IT IS THE CHRISTMAS season, a time for feasting and reflection; time to speak of food, and food for thought.
Rick Wilson of Hagerstown thinks of a million meals for the hungry that go to rot each year in Maryland fields and woods -- scarcely an afterthought in a nation so surfeited that excess nutrients clog our arteries with fat and our waterways with algae.
Each year now, about 10,000 deer are shot in Maryland just to control the damage their burgeoning population wreaks on farmers' crops.
About half of these are left lying where they die. Each of those 5,000 wasted deer represents, on average, 50 pounds of highly nutritious meat, about 200 quarter-pound portions at a soup kitchen, says Wilson.
Hunters and Farmers Feeding the Hungry, the fledgling,
nonprofit, statewide program Wilson runs from Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hagerstown, can have a deer processed and delivered to a food bank for $35 -- 70 cents a pound, 17.5 cents a meal. The group joined forces yesterday with the Department of Natural Resources, the Maryland Food Bank and Baltimore's Bethel AME Church to serve venison at Bethel's soup kitchen.
Using a 15-county network of inspected butcher shops, the program is up to about 600 deer in this, its second year.
The only bottleneck to expansion is money -- donations to pay for processing are desperately needed, Wilson says, as the program is running about $7,000 in the red. For $175,000 a year, the program could easily deliver 5,000 deer, a million meals.
If the money can be found, the deer are available. In addition to the thousands currently shot under crop-damage permits issued farmers, sport hunters took some 16,000 on opening day alone this fall.
Surveys show many hunters would like to take more and, theoretically, one who exploited all of Maryland's seasons could harvest 36 deer a year, Wilson says.
But without places to donate it, who has the freezer space, or the need for so much meat?
The phenomenon of Maryland's -- and much of the nation's -- excessive growth of white-tailed deer is a symptom of more fundamental shifts in the circuitry of the planet, shifts whose repercussions we are just beginning to comprehend.
Think of it in terms of energy, which is both the source and limit of all the world's activities.
Naturally and historically, energy mostly flowed through longer, slower circuits: from the sun to green plants, to grazers to predators and so on, up through a food chain, or web.
At each level, some energy is lost as it is transformed from sunlight to oak tree, acorn to squirrel, squirrel to bobcat.
That is why there have always been fewer deer than plants in the forest in which they browse, and even fewer deer-eating wolves -- and why creatures never evolved fierce enough to make a living eating wolves.
The energy of the planet simply wouldn't support such a level -- "dragons" that could hunt wolves and tigers and great white sharks.
Of course, there is a creature, lately come in the scheme of evolution, that hunts such game, nearly to extinction.
It is us; and we are all too well acquainted with how humankind has short-circuited the leisurely old energy paths, glomming onto buried stores of fossil fuels and uranium, allowing growth and consumption, and a pollution binge outside all previous limits.
We are less accustomed to looking at food -- and the fertilizer that grows it -- as an equally potent form of energy that has been unloosed by modern technology.
The eruption of deer in recent decades, for example, is a testament to many things, from wildlife conservation to the incredible adaptability of the white-tailed species.
But key to supporting numbers of deer that now rival their pre-Columbian populations is a modern agriculture more productive and abundant than any the world has ever seen.
This in turn is based on industrial technology that can extract hitherto scarce nitrogen fertilizer directly from the atmosphere (which is a limitless source, since the air around us is nearly 80 percent nitrogen).
Thus tapping the air's "energy" to grow more food is all that has enabled us to add the last couple or so billion to the global population of 6 billion.
This abundant nutrition is a primary reason white-tailed deer in Maryland, which used to have single fawns, now routinely have twins and even triplets.
The same excess of nutritional energy is at the root of explosions in populations of snow geese, to the point where they are destroying their own nesting grounds on the fragile arctic tundra.
And just the residues, the leakage, of agricultural fertilizers and manures into waterways provide enough energy to grow algae in quantities that are degrading waters from the Gulf of Mexico to Chesapeake Bay.
"The fat of the land," with which Pharaoh inveigled the Israelites into moving to Egypt (and bondage), was for most of human time a seasonal occurrence, a flush of spring growth and fall harvest, or geared to Nile River floods.
But these days the phrase is almost a mockery. The land is overfatted, leaking polluting nutrients year-round, even as we Americans strive to de-fat our milk and butter and cheese, and flock to exercise clubs to burn off excess calories.
Meanwhile, it is well to remember that hunger still exists, even amid this hyper--plen-i-tu-di-nous landscape.
Hunters and Farmers Feeding the Hungry seems to be a win-win solution to at least part of the problem, with huge potential for turning excess deer into a million meals for those who most need to share in the land's fat.
For more information about the program, call Wilson at 301-582-4506, or visit its Web site, www.hfth.org; or donate directly to Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church, 216 North Cleveland Ave., Hagerstown 21740.
Pub Date: 12/18/98