Whether you live in the city and make occasional forays into the suburbs, or spend all of your time in rural areas, chances are high that you have seen a deer in the last six months. Chomping softly at the grass in an open field, or darting across a highway, deer are one of America’s most ubiquitous non-domesticated mammals.  

But when was the last time you actually stopped to notice the deer? For author and naturalist Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, this question helped spark an intensive, yearlong observation of the deer families near her house in New Hampshire. Deer are by no means the first animals Thomas has observed — her lifetime commitment to the natural world is apparent in her best-selling books, The Hidden Life of Dogs and The Tribe of Tiger.

In her newest work, The Hidden Life of Deer (Harper September, 2009), Thomas examines deer’s habits and social patterns, and explores what lessons this beautiful animal might have to share. Thomas recently spoke with me about living in rural Africa as a teenager, cultivating the art of intimate observation, and the 18 hours she spent watching a sleeping wolf.

MNN: Was your process for observing the deer in your backyard similar to dogs and cats? 

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas: Well, it was somewhat similar in that the dogs and cats lived in my house, and the deer lived right outside. With the deer, I spent a lot of time in the woods watching them. Hunters’ camouflage works great — you can pretty much sit invisibly. But the best place to watch deer is in the open fields, where you can see them interact normally without being startled by you. 

There is probably more written about deer than any other animal. I found 1.2 million websites, 80 books in print, many more out of print and about 100 articles on deer. I really think they are the most studied mammals in the world, but nobody cares about their social lives. They care about the bacteria in their gut in winter, and things related to hunting them — but not what they really are or do. I wanted to just watch them and learn who they are.

Your work takes a lot of patience. Were you born with a tendency toward observation, or did you cultivate it over time? 

My most patience-building experience came while watching a wolf up in the Arctic Circle. The wolf lay down to rest, and she lay there for nine hours. Then she moved her tongue. Then she lay there for nine more hours. I watched her until she got up and left. But I wanted to observe her so much that it was a thrill to sit there for 18 hours. 

In the book, you talk about your experience going hunting with your friend. How did that experience impact your work? 

When I was in my teens, I lived with my mother who was an anthropologist and my dad who was an explorer. We lived with the Kalahari people in Africa who were hunters and gatherers. Hunting was of incredible importance to their society. A man could not get married until he proved he could hunt. When you’re out there with people like that, you start to favor hunting.

As for my experience, the other critters I’ve written about are cat and dog, which are both predatory animals. So I’d felt like I was missing something important by not experiencing the feeling of being on a hunt. Hunting is a very atavistic thing. A hunter friend once told me that every time he sees a deer, he tightens up with a thrill. And I do too. I’ve seen the same deer 100 times — but if I saw one right now, I’d get that same feeling. There’s no good reason for that — I think it’s something we’ve taken with us from our savannah past.

Your book is centered around paying attention to deer, which are all around us but tend to be ignored by humans. Why do you think our society is reluctant to observe the things close to us? 

Well, for starters it’s cold outside. Or else it’s hot. 

Growing up on a farm, we knew a lot about the woods. We didn’t always know what we were looking at, but we could find our way. People don’t do that any more. Kids are driven from one place to another with no connection to the land. And the science that is taught in schools is generally very bad. It is disconnected from what happens in real life.

True, but you also write about your grandson’s fascination with the natural world. Does watching him give you hope? 

Oh definitely. Anybody who wants to expose a kid to this kind of observation will find a willing friend. The other day [my grandson and I] found a formidable grasshopper and two baby snakes — all kinds of fascinating things!

Aside from the natural world, where do you draw your inspiration from? 

I’m impressed by people who have deep knowledge of their subject — like the Bushmen who know the area where they live [the animals, the plants and how they interconnect] in the most intimate detail. I have a friend who is about to publish a book on birds in the area. I think that’s wonderful, and she certainly knows a lot of information about what these birds do. But that doesn’t mean we know who these birds are, and why they do what they do. It’s that kind of fine, intimate knowledge that doesn’t seem to interest most people.

Why do you think that is?

People seem to have been brainwashed to think that we are so different from animals. We certainly seem different with our houses and cars. But in our social arrangements and our atavistic behaviors, we’re not so different. Our needs and feelings are the same as all animals, plants and fungus — we want to live and have offspring. People have such an inflated sense of what we are … though that’s probably the same for most animals. I imagine that an elephant thinks of the world as elephants and everything else, just the way we do.

What lesson or awareness do you hope readers ultimately take from the book?

I would hope that this book helps awaken the idea for people that everything out there is fascinating. We have to take some pains to see it, but it’s there. It isn’t about just hiking or mountaineering, though those are wonderful things. It’s not the same as really observing nature. You could follow a tree for a year (or more!) and you would see something that surprised you. There are all these fascinating lives out there — all of these animals. They aren’t just wandering around. They are planning and plotting and furthering their lives.