At this time of year, at this time of night, with only the single yard light as illumination, my backyard looks like a painting, maybe something from the Hudson River School – all blurred edges and smudged lines and muted greens. Mist hovers, hangs, trembles and, if it had a sound, it would be the softest possible hum.
Returning home late at night, I am likely to encounter – within that painting, one of my neighbors – an armadillo, a raccoon, an owl, but usually a deer. Experience has taught me to approach with caution.
On this particular evening, that caution is rewarded. My headlights, arcing into the branch, spotlight two deer, yearlings from the size of them, standing just at the edge. They are thin and sinewy and, in the dimness, make me think of the enchanted creatures that populated the books I read as a child.
I brake gently as they still themselves and raise their elfin heads in my direction. They have no more than a couple of seconds to decide what to do.
The one slightly closer to the front end of my car, a weapon against which they have no defense, turns and moves into the woods, stepping gently like a ballerina en pointe, and disappears. The second turns and runs. I can see him in the glow of the headlights for probably 40 yards, his white tail gleaming, until his round rump dissolves into the darkness.
I never make assumptions about the behavior of deer. They are much like humans in that they may reverse direction at any moment and, thus, I have learned from experience to wait. To make sure. When it becomes clear that both are gone, that neither is coming back, I ease my foot off the brake and roll slowly into the carport.
While I wait, though, I can’t help wondering: why did the two deer behave so differently? Why did the first deer simply move out of the way of the danger while the second one ran? Is one the older sibling, always following the rules? Is the other the younger, prone toward recklessness and adventure?
A few nights ago, around the full moon, I got an urge – as I sometimes do – to go outside and walk around in the dark. As I opened the front door and before I could step out onto the porch, I saw a herd of deer not more than 30 feet away. They did not freeze; they simply stood there, a couple of them glancing in my direction. They looked for all the world like a crowd at a tailgate or a barbecue. Catching up on the week.
I thought they would eventually bolt, that if I took a couple of steps in their direction the entire group would dash into the nearby field. They did not. My feet grew cold waiting. I went back inside, shaking my head wondering whether my front yard was really mine.
Tonight, as I pull my coat tight against the wind and hurry inside, I wonder if either or both of the deer I just encountered were a part of that herd. Is one of them a young buck feeling the first itch of antler buds on the top of his head? Is there a doe somewhere deep in the woods snorting and blowing to call them back to safety? Will they find their way back to the bed of soft grass that is somewhere nearby?
After so many years of living among wild things, I no longer chastise myself for anthropomorphizing. I am absolutely convinced that the wrinkled face of the tortoise slowly making his way across the yard reflects wisdom. I am sure that the chatter of the mockingbird indicates frustration. And I have no doubt that somewhere in the woods outside my door there is a doe licking the faces of her children, so very glad that they have made it home.