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Nearly wild, wildly near: author explores 'The Age of Deer'

Deer roam around a yard next to a fence.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

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“There are deer who spend their whole lives in cities,” writes Erika Howsare in her new book, “The Age of Deer” (Catapult).

In Pittsburgh, as of late November, there were 64 fewer such deer than there had been just two months earlier.

That’s because Mayor Ed Gainey’s administration joined with the U.S. Department of Agriculture on a pilot program to allow a handpicked group of bow hunters to cull deer in two city parks, Frick and Riverview. The goal was to find a new way to address a perceived overabundance of deer in the city — deer that dine on backyard gardens, risk collisions with vehicles, and themselves can starve if their numbers grow too great.

Many Pittsburgh residents oppose hunting — at least hunting within city limits — whether for the deer’s sake or for the safety of nearby humans. But the city’s pilot program seemed to go off without a hitch; it also provided venison for more than 6,000 meals for people in need.

Yet, as Howsare thoughtfully explores in “The Age of Deer” through both natural history and original reportage, such issues are neither unique to Pittsburgh nor likely to resolve themselves easily any time soon.

Howsare, who visits White Whale Bookstore to discuss her book Sat., Feb. 10, is a poet, educator and essayist fascinated with, as she puts it, “how we relate to what we call ‘nature.’”

Deer are an ideal vehicle to illustrate the issue, said Howsare. She lives in rural Virginia, where deer are as much a part of everyday life as they were in the Washington County town of Amity, where she grew up in the 1980s.

“It becomes very, very hard with deer to say they’re natural and we’re not,” she said.

Howsare’s inquiries take her into the past, where humanity’s relationship to deer runs deep, not only as food but as symbols of abundance, beauty, and death. She hangs out with scientists studying deer, hunters displaying their carcasses, a museum interpreter tanning a hide to teach American history, and a woman bottle-raising orphaned fawns.

And as she emphasizes, our contemporary deer situation in much of the U.S. is one of human creation. First we wiped out the deer, by overhunting and destroying habitat. (This took a few hundred years.) Then, a century or so ago, we started restocking them with animals from elsewhere. (Pennsylvania’s came from places like Michigan.)

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But these days, absent the predators humans wiped out, with even recreational hunting on the wane, and plenty of the human-created “edge” habitat deer prefer, deer are the largest undomesticated animal we meet on a regular basis. Beautiful and powerful. Annoying and in the way.

Dealing with deer, Howsare writes, is much like dealing with other people. And we all know how that can go.

“We need images of a stability that humans can tend to by our presence, not our absence,” she writes. “We need images of coexistence.”

Whether that means more hunting, different kinds of hunting, or something else entirely, Howsare doesn’t know.

“Personally, I’m glad I don’t have to make those decisions,” she said.

Howsare will appear at White Whale in conversation with Andy Moore, the Pittsburgh-based author of “Paw Paw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit.”

“The Age of Deer” also has a companion four-episode podcast, “If You See A Deer."

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: