A shorter version of this story appeared in the April 1996 issue of Canadian Living magazine. This is an expanded version originally written for a herb magazine that folded before it was published.

A Deer’s Tale
A spiritual lesson in being with what is.

By Carolyn Bateman

Something or someone was eating my azaleas. They came in the dead of night, and each morning the destruction was all too evident. Soon, it wasn’t just azaleas. Crocus bulbs had been uprooted and even the leathery rhododendron leaves were being nibbled. What could it be?
    My husband and I had just moved from Toronto, Canada’s largest city, to Salt Spring Island, a picturesque, rural idyll off the country’s west coast. Through all those years of apartment living, I had dreamed of the kinds of gardens you see in magazines: Wide swaths of perennial borders filled with showy blooms; English ivy trailing over stone walls; green jewels of lawn surrounded by oceans of ground cover. The gardens that surrounded our little cottage in the woods had been given a little too much freedom in past years, but the bones were good: raised, rock-faced garden beds overflowed with rhododendrons and roses, hellebores and heathers, santolina, shasta daisies, campanula, foxgloves, anemones, bleeding hearts, and huge, shaggy poppies. Lilacs grew along one edge of the lawn, and bearded iris lined a path that was like a highway for the two families of California quail living under a huge old cedar tree.
    I spent hours pouring over books identifying it all. I was in gardener’s heaven. Except every morning, when I went out to inspect the garden, something else had been eaten.
    I asked the nurseryman about this mystery during my next trip and he broke into a grin. “New to Salt Spring, are you?” he said, already knowing the answer. He twirled the ragged azalea branch I’d brought as evidence of the latest crime. “Deer,” he said bluntly. “A deer will walk a mile for an azalea.”
    I would soon learn that deer will walk a considerable distance for just about everything I wanted to have in my new garden. I was enjoying the eccentric and seemingly random assortment of plants the previous owner had tended but had been picturing something a bit grander. How was I going to carry out my plans for garden Nirvana when, every night, a brigade of deer treated my flowerbeds as their private dining room?
    As the deer got to know us, they didn’t bother waiting until dark. They’d arrive for breakfast as we lay in bed gazing out onto the dew-tinged lawn. Slowly they would enter the yard on attenuated legs, ears alert for sounds of danger, noses twitching for the scent of their latest treat, white tails flicking saucily. Their lovely faces and soft brown eyes always made them welcome visitors. But one chomp from those powerful jaws and my precious new cranesbill geraniums, lupines and delphiniums were fodder. Old roses with thorns the size of roofing nails were a piquant salad. The tender plugs of English ivy I’d added along the stone walls a mere after-dinner digestive.
    Surely there were alternatives to fencing the one-acre property like a military compound. Hanging little bags of bloodmeal and human hair on branches would apparently keep the marauders away. Ours took no notice. Spraying plants with a water-and-egg mixture helped until the rain washed the foul-smelling concoction away. I tried draping plants with wire mesh as the previous owner had obviously done, but one night a deer must have entangled itself in the treacherous stuff; its cries of fear and distress chilled my soul. Disheartened, I withdrew from the battlefield. I vowed to let the creatures eat their fill of what remained and turned my attention to my writing. Live and let live, I thought, not without some bitterness.
    By next spring, though, I realized the garden was far from languishing from my inattention. True, the roses and azaleas were leafless, and the lilacs were sprouting buds only on the highest branches. But other plants were taking over, making the garden, without all those fussy flowers, their own: the unpretentious blooms of the furry-leafed rose campion (Lychnis coronaria) popped up along the driveway. Dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis) and foxglove (Digitalis), already present in the garden, were thriving on the compost I’d brought in for the new flowers. Hairy-leafed vines such as dead nettles (Lamium maculatum) and ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea) wove their way through the thickets.
    But the real revelation was the herbs. I had grown lavender on my sunny city balcony and some fennel in the narrow townhouse plot we’d tended for a summer. But when I realized that the huge lavender cotton (Santolina chamaecyparissus) and the gnarled rosemary (rosmarinus officinalis) growing under our bedroom window had gone untouched by the deer, I started to see the light. This wasn’t so much survival of the fittest as survival of the smelliest. I thought the aroma of herbs was divine, so it never occurred to me that deer wouldn’t like it too. However, deer have the taste buds of a preschool child: nothing with strange textures or strong smells for us, thank you very much.
    So back I went to the nursery to buy herbs. My mother-in-law gave me a shovelful each of sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata), sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum), and lungwort (Pulmonaria augustifolia). Everything thrived. Later in the summer, I noticed that my herbs were producing flowers. Not showy perhaps, but delicate and long-lasting none the less. Some I let bloom, others I cut back to encourage more growth for snipping. I would watch the deer browsing through the garden, turning up their noses at the strong-smelling herbs. They still ate the roses, the hydrangea, the periwinkle, and the fruit trees. And when they got really hungry, they’d nibble at the rhododendrons. And that was fine with me.
    Years have passed since we spent that first summer on Salt Spring Island. And since that time, I’ve done a lot of studying on the spiritual art of “being with what is.” Buddhism, Taoism and yoga have taught me a great deal, but I still consider the summer I learned about the eating habits of white-tailed deer one of my most valuable spiritual lessons.
    One evening as I was hunkered down, quietly weeding, I heard a familiar rustling a few feet away. A young doe had been browsing just beyond the garden, unaware of my presence. We both stopped what we were doing and looked at each other, and I felt some sort of understanding pass between us. “See how well humans and nature get along,” she seemed to be saying, “when you realize just who’s boss.”

Carolyn Bateman is a writer, editor and communications consultant and is still an avid herb gardener. She and her husband recently moved to a new home in Sooke, B.C., where white-tailed deer are again welcomed visitors.