It is the beginning of January and I find myself pushing through scrub oak in the Middle Moors, dog in tow, eyes wandering over the dull brown winter landscape, searching for the prize. You might have seen the thing I am searching for, adorning dashboards across the island, like some sort of mythical totem.
They are called sheds. Year after year male white-tailed deer shed their antlers. It happens after the fall rut when male deer have low levels of testosterone. Dropping the antlers helps them conserve energy and survive the harsh winter.
“There is a collector’s frenzy feel to it. If you are a collector, you get really obsessed with it. But there is a Zen feeling to it as well where I’m going out and it’s very meditative and very calming for me to walk around and if I get a treasure at the end of the day it’s even better,” Cormac Collier said.
Collier is president and CEO of the Nantucket Conservation Foundation and an avid shed hunter. After a friend showed him one in 2007, it sparked his obsession. He found his first in the Middle Moors. After that he was hooked.
He is part of a much larger community on the island, one which can be a bit secretive at times and certainly competitive. Most people on-island who hunt for sheds are also deer hunters. Collier falls in the minority.
“There is a little bit of envy, but it’s always fun. You end up at Cisco having a beer and you are showing your buddy what you found,” he said.
Once deer hunting season is over, shed season begins. From late December to March people scour the island in search of a small connection to an animal, which at this point seems more like a neighbor than wild beast.
The hunt can seem random. With 27,000 acres of land and somewhere around 3,000 deer on the island, how can it not be? To the devoted and skilled shed hunters, there is a methodology to it. In part it’s about reading the land, looking for rubbings at the bases of trees, for food sources like acorns and of course scat. While the last part doesn’t seem so glamorous, the allure is unplugging and wandering off trail.
As I follow deer trails, I see all those signs. With every rubbing at the base of a tree I am certain a shed will be just around the bend, sitting in a pale, green bed of reindeer moss. I quickly learned that dead branches, void of bark and bleached by the sun, have an uncanny similarity to antlers. An hour and a half later, I am suddenly not as optimistic, although my dog hasn’t lost her exuberance in the hunt.
There is a sense of urgency to it. Not only are you competing with other shed hunters, but the ones that aren’t found this season end up as food for rodents. The antlers serve as a high source of calcium.
I am lucky this time out. As I stare out across the moors, thinking about a nice cold pint, I decide to make my way down to one last stand of scrub oak.
There it is, sitting in the tall grass like it was waiting for me. It was a four-point shed and while it has no monetary value, it sure felt like treasure. The walk back to the car seemed to take no time at all. My dog followed behind, trying to snatch the antler from me every chance she had.
The next four times I went out I didn’t find any sheds. In fact, as I write this in March, I still haven’t found any others. Which seems to be par for the course. Bits of old farm equipment rusted out and covered in bittersweet. An old El Camino in the middle of a swamp waiting for a driver who will probably never return. The deer that got away. Those things frozen in time are what you come across more often than a shed.
Why do we collect things that are of no monetary value? It is a question worth pondering. For me, the trick is finding that moment of Zen between it all.
The walks where I come home empty are just as important as the ones in which I return home with an antler. Hiding away in nature for a couple hours, escaping the constant bombardment of technology, helps cut through the noise of the present. The world is quickly changing and these moments, searching for sheds, make it seem possible to hit the pause button, if only for a few hours.
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