Cantabrian brown bear in autumn foliage

Feeding the Wild

By Paulina Jenney

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On the Table: A Series on Food and Culture

 
A deer with a broken leg nests beneath the tangle of trees in my back yard. I saw her limp around the neighborhood a few weeks ago, and I am surprised to see her again now, alive, soft fawn eyes and giant ears peeking at me from behind the leaves of the lilac bush. I roll my bike slowly backward, trying not to startle her, but it’s clear she has seen me and would have run away by now if she could. Her ribs barrel out from underneath her skin. I notice the gauntness of her hips and jaw. I set down my bike and check my watch, knowing that anything I do now will make me late to class.

I walk to the front of the house to the apple tree, remembering the first few weeks of August, every morning the slow shadow of deer moving their way across my window, eating apples that had fallen in the nighttime breeze. Every afternoon the grass cleared, apples exchanged for droppings. I would come home from school and rake the grass, then lay on my stomach and reach for the apples that had rolled inaccessible under parked cars in the street and toss them back into the yard, where the deer could comfortably graze. There was too much fruit for us humans to keep up with. Someone should eat it. The deer were here first. It’s the least I could do.

But it’s late September. I look up into the tree and see a few green fruit too high to reach. In the grass lay small piles of dried scat, one rotting apple, split open in the middle, as if a deer had begun to eat it and changed its mind, scared by a car, or a dog, or me. I pick it up anyway, because it’s all I have. I walk to the backyard and roll it to the injured deer as softly as I can. She spooks, starts, gets up, tries to run.

I’ve done the wrong thing. I’m not sure how to apologize or explain to her that my intentions are good. Before I can try, she’s limped down around the corner of the alley.

Fuzzy headed deer
Photo by Paulina Jenney.

  
Earlier this year, I lived in northern Spain, teaching English and writing about alternative agriculture in Asturias. Then the lock-down measures went into place and the government called me back to the United States, under threat of a suspended visa and the loss of health insurance. In those first few weeks of the new world, I remember how precarious our food system seemed. In Gijón, friends who were able to find onions and garlic in the emptied produce stores rejoiced. In the United States, we bought bags of beans and rice, not knowing how long we would be locked inside, or whether or not our grocery stores would continue to function after the two weeks of my mandated quarantine had passed. The world watched as farmers poured milk into their fields and meat packing plants came to a sudden halt, leaving abandoned thousands of pigs. In August, I moved to Missoula to start a master’s program in environmental studies, looking for answers about how we will feed ourselves in the world to come.

I bike to school and ask my classmates and professor: What would you do? Do I call Fish and Wildlife? Will they kill her? Will she die anyway? Should I let her? It is, of course, my fault that her leg is broken, or if not mine directly, the fault of my species. Not only have we driven the car that likely injured her, but we have planted the trees her ancestors have come down the valley to eat. We have killed off the non-mechanized predators that would ensure less competition for food. It is likely that every plant this deer has eaten, from the moment she was born, was planted by human hands. What then are our responsibilities to the wildlife that arrive at our door? To steward? To deter? To eliminate?

I benefit from the system that has ruined her. She is dying in my backyard and I am paralyzed by the weight of moral decisions, so I do nothing, hoping nature will find the best path forward: she will die on her own, or something will kill her. Some mornings I see her, each time slightly smaller, and some mornings I do not.

A few days later, the university reports a bear on campus. This isn’t unusual for western Montana in October, when bears go into intense hyperphagia, spending most of their time looking for food before hibernating for the winter. The berries in the mountains are spent by this time of year, but the city offers attractive alternatives: chicken coops, trash cans, apple trees. A few days ago, a friend posted a picture on social media of a black bear sauntering down the street in the heart of downtown. Another friend in the neighborhood up the creek posted similar pictures in excitement—her first bear sighting ever. According to Fish and Wildlife, there are 24 bears in the Missoula area, all scrounging, like the deer, the streets for food.

There is something different, however, about the deer and the bears. While the deer, completely habituated, are widely regarded as garden-eating pests, the presence of bears in the city ignites a sense of the primordial in humans, allowing us to forget, for several joyous moments, that we have chosen civilization. Seeing a bear sipping from a stream erases the highway that runs behind it. Is it the element of wild that remains, that the bears feed themselves for most of the year, relying only on our apples in the moments before winter? The fact that they could be dangerous? That we are afraid of them? That they are afraid of us?

In an effort to save the bears by keeping them out of the city and thus reducing the likelihood of an “encounter,” Great Bear Foundation enlists volunteers to glean domestic fruit from neighborhood trees. If you remove the fruit, the city becomes less sweet. Apples collected get donated to a local cidery, which each year makes a Great Bear cider and donates a portion of the profits back to the foundation. Residents who bring their own apples can trade for cider credit or are offered the opportunity to use the press to make their own. This year, the Great Bear Foundation has kept 4,500 pounds of urban fruit out of the hungry claws of Montanan bears.

We keep all the apples. We make cider. The bears get by with their lives. I think about all the apples I rolled to the deer this summer and feel guilty.

Apples
Photo by Paulina Jenney.

 
Nestled between the huge limestone mountains of northern Spain, Asturias is a region with one of the richest cider cultures in the world. In the 2019 autumn harvest, Asturian apple producers harvested over 22 million pounds of fruit, a record for a region that has been producing cider for over 2,000 years. Many of these apples go to commercial cideries, but plenty of Spaniards still produce their cider the old way, by pooling money with family and friends to buy truckloads of apples and pressing them themselves in a homebuilt llagar.

