by Marcia Aldrich
In every man’s heart there is a secret nerve that answers to the vibration of beauty.
Start with a dead deer at the side of Hamilton Road. A major artery between Okemos and Dobie roads, it is my route to work, to the supermarket, to the post office and bank, and the only means of access to Tacoma Hills, the subdivision in Meridian Township where I have lived for the last five years. The speed limit on Hamilton is 25 miles per hour, slowing to 15 at the roundabout a quarter mile to the west. Nevertheless, a driver has struck the deer, and now it lies in the grass in front of a condominium complex. It is a white-tailed deer, odocoileus virginianus, the smallest and most nervous member of the North American deer family.
How many deer have I seen dead at the side of a road in my lifetime? Hundreds for sure, maybe a thousand. The top of the deer’s head points toward the pavement where it died, the neck stretched long in the grass and the single visible eye brown, glassy, and wide, as if a taxidermist had set it there, placed it in a patient form ready for portraiture or mounting. Among all animals deer possess one of the most graceful figures, trim and defined, shapely and economical, finely tuned, vibrating with beauty. Fleet of foot, and short of life. I would like their portrait to be painted by Lucien Freud, bathed in bright light like his sleeping whippets, lying in an intimate mesh, without the shadow of death.
For days no one moved the dead deer. How many drivers passed by, saw the corpse, and kept going? A thousand? Two thousand? Thousands more drove by and noticed no carcass at the side of the road—so familiar and common as to be invisible, “an incident of roadside mortality,” as the township’s Deer Management Plan puts it. What about the residents in the condominiums—don’t they mind looking out on a dead deer? Or are they skilled in not seeing it? They park their car in the allotted space and hurry inside, not noticing what lies in the grass about them.
To consider the dead deer, to dwell upon its prone body, is to risk being seen as sentimental. This infantile emotional overflow, this unexamined response, is well known to me. But I don’t think my emotions are sentimental—that is, exaggerated and self-indulgent, shallow and uncomplicated. My neighbor feeds the deer to tempt them close, to ensure that she has pretty pictures outside her window. They’re cute, she says, they’re dear. That is sentimental. When I tell her that feeding wildlife can be detrimental, do more damage than good, she waves me off. At Christmastime reindeer lit with white lights are installed in her front yard.
Sighting, November 22. Before getting into bed, I open the sliding door a few inches to ventilate the room while we sleep. A loud rustle below our second-story bedroom. Snap on the outside floodlights. Hear more rustling and step out onto the balcony to see what it might be: two small deer frozen in the leaf-strewn ivy. Their faces turn toward me and they don’t move, not one little bit, as if a single light holds them in place and time.
None of the common attitudes toward deer I’m aware of entirely fits me. I’m not an animal rights activist who is set against hunting in every instance, not a biologist, not a certified naturalist, not a hunter who eats what he kills and believes he has a primal relationship with deer, not a painter, not a member of the township’s herd management team. Perhaps I am a metaphysician, alive to the beauty of the deer—but that’s only part of my feelings. Once we moved to our house set in the trees near the Red Cedar River, deer became implicated in my life, and I’ve become implicated in theirs. We share a home range; their lives and deaths intersect with mine. This much we share, but their lives are pitiably short and hard, and this brute brevity has burrowed inside to trouble me. Home range can be a tricky concept, and its extent depends greatly on the quality of forage, protective cover, water, and other factors. The range for the deer in my area may be as small as a one-quarter square mile.
When we bought the house five years ago, we had no idea what lived among these trees, near this river, what would pass through our property. At first my response to the wildlife veered towards the joyful, pure, and simple. I was made happy by the blue heron staking out a fishing spot every afternoon on the bank across the river. Waking on one of our first mornings in the new house, I saw three deer under the crabapple eating the hard little fruit that had fallen. I sighed with pleasure. My impulse was not to fly out into the yard clapping and screaming, as my neighbors did, bent on stopping the devouring of one’s garden. My visitors moved from crabapple to hostas, tearing off one leaf and then another until mere ragged stalks remained. I felt no ownership of the yard. They’d lift a watchful head, chomping, green leaves the size of a peony sticking out of a soft mouth.
My first autumn in the house I tried to offer apples to the deer as if they were horses, a misguided experiment in presumption. I wasn’t so stupid as to hold the apple in my hand and expect them to come to me. I threw the apples in their direction, but of course I merely frightened them. They didn’t know it was a harmless and edible meal hurling through the air towards them. Next I tried leaving apples in spots they passed through. The squirrels got them before the deer.
