Back when I was a boy, despite the fact that my father wasn’t a deer hunter, I’d always know when it was deer season. Even though we lived in a town where the largest industry was commercial fishing, a fair number of people were either duck or deer hunters (sometimes both). Thus every deer season, cars could occasionally be seen driving down the main street of the town in which we lived with a recently shot buck or doe tied securely across the hood, roof, or trunk; cars that in some cases were headed toward the grocery store where my uncle worked as the butcher, and where he would neatly and quickly transform one large animal into several dozen small, white paper-wrapped parcels ready to be put into a freezer.

If my father and I happened to be in the parking lot outside the market when such a car pulled in, we would make sure congratulate the fellow who emerged from it, still dressed in his red-and-black plaid wool Mackinaw jacket, brown tin cloth pants, and heavy old leather boots, on his successful hunt. While he and my dad talked, I’d often sneak a peak into the car to see what type of rifle the fellow had. More often than not, it was laying across the back seat and was almost as old as the hunter who owned it (why buy a new one when the one you had still worked just fine?). No one we knew would have found any of this odd; it was just one of the many facets of ordinary life in our little town – just as it was in little towns all across the country. All this, of course, was prior to the rise of the “Deer Industrial Complex.”

The Deer Industrial Complex is a phrase I very much wish I had coined myself to describe the bewildering array of businesses and government agencies that now surround the lives of deer in the United States. From their health, well-being, and geographic management, to the ways in which they are hunted, to the production and sale of the myriad items of equipment used to hunt – as well as sometimes also simply to watch – them, the Deer Industrial Complex in one way or another affects every single person in the country. The ironic thing is just how few of all those whose lives are touched by it know that it even exists.

Al Cambronne, the author to whom I must humbly bow for his creation of such a perfectly descriptive phrase, knows it exists. In fact, he likely knows better than most people, even those who hold positions of responsibility within one of the private or public entities of which it is composed, just how large it is and how far its effects reach. It is a knowledge that he has cultivated through extensive research and published in his fascinating book Deerland: America’s Hunt for Ecological Balance and the Essence of Wildness.

Regardless of whether you are a deer hunter, an anti-hunter, a naturalist, conservationist, environmentalist, some mix of more than one of these, or think yourself merely a disinterested bystander, if you have any interest at all about the state of nature, agriculture, public lands, real estate, public health, manufacturing, retail sales, or even the financial markets in the United States, Deerland should be considered as a “must read.” Never before in the known history of the land now encompassed by the boundaries of the U.S. have there been so many White-tailed Deer (the most common of all the North American deer species and the one around which Deerland was written) roaming across the land; quite an ironic thing to state considering that little more than a century ago there were well-founded concerns that the species would become extinct. Their present numbers are directly the result of for and by whom, and how they are understood, valued, and managed. Without a wide-spread understanding among the general public of the host of ways these things take place, no substantive societal discussion of how they should be done in the future can take place, leaving the subject vulnerable to uninformed and absurdly jingoistic sloganeering; something to which no serious matter of public interest, particularly one with such wide-reaching effects, should be allowed to descend.

As Mr. Cambronne so clearly explains (in a manner that is both wonderfully familiar while at the same time confidently authoritative), how many deer there are in the U.S., where they live, how they are managed, what proportion of them will annually meet their earlier-than-natural demise, and what manufactured items will be used in regard to all of these questions are things that either directly or indirectly affect everyone from the farmer in the seat of a tractor to the insurance executive seated behind a desk in a downtown office tower.

Interweaving a wealth of information about the biology, life, and natural histories of his subject with the results of his investigations, derived both from library research and good, old-fashioned, get-your-hands-dirty journalistic explorations, into some of the various areas of life in modern America that are touched by one or more facets of the Deer Industrial Complex, Deerland describes paradigms and illuminates relationships between the deer, the land, and ourselves that often go largely unconsidered by many and that are at times utterly astonishing (even to a former long-time insider of one of the core industries in the Complex such as this reviewer). As a result, by the end of the book, the reader will have been not simply made aware of many of the significant practices, challenges, and aspects of contemporary life that are in one way or another influenced by the presence of deer in large numbers all across the country, but will have been provided with a wealth of valuable information about which to think and with which to build for him or herself more well-informed and nuanced understandings of the host of societal, political, scientific, and cultural issues in which deer as well as those entities involved in the complex that has risen up around them play a role.

At times funny, often eye-opening, occasionally nauseating (let’s just say that after the section discussing the annual national sales of deer urine – yes, deer urine – that you’ll likely never look at an Olympic-sized swimming pool quite the same way again), once or twice challenging and to some perhaps even controversial, and commendably interesting from the first page to the last, Deerland is a book that should at the very least be read by all those whose lives its subject touches.

deerland_final_cvrTitle: Deerland: America’s Hunt for Ecological Balance and the Essence of Wildness

Author: Al Cambronne

Publisher: Globe Pequot Press

Imprint: Lyons Press

ISBN: 9780762780273

Format: Paperback

Published: April 2013

In accordance with Federal Trade Commission 16 CFR Part 255, it is disclosed that the copy of the book read in order to produce this review was provided gratis to the reviewer by the publisher.