Staying in a wooded cottage in upstate New York for the winter solstice, surrounded by the serenity and beauty of nature, one expects all of life’s dramas to fade into a perfect cosmic balance. Fewer humans per square foot = harmonious, bucolic calm, right?
Our first morning there, we awoke to deer just outside our door and, had the door been open, it seemed that they would have come in to greet us. They appeared to be a family group, or a herd; obviously a large male, a few less bulky females and several gangly offspring. They were cautious, alert, but also familiar with their surroundings. Some were absolutely breathtaking; all were whitetail. They had come from the hillside above our cabin and were making what we soon learned was their twice-daily pilgrimage to the house at the foot of the hill below us: the large domicile was their deer diner, where a well-meaning citizen fed them some sort of grain mix. And these poor, hungry creatures arrived like clockwork for designated feeding times, much like any domesticated animal does. As we all know, deer are starving not only because winter takes away the grass and leaves of their diet, but also because their ability to roam and get food is impinged by human development and the disappearance of their habitat. They still reproduce no matter how little space or food they have. I don’t know if feeding them is the right-headed thing to do, but I understand the urge to assist these beleaguered fellow creatures.
One of the group, we noticed, arrived with the rest and then settled into the hillside. This one did not continue on to the feeding site about thirty yards below. She curled up like a cat on the ground, camouflaged in the brown leaves and resembling one of the frost-stricken shrub mounds that pepper the woodland floor. When the rest of the herd had eaten their handout, the caravan moved in a retrace of their steps, back to wherever it is that they spend their days and nights. But she stayed, coiled, head down. Much after the rest had gone, we saw her get up and move unsteadily and slowly, we hoped, to rejoin the group. But she hadn’t eaten, never reaching the destination but participating as well as she could in an established habit, though stopping short of the goal.
The next day, the same thing: the herd moving down the slope to the eating spot and the one deer arriving late and settling into the same position and location. Oh no, she must be sick, we thought. And if she doesn’t eat, she will die. She stayed longer in her coiled repose each day that we watched her. It was heartwrenching. What was wrong: Was she aged, was she injured, was she dying? I couldn’t stand to witness this. I am a big believer in all things natural, and I understand that nature is very practical and not at all sentimental; but I am sentimental – a cruel irony for this observer of natural wonder.
Here we were, in this exquisite setting, views from every window, and our most meaningful prospect of the descending woodland had this poor, hapless deer right smack in the center. I found myself not wanting to look out, thankful for the short days so that I couldn’t see the tragedy playing out before me; on the other hand, I was compelled to look, hoping that she had gone back with the herd. I was despising this beautiful place, all of the joy drained out like the life I was witnessing. I was sobbing every day, to the point where my partner said that I was not allowed to look out the windows anymore. Our car was parked down the slope, not far from the deer’s site, so we had to pass it every time we were going out; I was eventually forbidden to look in that direction at all as we passed, since the tears would start flowing again. And when we turned our car around to exit the property, our headlights would scour the landscape like searchlights, and I couldn’t look because I was afraid I would see her still sitting. It was so distressing; I longed to be back in the familiar daily stresses of the too-dense city.
We mentioned this terrible situation to a local friend who came over one day and was willing to look from a distance, even if we weren’t. She didn’t see the deer, dead or alive. The next day, the day of the lunar eclipse, I was looking out at the woods, feeling a little easier, when a huge bird arrived and sat in a tall tree above the site. It was a bright, sunny day, and the giant creature opened its wings, a span of many feet. As the sun shone through the massive feather spread, much like a hang-glider or kite but more beautiful than any you could imagine, glowing orange and black – it dawned on me: a vulture. Oh no, oh no. The sobbing began again, but it was different this time.
Strangely and suddenly, I started thinking that the worst was over, and whatever pain and suffering that may have been happening there in the woods had ended. I was relieved, somehow, that the deathwatch was over. I knew that there would be more vultures coming soon to do what they do so well in ridding the world of dead animals. And then, just as quickly as it had arrived, the vulture flew away and no others came. Now I was confused, but I had just been through the whole gamut of emotions: terror, sorrow, resignation, relief, acceptance – and I was starting to feel less anxious about the landscape. I began looking anew out the windows and, when I walked by the site, I scanned the ground for the deer. I became emboldened and walked closer to the wooded parcel, not entering it because it was a drop-off from the path, carefully studying the ground and all the frost-stricken shrub mounds that lay about. No deer. My partner, too, looked hard for the deer and did not find it. My spirits lifted. The woods became friendly and attractive once again.
We will never know the fate of that deer, but we are, in our insular citified way, happy that we didn’t have to know. Bambi’s mother wasn’t really killed by that hunter – we all hope that. We had said, over the course of our visit, many pagan prayers for the deer. What we want to believe is that she was healed by the lunar eclipse and the winter solstice happening simultaneously, a seasonal natural miracle – an occurrence of mythic proportions in a place in nature. We like to think that nature is full of miraculous events – all of us living things are evidence enough – but sometimes you just need a twist of fate to reinforce your sense of hope and magic.