Sighting, November 23. Early morning. Ice on the roof. Light in the backyard. Two deer, mother and medium-sized fawn, look up at the house, where I stand still in the family room behind the full-length windows. They’re nervous, constantly alert for movement, sound, threat—I’ve never seen a deer that wasn’t nervous, except the exhausted and the dead. They look back and forth between the river and the house. The mother moves first and in front while the fawn scours the ground. Not much left this late in fall—the deer have been through this yard more times than I can know. The fawn sniffs the dry hydrangeas, just reedy stalks and brown flower heads. The mother is too busy observing to eat. She can’t relax enough to bend her neck to the grass; she must stand with ears pricked and eyes darting, the white ring under her neck clear to see. Eventually they skitter through into my neighbor’s yard and are gone. Only then do I move from the window.
Our house lies in what the Michigan Department of Resources calls an urban/suburban area: residential developments and businesses mixed with undeveloped wetlands that can’t be built upon, parks and natural areas, and open fields from the area’s farming past. This suburban environment has created what deer biologists call edge, that is, crop fields juxtaposed with meadow and woods, natural preserves, and enriched residential yards. Deer need food, water, and cover primarily. My subdivision, surrounding neighborhoods, and intermixed open lands form a high-quality habitat where they flourish. No one knows how many deer this home range supports; no exact count has been undertaken. The main threat to the population is the high-density traffic that flows on arteries like Hamilton Road.
When I turn off Hamilton to enter Tacoma Hills, the houses are spread far apart on big lots, the trees become large and dense. We have no sidewalks, curbs, or streetlights, and neighborhood covenants prohibit fences in front yards. The houses circle a lagoon, back up to three natural areas, and cluster around a large Commons between the two streets that intersect with Hamilton and are the only entrances to the subdivision. The Red Cedar River forms the southern boundary. I can walk out my back door, launch my kayak, and in minutes no longer see houses.
My house is placed in a wood of big oaks and maples, with more settled landscaping front and back. The deer browse here throughout the year, although in winter they may simply pass through on the way to better forage. In the warmer months they lie in the fallen leaves at the edges of the yard. Last spring a tiny fawn, separated from its mother, spent a whole afternoon in the tall ferns under the redbud tree. It slept so soundly that I worried it had been abandoned. I brought a bowl of water and set it five feet away, but the fawn never drank. After a long walk that evening, I found it had departed. Perhaps the fawn had been hidden under the redbud while its mother looked for food and was reclaimed.
Sighting, December 9, 4:46 p.m. 26 degrees, light snow on the ground, blue sky splattered with large patches of delicate pink tinged with orange. In thirty minutes the sky will go dark. The deer arrive at this turning time. A herd of twelve is running on the other side of the river, scattered out across the snow, bounding in what looks like wild abandon. I watch them from the kitchen sink as I snap the beans for dinner. Sometimes deer walk through the yard or along the banks of the river in single file, with a purpose, looking down for food, then freeze, listening for threat. No such caution tonight—they are like children who have been cooped up all day inside a classroom and have been released into the schoolyard for recess.
How apt it is for the word deer to be both singular and plural. Nouns with identical singular and plural forms are often the names of animals: moose, sheep, bison, salmon, pike, trout, swine, elk, and shrimp. We seldom think of them as unique, as singular, as individuals. Like the carcass at the roadside on Hamilton, deer are always off to the side, standing at the margins. Rushing by, drivers don’t ask whether they know that deer or not. We see them out of the corner of our eye if we see them at all. Only the hunter sees the deer dead center in his sights. I want to move the deer to the center of my picture.
