huge chunk of my customers are? You got it: Hunters.

Hunters also put a lot more thought into what they plant than most folks do - where it will grow well, what the resulting acorns, nuts or fruits will taste like and what time of year they will ripen and drop, when it will begin producing a food crop, etc. I mentioned recently that I had visited an Oak Utopia.  That place was Mossy Oak's Nativ Nurseries in West Point, MS.  Their greenhouse is one part of my idea of heaven (and yes that directly contradicts what I said about my given name).  These are people who can identify naturally occurring hybrid oaks* - in a region with a huge diversity of oak species.  Cripes, I live in a place with about 6 native oak species and I'm lucky if I can even tell the "pure bloods" apart.  It's amazingly cool to see a tray of seedlings grown from the acorns of a single hybrid oak, and see when they are just inches tall the full range of characteristics ranging from one parent to the other and everything in between.  It's like seeing one of Ness's or Cottam's experiments (search this blog for more info), previously relegated to grainy black and white photos from long-forgotten studies, come to life.

* Then again, perhaps I'm giving them too much credit, since I'm convinced that a huge percentage of oaks standing in the would are hybrids to one degree or another - it might actually be more challenging to identify oaks that aren't hybrids!  I do know, however, that Mossy Oak's guys have more innate tree-craft in their pinky fingers than I'll ever have, and than all of the taxonomists I have met put together.

Those of us dedicated to the idea of a permanent agriculture based on woody perennial tree/shrub crops can learn an awful lot from hunters:

Hunters plant oaks.
Hunters understand the value of and actively seek out hybrid oaks.
Hunters take the extraordinary steps required to grow a certain tree in a certain place for a certain purpose, in this age of record deer populations (there's two or three layers of irony in there if you look hard enough) and invasive weed competitors.

In 2006 comedian Jeff Foxworthy made the keynote address at the annual meeting of the Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA).  It was hilarious.  In a take-off of his famous "... you might be a redneck" routine Foxworthy lists a number of ways to know if "... you might be a quality deer manager."  One of those ways:  If your deer eat better than your family does.

A funny line to be sure, but sadly it's also a lot truer than Foxworthy even realized.  Deer who are have available to them a diet rich in acorns, chestnuts, tree fruits and perennial grasses (in addition to corn and soybeans) do in fact eat a whole lot better than most of our families do.  And the people who plant those trees, shrubs and grasses do a lot more good than simply growing big deer.

My work with tree tubes over the course of 21 years has kind of put me in the cat bird's seat overlooking the world of tree planting (with the exception of large scale conifer forestry).  It seems to me that hunters come the closest to fulfilling J. Russell Smith's vision of a food supply based largely on tree crops.

But when you think about it, that should really come as no surprise, since hunters are much more closely linked to their food chain - a food chain humans much are better evolved for and suited to as compared to the super market food chain of today.

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