Crazy River Umwelt Series: Part II

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Hovey Brock: Frost Valley, 2019, 36” x 48”, acrylic on panel

A central theme in my Crazy River project has been highlighting the emotional toll of the climate crisis by putting under a microscope, so to speak, my own feelings about not only the impacts of the crisis but the knowledge that humans’ actions are the cause. This series of three on-line essays, thought experiments if you like, expands that project to change the POV to non-human actors that are inextricably bound with the habitat in the Western Catskills: the black-legged or deer tick (Ixodes scapularis), the white-tail deer (Odocoileus virginianus), and Japanese knotweed (Reynoutria japonica). All three have seen their habitat change dramatically through climate change and human interventions. Using my imagination and research, I try to enter the umwelt of all three species, an impossible task, as Thomas Nagel pointed out in “What Is It LIke to Be a Bat,” for which artistic license may give us the best chance to accomplish. My intentions in doing so fall along three axes: theoretical, aesthetic, and spiritual, dimensions all essential to my own art practice. What follows is a look at the umwelt of white-tailed deer from the perspective of aesthetics.

White-Tail Deer

In What is Art? Tolstoy rejects the prevailing aesthetics of his time that relied on pleasure as the arbiter of quality, and he makes provocative value judgments to upend what he saw as centuries of wrong-headed thinking about art’s true purpose. For Tolstoy, good art conveys human emotions in a straightforward manner comprehensible to people from all walks of life. Tolstoy was pleading for an art that created a sense of community based on an empathetic connection between the artist and their audience. I agree that the best art does create a shared space, a community, but I would like to extend the idea of community beyond the human to the other creatures that cohabit our planet. I choose the white-tailed deer here because the task of empathy becomes a little easier since, as mammals with related brain structures and chemistry, their affective lives come very close to our own basic emotions.

White-tailed deer brain specimen, courtesy of National Science Foundation

As I explained in Part I, the “Crazy River” Umwelt series shifts the POV from the human to the non-human perspective. It considers the umwelts of three so-called “nuisance” species–the black-legged tick, the white-tailed deer, and Japanese knotweed, which have had an outsized impact on the Crazy River habitat of Frost Valley located in the Catskill Park wilderness. I aim to re-contextualize our responses to these species not within the web of meaning humans construct for themselves but in the worlds each species creates for themselves. It is an impossible task taken literally, but worth considering as a way to expand our grasp of the impacts of climate change on the biomes across the world.

Ethologists widely acknowledge that so-called higher-level vertebrates such as birds and mammals are sentient beings endowed with feelings that guide their actions. The controversy lies in how closely those feelings map onto our own. Almost any pet owner would say that their cat, dog, or parrot experiences recognizable emotions such as affection, fear, anger, and curiosity that create a cross-species bond that stems from shared living space and activities. What about wild animals? The difficulty here is that wild animals and humans have little in the way of direct contact, unlike pets, and most of that contact falls between hostility and indifference, which leaves little room for shared experiences. Can we empathize with them nevertheless? Taking the case of the white-tailed deer, we have to examine its umwelt to see whether that is even possible.

A prey species, the white-tailed deer live in a state of constant high alert using their keen senses of hearing and smell to keep track of their surroundings, running off at the sign of any threat. They are among the fastest deer on the planet, reaching speeds of 45 mph, jumping as high as 9 feet and as long as 30 feet. With climate change and the eradication of their natural predators, they have expanded their habitat far beyond what the Europeans found when they came to the New World. White-tailed deer are ruminants notorious for eating just about any plants that come their way. Due to their numbers their eating preferences have had huge impacts on the makeup of forests over the decades.

Hovey Brock: Leaves of Grass, 2020, 14” x 20”, watercolor on paper

Mating season takes place in the fall when the does come into estrus, releasing scents that attract the bucks. Bucks also leave signals through markings rubbed onto tree bark alerting other bucks and does of their presence in an area. White-tailed deer are a tournament species meaning males vie with each other to impregnate as many does as possible within a given territory, often exhausting themselves as they forgo foraging in favor of pursuing females. The species is dimorphic, with the males more muscled and larger than the females.

White-tailed buck chasing doe during mating season, courtesy of Illinois Department of Natural Resources, photo by Chris Young

After the fall mating season, pregnant does do their best to survive the winter to give birth to one to three fauns in the spring that they suckle and protect until the young can make it on their own. Doe and faun develop bonds through the nursing and weaning process that can last as long as two years in the case of the female faun. When the fauns are too young to flee, the mothers will attempt to ward off predators with their hooves and heads. During the summer, their social structure tends toward solitary units of does and fauns, although females will gather in larger groups to browse together. Grown males stay separated by swaths of territory each one controls. Females and males communicate with loud wheezing noises that signal danger, while males grunt to signifying aggression. Both sexes use the visual cues of their waving white tails as they bound away to warn off other deer.

So, what is it like to be a white-tailed deer? Intra-species communication is overwhelmingly dominated by scents produced through the many scent glands located all over their bodies. They are in a state of constant anxiety, occasionally spiking into panic when overwhelmed by the perception of danger, invoking an immediate flight response. Lives are generally solitary except when a doe is raising her fauns. They will experiment with browsing on almost any plant, except for a handful of invasives, such as Japanese knotweed, which they avoid. The mating season presents a range of cues around mating and aggression that include not only scents, but body language and markings. It is not difficult to see parallels between what humans experience emotionally in their social settings and what deer face in their world.

Compared to ticks, much less plants, empathizing with the lives of deer does not seem such a stretch after all, given the many emotional touch points: courtship, mother/child bonding, anxiety, fear, rage, curiosity. At an intuitive level, we can grasp what it is like to be a white-tailed deer even when we don’t share experiences the way we do with pets. What we have when humans encounter white-taled deer are two very successful and highly adaptable mammals who are in competition for space and resources, hence the “nuisance” label for deer. Yet humans created the conditions that turned white-tailed deer into a “nuisance” species. Following in Tolstoy’s footsteps, artists such as myself wrestling with climate change have a moral imperative to underline the similarities between humans and the rest of the creatures on the planet, white-tailed deer being an easy case, to understand the habitats we share as communities in the broadest sense.

About the Writer: Hovey Brock is a writer, art critic, and painter who divides his time between Claryville, NY and Brooklyn, NY. His Crazy River series has been in the works since 2017