Do I know the deer? Know is too strong a word, for it implies a human intimacy and familiarity, an explicit relationship that I can’t claim. Still, deer come through my yard regularly, and this Hamilton deer may well have visited a hundred times, stood below my window while I slept, munched my hostas while I watched. When its eyes were alive, our eyes may have met. If know doesn’t precisely describe the relationship, what word does? We co-habit this range, are residents of the land and also temporary dwellers. I do not know whether I figure in the deer’s memory or imagination or whether thinking in those terms is plausible. The deer establish patterns, I occupy a spot on their range map, and in that sense they know my house and the lay of the land about it. Do they recognize me? I doubt it, not in the sense humans understand the concept. But it is possible they recognize me in a form of sense memory. Primarily deer look at me to determine whether I am a threat. Do they learn over time that I am not, or is their reaction to me only and ever as a possible threat? Certain groups that stand at hedges, around the yards, in the fields and natural areas, I register as familiar—“That’s the doe and two fawns that came through yesterday,” I say to myself. Right now a group is browsing at my neighbors two doors down; a doe pauses below the back balcony, munching a hedge she’d disdain if it weren’t barren winter. Now a fawn, and another, joins her in the hedge destruction. They drift over to my yard to check out the bird feeder. This isn’t the trio that before my eyes hungrily raided it the previous week. The doe is wary of the feeder, checks it with her tongue, sniffs something she doesn’t like, and backs away. When one of the fawns tries to take a turn, she swats it away with her head. They move on to the backyard and find vegetation to consume where I see nothing.
There is one particular deer I catch sight of all over the subdivision. (I think of it as the same deer, though I may be collapsing several individuals into one.) A young deer, a buck, underdeveloped, a little ungainly, a smallish head without antlers or poise, and alone, always a solitary traveler. When I spot it alone across the river, browsing or lying down, I think, “That is the deer I know.” At the same time, I am in doubt, thinking I am imposing a familiarity upon these encounters.
When I see the animal at the side of Hamilton Road, I worry that it is the deer I know.
Sighting, later. Full moon when we walk with the dogs after dinner. Omar the retriever senses deer before I do, and his ears go up. A moment after, two deer dash through on our right and disappear behind a house. Omar wants to chase them. When I am in bed later, the full moon hangs visible through the skylights. Its light beams into my face and wakes me. I feel shot through with cold light and called to the fields.
In Middle English der, in Old English deor, meant a wild animal of any kind,in contrast to cattle or other livestock that could be pastured on designated land. Deer aren’t domestic, like a horse in a stable whose name is inscribed on the stall door, or cows in a barn. They do not saunter over to the fence to see if you have an apple. You cannot ride them for pleasure or compete in a steeplechase. You cannot derive milk from them for butter or cheese. You can’t have a history with a deer in the usual sense. They’re wild, and no pasture contains them. They belong to no one and come and go as they please.
December 11. Driving home on Mt. Hope, inappropriately named given all the animal deaths that occur on it, I knew long before I could see distinctly that a dead deer was lying on the grassy shoulder, a border lightly dusted with snow. The deer’s head is facing the street, and blood has seeped from front and back of its lithe body. Red dots of frozen blood in the snow. I can’t reconstruct what happened here. If the deer was crossing from north to south, why wouldn’t it be lying in the road; how could the impact throw the body to land in this position? I am probably the only person who wants to know how the deer assumed its posture. No one thinks about how it happened or why the deer assumes its final pose—not the way we are haunted by people in the last throes of life. We have to know that the heart attack came on suddenly as Uncle Harry was doing the laundry and that’s why he was found sprawled on the basement floor with a black sock in his hand. What is it in me that needs to know about this animal? And suddenly I understand—it is natural to grab a carcass by the hind legs to pull it away from traffic.
It will be days before anyone removes the deer from the shoulder. I will see it many times on my way to and from work—I’ll be looking for it, knowing it is there, unattended. I feel alone and cold, aware that the deer turns me around on myself, standing apart from other people.
Home, I start to make dinner. Out the back windows two deer lying down on the banks of the river. While chopping mushrooms and squash, I remember the survey the Meridian Township invited its residents to take in response to a plan to allow antlerless deer hunting on selected public, and perhaps private, lands. According to its website, the township had been receiving complaints from citizens saying, for example, “The deer are everywhere!” No statistics supported claims that the population had increased to an unhealthy, threatening number. That, however, was the perception of the general populace. I knew it was pointless to fill out the survey, and that the township had already determined to allow managed hunts on parklands normally closed to hunting. Still, I answered the questions and voiced my concern about the lack of evidence in support of the conclusions reached. The survey asked for contact information, which I provided, so that I might be gotten back to. No one called, no one wrote.
Determining a good size for the deer population in a town like ours is not settled by figuring out how many deer the land can support. A decision also depends on what people feel about their interactions with deer. At one of the meetings of the Environmental Commission, an expert emphasized the need for democratic discussion to determine the township’s stance on deer. Some residents—farmers, garden enthusiasts, and those who have experienced an automobile-deer collision—will prefer a low density, while others who have a higher tolerance for the problems deer cause will prefer a higher density. On the spectrum of possible values, I place myself on the high end of tolerance. Yet I am concerned with the quality of life and the health of the deer. If overpopulation can be demonstrated, along with the deterioration of health and habitat, I would favor a management plan.
