I was walking in the woods, a hundred yards or so past the broken down, rusted-out barbed wire fence that may or may not mark the property line between our land and our neighbors’. I had two friends with me, people accustomed to the outdoors, one of whom I call The Scientist. Their brand of nature, however, is generally more marine.
The one who grew up in Maine was amazed at the height of the pine trees and the size of the cones as we stood with hands on our hips, leaning as far back as possible, chins stuck into the air, trying to find the tops. The one who grew up farther down Highway 301 in the near-swamp was surprised to see so many prickly pear cacti peeking through the underbrush. They were both amazed at the elaborate armature of the deer stands that seemed to appear out of nowhere.
We were following old logging roads, still wide and open if well carpeted with years’ and years’ worth of pine straw. We had found the head of the creek that runs around the southwestern corner of the farm and identified a lone stand of wild indigo, its butter yellow petals folded like hands in prayer.
And we were talking. Chattering, really, as friends who haven’t seen each other in a while will do.
Then, mid-someone’s-sentence, someone else called out, “Look! Deer!” We turned abruptly in the direction of the pointed finger. Not 25 yards away, three deer were bounding through the woods, their pace unimpeded by the vines and logs and low-hanging branches that had made our progress slow and necessarily methodical. They looked like ballet dancers leaping across a stage.
And in seconds they were gone.
These woods are not unfamiliar to me. I have been here many times over the years, nearly always alone. The few times I’ve had company, it’s been just one other person, and there have been few words passed between us. I have never before rustled up a deer.
My friends were delighted. I was rather pleased myself. It was as though the local fauna had decided to show off a little for the visitors.
Equivalent to my pleasure, though, was my curiosity. Was it just the noise that startled the timid creatures and caused them to run? Were they really so afraid of something that was no threat? Or were they utilizing some sort of diversionary tactic to draw our attention away from where they had been? Was it possible that somewhere in the soft brown mattress of last winter’s fallen leaves there was a newborn fawn or an old buck, sick and dying?
We tend to see people who run as deserving of contempt. We label them as men with no courage, women with no heart. We call them cowards and pray that we will never be so weak. The deer in the woods have made me wonder how many of those men and women run not for their own good, but for that of another. The deer in the woods have made me question whether running away might not, sometimes, be the best way of protecting something or someone that you love.
The last glimpse we got of the deer was a flash of tall white tail disappearing into the brush. We stood in the sudden silence for a brief moment and then turned for home, the questions rattling around in our pockets like pebbles and coins.