Racks
  
Racks
A Natural History of Antlers and the Animals That Wear Them
Published:
5/31/2014
Format:
E-Book (available as PDF files) What's This
ISBN:
978-1-46894-783-0
This 20th Anniversary Edition of David Petersen's 1991 natural-history cult classic features new cover art by landscape master Thomas Aquinas Daly; original interior art by America's leading woodcut artist, Michael McCurdy; a foreword by world-renowned deer and antler expert Valerius Geist; and updates and revisions throughout. Well-researched chapters cover the antlers, evolution, natural histories, and social lives of each of North America's five deer species (white-tailed and mule deer, elk, moose, and caribou), as well as the extinct 'Irish elk,' which carried antlers as wide as an SUV is long. Throughout, Petersen's science is woven seamlessly into the author's personal-narrative natural history, taking readers beyond mere facts and figures and into the field for personal encounters with antlers and the animals that wear them. Also included are a bibliography, deer taxonomy chart, and a fascinating interview with antler expert Valerius Geist. "Whether you're a hunter, biologist, wildlife photographer or just a casual observer of nature, Racks is must reading if you're interested in the phenomena of antler growth and development." -- Gary Wolfe (former CEO Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation) "When field observations are as well described as David Petersen's are in Racks, they open up new insights even to scientists." -- Dr. Valerius Geist (from his foreword to Racks).
Back in the 1970s, having survived six years flying helicopters for the Marines and consequently seeking employment with little responsibility while I attended college at night, I went to work for a small national-circulation motorcycle magazine based in southern California. “Was it Easy Riders?” Grinning people often ask me that question when they hear this tidbit of ancient personal history, recalling that rag’s racy cover photos of well-endowed, scantily-clad young ladies draped across equally artful custom motorcycles. No, afraid not, although as a young single man with healthy appetites, there were aspects of working for that seedy, fun-loving publication I likely would have enjoyed. In fact, my magazine was called Road Rider, and its readers tended toward middle age and conservatism. We were a road-test publication, provided with a constant stream of prototypes of forthcoming models from Honda, Yamaha, Harley-Davidson and other manufacturers. Magazine policy required that we put at least 3,000 honest miles on each machine before writing a story that was part travel adventure and part low-tech performance evaluation. Did the machine start and stop as requested by the operator? How did the seat feel after eight hours of hard riding? Consequently, my most enjoyable duty there -- because it allowed me to get out of my windowless office and travel anywhere I chose at the magazine’s expense -- was riding to and reporting on some of the dozens of cycle rallies held throughout North America each summer. In pursuit of this happy chore, one September morning in 1978, my hot new girlfriend Caroline (we’ve now been together more than 30 years and she’s still hot) and I were riding the return leg of a mad-dash roundabout to Vancouver, British Columbia via Tijuana, Mexico. Somewhere south of Big Sur and north of San Simeon, in the general vicinity of the sprawling, verdant Hearst estate, where the terrain seaward of the highway tumbles in crumbling vertical cliffs down to a rocky coast and the grasslands to the east roll gently off toward distant timbered hills, three large animals tentatively approached the road. Knowing nothing much about elk beyond the fact that they were really big deer, I was surprised and delighted though perhaps not amazed to see a bull, a cow and a leggy calf traveling together. “A family,” was Caroline’s innocent comment at the time, nor did I know any better. As our humming Yamaha, a 1300-cc road monster big as a Harley but a whole lot quieter, narrowed the distance between the animals and us, the bull, with six long tines sprouting from each trunk-like main antler beam, glided over the five-foot barbed-wire fence paralleling the highway and trotted across the two-lane a scant few yards ahead of us. There was no other traffic in sight (try that today anywhere in California!) so I braked to a stop and killed the engine, right there in the middle of Highway 1. Now the cow also leapt the fence, but hesitated to cross the roadway, waiting with obvious anxiety for her deer-sized calf to follow. But the fence was rather more of an obstacle to the calf than it had been for the adults. Growing frantic (no doubt abetted by our threatening proximity), the calf minced back and forth along the fence line, as if looking for an opening through which to slip or a low spot over which to leap. Finding neither, the youngster finally bucked up its courage and made the jump, clearing the fence handily from a standing start. Her progeny again safely in tow, the cow and her calf hurriedly crossed the road close in front of us and rejoined the bull, who’d been pacing impatiently nearby. Reunited, the trio hurried off toward the sea cliffs and disappeared over the edge, following, I presumed, a familiar trail leading down to the beach. Headed, one might surmise, to a surfside picnic of shore grasses and wildflowers. The encounter had lasted, start to finish, just a handful of minutes. As we continued our homeward journey we reflected on the grace under pressure shown by those three animals. And I thought a lot about the bull’s massive, perfectly symmetrical antlers. Never had I seen a deer that wore such monumental headgear and carried itself so regally as had that bull elk. A photographic memory of the huge animal sailing so effortlessly over the fence, his great white head of “horns” glinting under the Pacific sun, was etched indelibly into my mind, never to be forgotten, and, unbeknownst to me at the time, destined to redirect my life. Back home in Laguna Beach, I walked to the public library, overlooking Main Beach with its near-naked human throngs, to learn what I could of elk in general and the incredible antlers of the males in particular. Only then, amidst a modest mountain of literature -- some biological and technical, some merely colorful and interesting -- did I realize how fortuitous that Big Sur encounter had been. First, the Tule elk -- to which race my three passing acquaintances belonged -- is the smallest-bodied and most geographically restricted of the four living North America elk “subspecies” (a discussion of that term, to come, will explain the quotes), occupying relatively small pockets of suitable habitat in central and northern California only. Never more than a few thousand total, the statistical probability of a chance close encounter with a Tule “family” along a briefly deserted stretch of world-famous scenic highway, such as Caroline and I had enjoyed, was … improbable.
David Petersen lives year-round in a hand-built cabin at 8,000 feet in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. David is the editor of five volumes, including the literary hunting anthology A Hunter’s Heart: Honest Essays on Blood Sport. He has written ten books, all concerned with “wildlife, wild places, wild people and wild ideas”—from backpacking the American West (The Nearby Faraway) to exploring the secret lives of bears (Ghost Grizzlies) and wapiti (Elkheart) and, most recently, A Man Made of Elk. Petersen is a life member of the “highly ethical and effective” sportsman groups Trout Unlimited and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, and in 2010 was honored as Conservationist of the Year by the Colorado Wildlife Federation.
 
 


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