“The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” — Psalm 24:1
I know them by the carnage they leave behind. Pole beans spiral naked up the trellis. Day lily buds disappear overnight, stamens left behind like impertinent tongues. Hostas, reduced to sticks, march in mute protest up the shady hillside. Scat piles entice the dog to roll. A cloven print is left in the dark earth of the raised bed. The bark is scraped thin on the apple tree. Late at night, or in the soft, pre-dawn glow, they have made their visit while gardeners dream of fruitful harvests and dogs bark the muffled woof of slumber, legs twitching with the dream-chase.
The silence tells me they are near. Jays stop their bickering. The robin yeeps an alert and flutters out of the bath. The toad hunkers down in his hole with eyes closed, disappearing into the earth. Even the trees seem to stop their rustling summer song. The air grows thin and clear. The hair rises on the nape of my neck. I stop. Someone is watching.
There are two. I wonder if they are brothers. The older is recumbent, at ease, the master of the wood. His tan hide blends into the background. His elegantly muscled neck rises, sporting a fine head decked with a showy rack. Ten points suggest maturity, years spent one step ahead of the crossbow, the rifle, the hurtling onslaught of death by automobile. I’m not even enough of a threat to make him unfold his long, elegant legs and rise. Measured breaths swell his sleek sides. A swiveling ear flicks. Enormous eyes blink—once, twice.
The younger stands trembling and alert. His reddish-brown body ripples with muscles built by headlong dashes up the mountainside. He turns his head for a side-eyed view, taking me in and assessing the menace. His six-pointed rack tosses in protest. His white tail dances up and down, debating whether to turn and run or stand defiant. He raises his right front hoof. Briefly it hangs tenuous, then plumets to earth, again and again. A small bare patch is scraped from the dry ground to send a clear message. Stay away.
With bated breath and racing heart, I honor the threat and turn away. It’s back to the run or the dog walk or the visit to the neighbors. They say that deer are the deadliest animal in America, more than dogs, bears, sharks, and alligators combined. 120 people died of injuries sustained by deer encounters in 2015, mostly from car collisions.[i] An enraged buck can take on a hunter, rising on back legs to rain down punishing blows with hoofs that slice and bruise. That six- or ten-pointed rack is more than a showy chapeau. It can gore. It can pin you against a tree or to the ground. If it can take the bark off a tree, what do you think it might do to your skin? Don’t stop at their beauty to say, “Awww.” Don’t cluck and hold out your hand in greeting. Don’t feed the deer. Look away. Move on. Carry within you both wonder and fear.
They are safe within the village limits, where hunting is restricted for reasons of public safety. According to Wild Adirondacks, virtually all the bucks taken during the hunting season are young—three and a half years or younger.[ii] Half of those are babies, no more than eighteen months. On the far side of hunting season, winter comes. Ninety-one percent of their favorite forage will be gone, including my garden. They’ll be forced to dine on northern white cedar and hobblebush. In tough years, there is hunger and starvation. Predators wait. On the trail-cam of our friend Jack, a coyote crosses the camera’s eye with a fawn in its jaws. These aging bachelors are a miracle in more ways than one, worthy of quiet reverence—and a few bean leaves and lily buds.
[i] German Lopez, “You are way more likely to be killed by deer than by sharks, bears, and gators combined” in Vox, Sept. 24, 2016. Accessed online at https://www.vox.com/2016/9/24/13032272/killer-animals-deer-sharks-bears
[ii] –. “Mammals of the Adirondacks: White-tailed Deer.” Accessed online at https://wildadirondacks.org/adirondack-mammals-white-tailed-deer-odocoileus-virginianus.html