In step with silence and nature

There go the tails again, I thought as I watched three pointed, furry beacons uplifted like warning flags. Honey-colored bodies with long graceful legs leaped through dense foliage as the white-tailed deer ran away.

I had often caught brief glimpses such as these during my daily walk in the woods, a precious hour I tried to sandwich in between routine tasks and duties. Still, striding briskly along woodland trails in early morning or at sunset, I glanced too frequently at my watch, keeping close track of the time.

But brief glimpses of the deer were all I got. Their sensitive ears and expert noses seemed to detect me instantly, no matter where I walked. Perhaps it was a rustling twig, perhaps my human scent. Maybe my too-quick pace.

Sometimes, if the wind was right, as I rounded a blind curve on the trail, the deer did not notice me ahead of time. Suddenly, a loud, indignant snort would erupt, followed by running deer.

"Don't go ... I wouldn't hurt you." Once, I had even said that out loud – to no avail. From the deer's point of view, I was predator and they were prey.

But one early autumn afternoon I found a bit of extra time to spend in the woods. It was approaching sunset, when the pond is tinged with pink, a peaceful opportunity to meander slowly, to stop and look at a spider's web or an odd serrate leaf.

Then, through tall poplar trees fringing a rocky ledge, three pairs of pointy ears appeared. Backlit by shafts of waning sunlight, they were almost translucent, reddish-gold.

Below the ears, partially obscured by leaves, honey-colored forms stood immobile, taking shape as deer the longer I looked.

A small, white-spotted fawn stood beside two does. Three sets of big, black eyes stared back at me. Three moist, black noses twitched. The deer stood motionless. So did I, afraid to move, afraid I'd make them run.

Seconds ticked by, then minutes, while none of us stirred. Mosquitoes feasted on my arms and face; I brushed them off as surreptitiously as I could. (The deer must have been targeted, too, as every few seconds their tails flicked.)

One of the does lowered her head in my direction and sniffed the air carefully, trying to decipher who and what I was. Then she stood upright again while the other doe did the same. Alert ears swiveled sideways, then forward.

Finally, we were all motionless again, sharing the silence.

I could not recall ever having stood so still, so long. My muscles ached. As slowly and carefully as I could, I sat down cross-legged on the ground.

How do I appear to a woodland animal, I wondered as my tall human form suddenly folded into a new, more compact shape. The deer seemed impressed. All three lowered their heads toward me, staring and sniffing, trying to comprehend this strange phenomenon taking place before them. They looked puzzled but intrigued.

Meanwhile, crickets' music filled the air and day's-end birdcalls echoed through the trees. A frog suddenly plopped into an adjacent pond. A fleeting bee buzzed nearby. The fragrance of rich, earthy soil mixed with some elusive flower aroma.

Funny, I had never before noticed so much on my walks in the woods. I think we forget, sometimes, how to be quiet, how to be still. And maybe we also forget how full and precious that silence is.

I looked again at the deer, experts in stillness, standing as if sculpted from exotic golden stone. How often had I passed them, unbeknown to me, as they stood frozen, watching me walk by?

Finally, I left; they stayed.

Nowadays I get to watch deer far more frequently, as my proficiency at stillness grows. Sometimes I see them in the shafts of an early-morning sun, which shines like spotlights on their graceful forms. One by one, they glide through the trees in search of breakfast leaves. Silently, each hoof is carefully placed. And sometimes I spy them as they're illuminated by the last crimson-lavender rays of a sunset.

I, too, walk quietly nowadays, one slow footstep at a time. The deer almost never run away anymore. They have taught me well.

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