Captured by deer

A friend of mine has big tubs of impatiens on her patio. But she seldom sees many blooms, because the deer come up at night and prune them back so vigorously. She grumbles mildly about this, but she is sufficiently charmed by the presence of the deer that she does nothing particular to change the situation. This is a very civilized attitude. She realizes that the unplanned and unexpected attractions of experience are as valuable as the owned and planned.

It is also civilized of the deer. They very easily could have stayed away, munching the comestibles of the brush. Sometimes they instinctively seem to know that a part of their neighborliness is in their sudden, simple appearances, their looking at us across whatever distance, then the natural grace of their departure. They could not, after all, come to dinner. Staying away entirely would be an asset to no one. Thus their quiet, clandestine appearances, their delicate prints left in the soft earth, and even their raids on the flowers add a dimension to our lives that it would be too bad to miss.

Now that Thanksgiving is approaching again, and I am remembering all the ways I have been blessed, certainly I think the presence of white-tailed deer, now and again, in my experience has not been the least of blessings. They are a lift to the spirit, a revelation of grace and independence, a form of serendipity, a proof that sturdiness and strength need not be accompanied by heavy muscularity and aggressiveness. They are also an indication of civilization.

In the Eastern United States, the white-tails are a kind of miracle. In most of the regions in which they persist, they are by far the largest wild animals remaining. They have adapted well. They certainly are not invisible, but seem to know quite well when to appear, to whom, and how long they can afford to stay. I have seen them drift quietly through the dusk like smoke. Or flash by and vanish in a few moments. I have also seen them browse unconcernedly in the presence of human beings - noticing them all the while.

Oddly enough these wild presences are in a sense a product of civilization. Once hunted unmercifully, wholly eradicated from a number of states, the white-tails seemed on their way toward extinction. But enlightened people knew that life without them would be diminished, and measures were taken to reestablish them. They have rebounded with astonishing vigor, and in many areas are regarded as pests for their browsing in orchards and gardens.

I know a serious gardener in rural California, in mule-deer country, who has simply erected a high fence around his garden. He doesn't mind. Nor does he hunt the deer. They are for him a joy to watch. That, too, is the result of his high degree of civilization.

I remember a Thanksgiving afternoon walk several years ago that I took with a dog. It was nearing dusk as we crossed the edges of some fields and woods to a round hill with a full panoramic view. It is a good hill to climb slowly, especially near the top, because each step brings new fields into vision, and moving quietly and slowly, one often sees white-tails. As I neared the crest, I softly called the dog, which, naturally, was leading. It came back under my hand , and as I walked, I rubbed the soft hair between its ears so it would stay.

As my head came over the rim of the hill, I saw three white-tails grazing below to the east. I stopped and whispered to the dog to sit. It gladly did, holding the top of its head against my stroking fingers. The deer continued to graze without concern. Although they looked my way occasionally, they didn't see me. Deer tend to look for movement, and I was still.

As I watched them, I thought of James Fenimore Cooper's first novel, ''The Pioneers,'' in which he took up the story of the Leatherstocking in advanced years. The old hunter had killed a deer out of season, for Judge Templeton had declared the deer protected during much of the year. The Leatherstocking was arrested for what he considered a wholly natural act and eventually, when freed, left for the West in protest, going where he could hunt in peace.

I knew that, were it not for the Judge Templetons of our society, I would not be watching the white-tails moving across the field below, flashing their tails occasionally, stopping, looking, turning, all with quick, birdlike grace. I was grateful for the forbearance that is a part of civilization, itself an act of grace, here not the leap of tense and agile legs but of thought, of acquiescence to that which lies beyond momentary self-interest, to the perception given us of the way to cherish the valuable so it in turn may offer the gift of its presence to others.

As I watched, the scene grew dim, and lights in the distance began to come on. Below, the white-tails walked in an immense pool of dimness, and with my thought thus sharpened I felt an upwelling of pleasure in the fact that there was still so much darkness for them. I backed slowly down out of their vision, and once again the dog, which had been so patiently sitting, for no reason it knew, was able to trot on ahead and lead the way home.

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