We all have that moment when we meet a deer on a path in the woods. Usually, the deer bounds off in terror, and you don’t get much a chance to examine it.
But not this doe.
She stopped before me and smelled the air, almost as if she were examining me.
To her, I am a monster. My kind can kill her kind as soon as we get a clear view of them. No other predator can kill without a chase and a grapple.
But still she stood there, smelling me. Getting nervous, a bit, but not so nervous that she bolted off. Perhaps she was taking this opportunity to see what I was about. Her gaunt frame at least suggested that she may have dropped a fawn or two nearby.
It’s a bit early for fawns, but that time is coming soon.
The coyote pups that were born last month will be weaned on regurgitated fawn meat, so the does have to be good at hiding them.
And the fawns’ instincts to lay low better be particularly strong.
Otherwise, they will become coyote chum.
But the doe had nothing to fear from me, and she just stood there. Then bolted back and stood again.
Then came forward again:
She was just finishing up her molt into the summer pelt. In winter, the deer are mousy gray. In summer, they are a rich tawny. In spring, they molt to a moth-eaten fallow.
To look upon a white-tailed deer is to see something commonplace, but it is a 3.5 million-year-old species. Her kind was on this land long before any human wandered upon it. Her kind has seen the great megafauna come and go. They once drank from rivers where Columbian and woolly mammoths bathed and ran among the many species of pronghorn and North American horses.
And even when those beasts disappeared, they were not the dominant ungulate. When Europeans came into these hills, the white-tailed deer roamed as second billing to the ubiquitous wapiti and hordes of bison. Wolves harried the herds and bands, and cougars stalked them from the thickets.
And ever since man encountered deer, he has wanted to hunt them. The first people who came into this part of the continent were expert deer hunters, but they were replaced by the Virginia and Pennsylvania frontiersmen, mostly Scots-Irish and Germans. These were followed by the small homesteaders coming west beyond the Alleghenies. Later, they saw the wars between the Europeans and the indigenous peoples and then wars between the Europeans.
Later still, they saw the scores of Virginia and Maryland slaves being marched in chains to the Ohio River, where they would be put on barges and sent down the river into the Mississippi Delta cotton plantation hellholes.
They saw the blue-clad soldiers defeat the ones in gray, and they saw the great forests fall in the name of progress and improvement and simple profit. They saw the land open for the coal mines and oil wells, and great fortunes were made then.
And then they very nearly disappeared from the land as the mammoths and elk had done before them. Only in the remotest of redoubts in the High Alleghenies did the Odocoileus hold on.
But wiser men saved the deer. They closed seasons on hunting them, banned hunters from using dogs to chase them, and made the sell of their meat a crime.
And the deer came back.
By the end of the twentieth century, there were far more white-tailed deer in North America than in 1492.
They have withstood the transformation of North America into the New Europe in a way that no other hoofed beast has.
They have thrived in the lands left feral as the family farm has been abandoned, but they have also thrived in the corn and soy bean fields of the Midwest. They do quite well in the suburbs and in towns of varying sizes.
We’ve unwittingly made this continent a great place to be a white-tailed deer. We’ve removed most of their competition and almost all of their major predators.
They thrive not in spite of us. They thrive because of us.
Yet this doe knew fully well that I could just as easily mean danger for her. Her kind has no concept of ecology or natural history or of even the slightest philosophy. She doesn’t know that her kind’s explosion onto the landscape is the result of my kind’s bumbling attempts to civilize and cultivate this New Europe.
We stared at each other across that bridge between two species, and when she decided that she didn’t want to press her luck anymore, she bounded off to the nearest thicket.
The Odocoileus exists outside of me. We can never be comrades. She is connected to the land, the oaks and their acorns, and the months of sun and the months of snow in a way that I will never be.
My kind has cast itself away from those forces. My food comes from a store, and it grew or was fattened in another state, where the law of Ricardo says there is better than to grow crops or fatten stock.
But she is so natural, so sleek, so pleasing. The millions of years of evolution have crafted her so finely that she looks she was made just to stand in the forest and look elegant.
By contrast, this melanin-deficient African ape monster looks so out of place. Perhaps aliens put me here.
I can only hope to be as one with the forest as she is, and to see her in her oneness is to see something so beautiful and beguiling.
It is a call back to the time when my kind lived off hers, a time when my species was still very much a part of it all.
It was a savage, brutal time, but it was a time when we didn’t have the luxury of deluding ourselves that nature is only what we pass by in the car.
She knows the savagery and the brutality, and fleetness of foot and keenness of ears and nose serve her well.
Intellect and ingenuity gave my species dominance, but it may prove to be our undoing.
And maybe if the Odecoileus knew about what my species really could do, she wouldn’t have stood there so cavalierly in the open.
I know that if I were a deer, I wouldn’t be there for long.