One weekend in October, a friend invited me to their family’s cider press in a small village outside of Gijón. By Spaniard tradition, the event started late in the afternoon and went well past midnight. The family patriarch weighed each bag as it was tossed into the wooden cellar the family keeps for just this purpose. Aunts, cousins, and mothers sorted through the apples, discarding those with egregious blemishes or splits down the middle. An uncle dumped buckets of apples into a masher and, with a shovel, flung the pulp into a giant wooden press. Another aunt cranked down the giant press and watched as bucket after bucket filled with juice and was siphoned into wooden barrels. The cacophony of the churning masher and the lively chatter of a close family mixed in the air with the sweet smell of apple juice. Children wove around our legs and dipped cups directly into the buckets, hoping to sneak one last sip before being cut off for the night. After two years of fermentation, the cider will be bottled and stacked neatly in the family cellar, providing each member with about 100 liters of cider, enough to last an average Asturian until the next harvest.

This year, I watched as friends pressed their own cider in small wooden buckets and drank warmed cider from big metal pots in the grass near the Clark Fork River. I had never lived in a place with apples before moving to Asturias, and I feel blessed now to be a part another community that eats them.

 

Like western Montana, the mountains in northern Spain are home to a population of Eurasian brown bears, known in the United States as grizzlies. Though it’s difficult today to imagine bears in Europe, the Oso pardo has survived there for millennia on seasonal offerings of the wild: hazelnuts, chestnuts, berries, bees, and meat. In autumn, apples comprise around 15 percent of a bear’s diet.

Still, until about 30 years ago, the Oso pardo was near extinction, due to illegal hunting and severe habitat fragmentation. In an effort to link important wilderness corridors, conservation organizations such as the Protection Fund for Wild Animals (FAPAS by its Spanish acronym) began planting fruit trees and installing beehives in the wild to provide important sustenance for bears in the fall. I love this solution for the pure service its commits to the bears. In atonement for years of deforestation, we give you sweet and abundant fruit, far from the reach of human hands.

In 2007, the greater Yellowstone grizzly population was removed from the threatened species list. Two years later, a federal judge overturned the ruling because it failed to acknowledge the rapid decline of whitebark pine trees in the mountains, whose nuts are an important source of sustenance for the grizzlies. The battle continues to rage today. Still, unlike in Spain, no organization in Montana has offered to plant more trees in the mountains to feed them. Why are our conservations tactics so different? Is it simply that the range of the Yellowstone population is ten times that of the Oso pardo, too vast to make an appreciable difference? Or is it because in the Rocky Mountain West, we hold sacred the illusion of a virgin wilderness, and we are reticent to admit that there is no stretch of rugged earth unaltered by civilization?

Both groups of bears, before they began to compete with humans for prey, ate mostly meat. Today, the small portion of their carnivorous diet that remains is satisfied by carcasses of animals left behind. In rural Spain, ranchers would leave dead livestock in the field, feeding scavengers in exchange for their cleaning services. However, in 2000, as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (commonly known as mad cow disease) raced through European herds, the EU implemented strict laws that required the immediate removal of dead carcasses on private land. Until 2017, when the ban was lifted, ranchers had to call the publicly owned company Proygrasa, which would collect the carcass and turn it to fat and bone meal. The lack of dead animals on ranchlands created a tragic shortage for species that eat only carrion, like vultures, and created a hardship for recovering species, like bears and wolves, who depend on it during certain times of the year. The work of FAPAS, now that the government permits it, is to encourage ranchers to drag their dead into the mountains.

In Helena, the same year that the Yellowstone grizzly was removed from the threatened species list, the city proposed an urban deer management plan. As part of the effort to remove deer density within city limits, police baited traps of pipe and wire with clover and apples. In the morning, they would shoot trapped deer, then donate the meat to Helena Food Share. As of May of this year, the program has provided over 30,000 pounds of meat to food-insecure Montanans. In Missoula, however, it is still illegal to kill deer within city limits, and there is no program to keep their populations in check. Is it cruel to trap the deer? Are we not baiting them regardless? And what of the meat lost, to highways and alleys and the treed tangle of backyards?

A row of wooden cider barrels sit in a cellar in Asturias, Spain. In front of the barrels, there is a wooden table for cleaning and sorting apples.
Cider-making tools in Asturias, Spain.
Photo by Paulina Jenney.

 
I walk out the back door and unlock my bike, and when I wheel it across the lawn to the street, I see the fawn again. Her face is on the ground, her eyes like ellipses, flat black dots against too-white holes. There is the shining red bowl of her rib cage, her swollen legs. I have never seen death so close and I give her a wide berth. 

“We don’t have the funding to collect dead deer,” the woman from Montana Fish and Wildlife tells me over the phone. “Well,” I say, startled, “what am I supposed to do with her then?”

“You can either put it out by the road and wait for trash collection to come,” she answers, “or take it to the landfill yourself.”

I hang up and swing myself onto my bike, crunching through the leaves in the grass, fingers biting against the cold. The garbage truck came this morning. Will she be in the yard for a week? Is the landfill really the best death we have to offer to her?

When I get home, a magpie sits inside the fawn’s hollow stomach, its beak wet, and its belly resplendent and full. I try not to startle the bird. If I have allowed the deer to feed on my apples, it is now only fair to allow the magpie to feed on what I have come to think of as my deer. In the back of my mind, the bear from this morning’s alert wanders across campus three blocks from where I’m standing, smelling this hot scatter of carrion. What will I do if the bear arrives? Allow him, too, to eat? 

I left Spain for Montana to learn about how we feed ourselves. I think about the apple tree in front of my house, the deer that grazed all summer on its offering and died on its roots. I’m learning, too, the importance of what we feed the rest of the world.

 

 

Paulina JenneyPaulina Jenney is a master’s candidate in the Environmental Studies program at the University of Montana. Her previous blog series, Notes Across the Andes, was published on Terrain.org.

Header photo of Cantabrian brown bear by Marcelo Suarez, courtesy Shutterstock.

 

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.