Tracking Down Bambi



Not long ago, my daughter earned herself some cartoon time: She hiked to the local aspen grove all by herself, a couple of miles or so, stepping stones and all, which meant that Daddy Mule got to stroll the raspberry trail smooth and easy—not a single pound of the 40+ I usually lug around for at least a portion of any given hike. So, on the way home, we stopped at the video store for a bag of complimentary popcorn and — no princesses this time — a copy of “Bambi.”

We’ve all seen it. Cute bunnies. Cute skunks. Cute birds. Cute deer. The whole gang of them “twitterpating” just off camera when the sap starts rising each spring. And even if you haven’t seen it, the movie is so iconic that everybody knows that Bambi’s momma gets shot by a hunter — presumably anyway, as we only hear the gunshot and never see mother doe again — and that there’s a raging forest fire somewhere in the mix. And the rest is easy to imagine: forests, meadows, waterfalls and mountains right out of an Albert Bierstadt painting — real purty scenery actually, all of it hand painted and easy on the eyes.

Kids everywhere (or at least those kids with access to first world technology and lazy parents who occasionally resort to the electric screen babysitter so they can do some quick twitterpating in the other room) probably assume that the high drama they’re watching is unfolding within whatever mountains are nearest to them, be they the Sierras, the Rockies, the Appalachians or the Alps, or maybe just the nearest hills or bit of woods behind the tract homes. What kid doesn’t dream about a bit of wild nature somewhere close by?

Hollywood can crank out the special effects, but they are HORRIBLE at accurately portraying proper seasons or setting, especially in movies where it actually matters, such as westerns, road trips or anything set in the great outdoors. Saguaro cactus in Nevada. The Tetons of New Mexico. Covered wagons rolling through Monument Valley, Nebraska. Kevin Costner skinning a buffalo in the shadow of the mountains towering above Dodge City, Kansas. A montage of farm life — plowing, planting, irrigating and harvesting — unfolding entirely in the month of May. Such errors are the rule, not the exception, and rare is the movie that even bothers to take geography or basic biology into account.

Surprisingly, “Bambi,” a 70-year-old cartoon, is more accurate in many of these respects than the average trillion-dollar blockbuster, a rarity that allows us the chance to do a bit of scientific research. Where are those mountains? Where does Bambi actually live? By closely examining the cartoon’s geology, flora and fauna, we can determine just where the world’s most-famous deer made his claim to fame.

The original story, written in Austria in 1923, featured a roe deer, a species native to Europe and Asia Minor. In the movie, Bambi is a white-tailed deer, originally found only in the Western Hemisphere, although they have been introduced into Europe, which means Bambi could possibly browse the grasses of the Alps or Scandinavia. But the movie was made in 1942 — wartime — so even though Mr. Disney didn’t care for Jews, patriotism and practical capitalism surely dictated that old Walt didn’t make a movie about an adorable little ungulate from, say, the German or Italian Alps, the occupied French Alps, the Communist Urals or Siberian boreal forest — ditto for the flanks of Mt. Fuji. Bambi is certainly an American, or possibly a Canadian, deer.

Most of the story is set in the woods, and forest scenes reveal much about Bambi’s natural habitat. Large swaths of the forest are evergreen in nature, and the predominance of towering conifers rules out hardwood forests in the Ozarks and most of the Appalachians. These trees are big, but not mammoth in girth like coastal redwoods or the Douglas firs of the northwest, which points to forests farther east — most likely the Rockies or maybe the high plateaus of Arizona or Utah (unlikely — those aren’t big enough to be Ponderosa pines either), perhaps even the northern Appalachians. One could argue that the trees are small because Bambi roams a secondary-growth forest in Northern California or the Cascades, but the fact that there are plenty of tall dead snags in the canopy, as well as a complete lack of logging roads or clear-cuts shows us that this forest and its (relatively) humble conifers is most likely an unlogged forest featuring trees of medium girth, which sounds an awful lot like your average chunk of Rocky Mountain old growth.

I’m a Colorado boy at heart, so my first thought was that Bambi hailed from the Centennial State, for the dark green forest is a dead ringer for some of my favorite groves of Engelmann spruce and sub-alpine fir. But the utter lack of mountain bikers and trail runners points elsewhere. Somewhere with bigger wilderness and fewer people: Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, maybe even Alaska. Bambi hails from the Northern Rockies!

One problem with that hypothesis: Bambi is “Prince of the Forest.” Assuming the King of the Forest is some kind of large predator, then the Prince of western forests would be a large herbivore — an elk, or a moose or even a caribou, but certainly not a measly deer. And speaking of predators, there are none. No wolves. No bears. No mountain lions. Not even a bobcat or a coyote or even a fox. Bambi occupies a food chain devoid of top-level carnivores, which probably accounts for the outrageously long (spring, summer and fall) deer-hunting season.

At a glance, the missing predators rule out a home for Bambi out West, but things might not be as they seem. Mountain lions roam everywhere west of the high plains, including the suburbs, but how many of us have been lucky enough to see one? Not me. And wolves? I’ve backpacked a few times in prime (reintroduced) wolf habitat, both north and south, but, sadly, saw no sign of the creatures. My hometown in Colorado is chock full of wildlife now — bears in the Pizza Hut dumpsters, coyotes on the golf course, foxes denning under the garage — but, during my childhood (thanks to the nearly extinct ranchers who shot or trapped anything that moved), a coyote or fox sighting was a remarkable event, and bears were completely unheard of. Could it be that Bambi might live in a gentler patch of the Rockies — the Little Belts, the Salt Range or the Cochetopa Hills — circa 1940 or so, and the predators are just being elusive and avoiding redneck rifles?

Perhaps, were it not for some GIGANTIC oak trees. Not scrub oaks mind you, but majestic oaks with sprawling canopies and holes in the trunks where grumpy talking owls nest. As far as I know, the only Western state with oaks like that is California, one of just a handful of states with no white-tailed deer, which definitely pushes Bambi farther east. Plus the mountains aren’t actually that big: the only panorama in the movie reveals rolling green mountains with nary an acre of tundra, more like the “old” mountains back east. Not to mention the fireflies, technically found nowhere west of the tall-grass prairie.

So where does Bambi live? Mellow, rolling mountains. Some hardwoods and large oaks, but mostly tall conifers that aren’t too big. Plenty of deer and possums, but no elk or big predators. April rain showers instead of heavy late-season, pass-closing snow. Blossoming fruit trees in spring rather than mud and thawing dog shit. I hate to admit it, but bad-ass Bambi, Prince of the Forest, is an easterner who watched over a remote chunk of the Adirondacks or northern Vermont.