They must materialize from the soil. Just a minute ago I glanced over to that part of the property, and it was empty of visible creatures. Borne of the tawny grass, a silent family group emerges. A doe, two older fawns. They come regularly to nibble their favorites: peach twigs and unknown delicacies underfoot.
Merely observing a deer in its habitat reveals its physical form and a sense of its wild presence, its clean, vulnerable eyes, of a non-human. But to grasp the whole, complete deer, what it means to be a deer, a human’s mind must expand to all of the particulars of its existence. Questions arise.
Where do they bed down? Rest? Sleep? Above Fivespot, there is an ancient flannel bush (Fremontodendron californicum), a dense complex of raggedy tree-like trunks and tousled branches. Deer inhabit under its fountain of boughs. Have they sheltered there for years? Generations? All too aware of our ignorance, we spare this specimen when we clear brush for fire safety, and anxiously hope its neighbors weren’t also part of the deer home compound.
Are there enough deer to sustain their kind? It’s unusual now to see a group of more than three or four. Seventeen years ago, soon after we bought and occupied what was more of a hut than a home in Pinehurst, I awoke in the night to the clatter of hollow sticks banging together. I fumbled with my flashlight looking down the hillside, but managed to make out two bucks lunging at each other’s antlers in the darkness, tangling and clacking as the rest of the herd loitered around. I’ve never heard such a display since. Perhaps it’s a sign of how drastically our mutual forest home has changed since bark beetles killed hundreds of millions of Ponderosa Pines these past few years. Perhaps the deer herds simply moved to a less observable location.
And what about mountain lions? Deer are their primary sustenance. Whatever I may know about deer and their whereabouts, it is a fragment of the infinitely deeper and finer knowledge the lion has of its prey. To see a deer is to see the lion who tracks it. Thus a deer sighting is for me an alert to scoop up the cats and bring them inside.
Most folks in Pinehurst have at least one mountain lion story. We too have a handful of them, mostly excited tales of too-large-to-be-a-dog flanks and long tails disappearing into the evening-shaded roadside as we drive safely by. Such sightings are notable occasions, prompting us to speculate for days about the animal’s age and the imagined vast size of its territory. Once we saw the lion just half a mile from Charlene’s place. Should we notify her? She has something like 36 cats, each one named and loved. But news of this consummate predator traveled quickly — by the time of our sighting, she had already posted signs around the neighborhood, warning pet owners of potential tragedy.
Our closest encounter with a big cat happened while we were safe inside the Stonehouse, the art home of Jack and Julie. Windows with a view onto Julie’s gardens surround the dining table, where we were enjoying breakfast one fine Sunday morning in June. The lightning strike of four or five Stonehouse cats bolting into the covered patio alerted us. Cats who didn’t reach the house were cowering behind lawn furniture, still as stone.
Soon enough, the reason for alarm emerged: in full sun, a lion had penetrated the boundary of human territory. Once again I fumbled, this time with my phone (Picture Icon? Camera Icon? Picture Icon? My startled brain could not decide which was what). This magnificent creature, more than six feet long from nose to tail tip, leisurely investigated the lawn, while we humans and house cats held our collective breath. After a few minutes, she (or so we presumed) wandered away without incident, to the great relief of the domestic felines. And as expected, the word quickly got around the neighborhood, as the aftermath of the close —and unusual — daylight encounter throbbed in our consciousness.
Of course people hunt deer too. My nephew in Nebraska proudly shoots bucks in season, with rifle and arrow. Venison is tasty and will nourish a human family or a lion family. In our first year in Pinehurst, a deer was struck by a car in front of our garage, where it lay stricken but not yet dead. Panicked and upset, I called on a new friend up the road. Larkspur and her husband cared for retired movie wolves, and once she had told me how difficult it was to obtain enough raw meat for them. As they were coming on the scene, however, I discovered that the car’s driver — who hit the deer while rushing to the airport — had already called a nearby friend to “take care of it." So just as Larkspur and Kevin arrived, this neighbor, a young man with small children, also arrived with a gun and the offer to take it away. What a quandary! Which scenario would play out: the victim becoming a meal for a captive pack of wolves, or becoming a meal for a hungry human family?
Suffering, the deer lay on the ground. Humans discussed what was best. The man with mouths to feed retreated. Larkspur held a vial of herbal tincture to the deer’s nose to invoke its will to live or its desire to die. Soon, ants were crawling all over its body. Kevin and Bachrun lifted the creature into the truck, to be carved up into a meal for their canine charges. The legs and head would be buried to decompose; later, the bones exhumed to be painted and fashioned into rattles.
The violence that deer sidestep each day — until the day their luck ends — enforces their caution and promotes a vigilant invisibility. Imagine, if you or I were confronted daily with another creature’s desire to consume us! Maybe that’s why the presence of deer feels like an undeserved munificence, the gift of momentary trust, choosing to be present in our gardens, among our peach trees, seen.