Wheatfield Near Fort Pierre, South Dakota. Photograph by Robert Clements

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A Girl and a Yearling

Cozy doe, resting after the first snowfall in Spearfish, back in November.
A doe and two fawns are lying in my backyard this morning, long legs folded neatly, eyes half shut, chewing cud. It thrills me to see them, but I worry about what will happen to them when they leave. Stay off the roads, I want to say to them. But they probably won't, or can't as they need to get from here to there, like the rest of us.

I don't believe they ever really sleep. They are ready for flight at the slam of a car door, or a dog barking in the neighborhood, or a scent wafting toward them. One of the fawns is an orphan or has been separated from its mother. The doe occasionally flattens her ears and chases it around in a half-hearted manner. They perform this dance for a few minutes. The orphan finally settles down again, and so does the doe. I walk around the inside of my house whispering, lest they hear me and take off again. I think they're perfect, with their big eyes and long legs. If I grew flowers, or a garden, yeah, I'd probably be annoyed, but that's why God made eight-foot fences.

Another backyard beauty.
If I don't see a deer - there are two kinds - Whitetail and Mule - during the day, here in South Dakota, I consider it odd. In Spearfish, which lies wrapped in the arms of the Northern Black Hills, under the watchful eye of Crow Peak, deer are part of the neighborhood. They trek through the yards and parks and eat grass or bushes and I know that they are considered pests - some towns have initiated culls - but I still consider it a little bit magical to see them. I'm from Maine, where the woods are thick and there are countless places to hide. 

When I was a kid, to see a deer was a rare thing to be celebrated. I looked for them alongside the roads and listened for their footsteps in the woods. People and houses weren't so plentiful, so they had more habitat. We lived on a dirt road in the summer back then, and I was always on the watch for them. One day, a bunch of us kids, traipsing back from blueberry fields long since taken over by rip-rap and new owners, startled a young fawn, which bolted from its hiding place and bleated its snowy-spotted way on wobbly, ridiculously long legs, down the road. It scared us as much as we scared it, We pell-melled toward home, terrified that its daddy, who I know now could have cared less, would gore us, or that its momma would slice us with her pointed hooves. 

Once we saw a herd of deer in a field across the road while we were in the car with my father. It was a stop and stare moment, until each deer, one by one, melted back into the woods. The buck stood last, then turned and walked away into the trees. I remember the awed tone in my father's voice, and he was a man who, back then, didn't appeared to be awed by much, especially by his four grubby children. Another time, I was driving in a car with my Uncle Dick, on our way to the rural community of Woolwich, where I was to babysit my four hellion cousins. I saw a deer standing on the top of a hill at the edge of the woods, looking down on the road. "I saw a deer!" I hollered. "Oh, Uncle Dickie, I saw a deer!" To me, it was akin to seeing a unicorn. Uncle Dick loved animals, and I loved going to 'The Farm', where the possibility of seeing a deer or a raccoon or skunk or another exotic species, or of rescuing kittens and roaming the woods with a dog, was just around the corner.

I read Bambi by Felix Salten when I was probably too young to read it. No Disney version for me - this was the real thing. Yes, the deer had voices, but Salten caught their joy and despair perfectly, as well as their dignity and their beauty. I wanted to be Bambi after I read it. Well, I wanted to be a horse, too. In fact, I wanted to be a four-footed animal when I was a girl. It just seemed much more comfortable to not have to speak and to have the means to take flight. Or maybe I just thought they, horses and deer, were the epitome of grace and loveliness. I still do. 

This buck visited my backyard during hunting season. Smart move.
When I lived in England in my early twenties, I walked almost daily in Thetford Forest in Norfolk. There, I saw a herd of tiny Roe deer. Elf deer, it seemed to me. Another magic moment. These are the minutes on the planet where I feel I get glimpses into another world, where it's a privilege to bear witness to the mystery of a free and wild creature. Sightings like these are an inhale of grace and an exhale of joy.

I understand the danger that deer can be on a road - very real danger at night - and I realize that they can be destructive. And the possibility of the spread of disease from ticks and other pests increases, as deer, like the rest of us, are forced to share limited space and resources. Yet, I still look with a child's eye when I see them. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings penned one of the most powerful endings ever to her incredible book, The Yearling, regarding the relationship between a boy and his fawn, between childhood and adulthood and innocence and experience. It always makes me cry. Somewhere beyond the sink hole, past the magnolia, under the live oaks, a boy and a yearling ran side by side, and were gone forever, wrote Kinnan Rawlings. Maybe that's what seeing a deer does for me - brings back the reverence I felt during a time that has become less reverent and more ragged, the older I get. 

So, I'm glad the deer are resting in the backyard. They're giving me a good dose of awe for the day. 


  1. I enjoy your blog. My cousin Pat talks about the beauty of South Dakota, and I can see it really is lovely. Read about you in the 2013 Novel and Short Story Writer's Market--congratulations.
    I'm a blogger too, at yourtravelwriter.blogspot.com, and a so-far unpublished novelist.

    1. Margaret, thank you. South Dakota surprises people. I know it surprised (and continues to surprise) me. I didn't know I was in the 2013 Novel and Short Story Writer's Market. Hmmm. Guess I'll have to check it out. I will look up your blog and good luck with your novel(s). Happy Holidays to you!