However, I was powerfully reminded this morning not to suffocate the possibility of adventure with a blanket of assumptions about a “domesticated” landscape.
The deer in this area are prolific. I can hardly take a few steps beyond our gate without glimpsing their dark, graceful bodies moving between the straight, dark pines of tree plantations or bent to graze on the plants growing along roadside openings. It’s easy to become desensitized to their presence. But deer, with the keen senses and caution of a prey animal, are difficult to get close to, so rather than take their abundance and proximity for granted, I hope to take this opportunity to get to know them better.
I went for an early walk in Halden Forest this morning, intending to visit my new sit spot - a mossy patch of ground under a magnificent oak, next to a trickling stream and a deer trail. Rob and I, while resting there after lunch yesterday afternoon, were very nearly run over by a mother deer with her two young. (They were as surprised as we were. Mama deer’s response was several deep, husky barks and a change of direction; ours was startled laughter.) The spot is less than a half mile from the gate of the park, but I didn’t even make it that far.
A loud, clacking sound cut through the morning fog as I walked into the forest. It didn’t sound like the staccato breaking of branches we heard yesterday, which turned out upon closer investigation to be a deer scraping it’s antlers and biting at a fallen tree. This sounded more solid, like bone on bone.
The sound led me towards the crest of a hill, where a well-worn deer trail crosses the logging road. At this intersection stood two bucks, braced against each other, heads down and antlers locked. I quietly exhaled in wonder, and lowered myself behind a fern to watch. Apparently I wasn’t the only witness - a third buck appeared, a young one with short horns. It lingered right next to the fighters, grazing and pausing now and then to watch the display. The mature bucks each bore massive antlers, three or four points each, the lower ones pronged and the upper spread into plates. These they’d interlock and then push back and forth, muscles rippling through their legs, flanks, shoulders, and thick necks. Every few moments, as if mutually agreed upon, they’d separate and pause to look up and down the road, perhaps scanning for threats to their safety other than each other. Then, in unison, they’d lower their heads and resume the dance.
After about ten minutes, one buck seemed to be losing ground, and turned and ran off into the forest. The other pursued him, but I didn’t hear any noise after that. Perhaps the fight was over and the dominant one clear, or they were just out of ear shot. The young buck lingered for a few minutes more, sniffing the ground where the scuffle had taken place. What was he learning through his nose? None of the deer had noticed me, as far as I could tell. The young one and I share a memory now, though it means very different things for him than for me. Once he turned to follow the other two, took his cue and did a brief survey of the scene myself. Tracks went higgledy-piggledy in all directions, deep ones from moments of urgent pressure, sliding ones across soft mud. I saw it all again in my mind, though had I not witnessed the fight itself, I probably would have walked right by this tale in the ground.
I’m glad to know I walk the same ground as these deer. Their landscape may have a different history than the one I'm used to, but there is yet wildness in them. Does an animal adapting to its conditions make it less "wild"? Yes, and no. This goes for human animals, too, though, as George Monbiot says in his TED Talk, “…we’ve privileged safety over experience, and we’ve gained a lot in doing so, but I think we’ve lost something, too.” Meanwhile, the wolf cubs back home are about to experience their first winter, leave new tracks in the snow. Perhaps we will each watch deer at the same moment, halfway across the world, wildness in our blood. I know not the details of their lives. They know not that I love them, and miss them.