At a dinner party where the township’s managed hunts were discussed, one of the women called deer “giant rats with antlers” and was pleased that their numbers would be thinned. She and her husband maintain a substantial garden and an orchard, and deer are the enemy. They occupy a place on the low end of deer tolerance. Her relish at their demise reminded me of a hunter neighbor who each year hangs his latest trophy from a jungle gym to drain the blood before dressing. He has a fenced backyard that would shield the carcass from his neighbors’ view, but that would not display his achievement. Residents have asked him to move the deer, which disturbed their children, but he refuses.
At the dinner party I felt troubled in a way that has been familiar to me since childhood. Conversation about subjects I care deeply about at a dinner party will not allow me to express myself in a way that feels true or even okay. When I’ve been unguarded enough to say something real, the emotions blast out and spray everyone around me in the face and it isn’t pleasant for anyone. When it comes to my views about animals, I always feel at the margin. It was a group of educated companions who felt certain of their priority over animals. Not troubled, not questioning, not pausing, not a disturbed stirring arose that suggested the matter of harvesting deer was complicated. There was no place for feelings, or feelings of the sort I am burdened by. After my frustration with them and with myself built up sufficient pressure, I blurted out, “I prefer deer to human beings.” I don’t know if that is true, but I said it because I was enflamed, compelled to throw a hand grenade into the dinner chat. Afterward I felt embarrassed and exposed. I wanted to leap over a fence and disappear. You might expect that my daffy outburst offended my companions. It did not. They didn’t take me seriously.
December 12. Dead deer still there at the side of Mt. Hope.
Sighting, late night. In the dark I let my dogs out into the side yard. On automatic pilot, sleepy, I do not think about the wildlife they might surprise. When I turn on the back lights, I see a shape at the bottom of the yard. The dogs don’t immediately see or sense the solitary deer, much larger than usual. It moves slightly up from the river and Omar sees it. He charges toward it but halfway to his goal stops. This deer stood his ground. When Omar came back, he bounds up the porch steps and back into the house.
December 13. Deer gone; removed.
Sighting, December 19, midmorning. Four deer, a doe and three semi-grown fawns, in the yard. In the daylight the deer often stay down by the river. The winter hunger is changing the behavior of this group—they’re awfully close. Between browsings, the mother licks the fawns, head and neck, and then moving down the back. The fawns lick her, too, and they touch heads and rub necks.
Midafternoon we drive on Dobie Road to our friends’ house to drop off Christmas cookies. On the way home an hour later, I see a dead deer at the side of the road that wasn’t there on the outbound trip. I wonder if I know this deer.
December 20, morning. I go out of my way to see if the deer is still on Dobie. I can’t see it driving south. But when I turn around and return going north, I spot it. It has fallen a good way off the road and is shielded by brush and shrubs. “Still there,” I say out loud. Still there. What is wrong with me?
December 20, noon. I take my camera and walk with the dogs across Sander Farm. We pass the deep red barn on which figures painted in white announce the settling of the land in 1875. This barn and another a little farther north are remnants of the rural past, when the area was predominantly fields of crops. Stoplights have been installed along Dobie at several spots, but it’s a terrible trap for deer—two narrow lanes, with a speed limit pegged to its semirural nature; if you swerve, you’ll run into oncoming traffic or fly up on the sidewalk. But deer cross the road in numbers, coming and going from the Dobie Reserve, an undeveloped swathe of land that the Red Cedar River runs through. My deer was on its way to the fence that borders the Reserve, or had just surmounted it. Less than a hundred yards away is a stoplight, and fifty yards away a bus stop.
Last summer a small deer died in the Commons. A member of the neighborhood association board of trustees called the Ingham County Roads Commission, which informed him that the ICRC only picks up carcasses from public roads. So a neighbor tilted the animal onto a tarp and dragged it out to the street. In two days it vanished. It was through this incident that I learned who removes deer from roads.
When I arrive home, I call the Road Commission about the deer on Dobie. The man I speak to says he’ll fill out a work order to pick up the carcass since it is on a public road.
“What do you do with the deer once you pick it up?” I ask.
“Relocate it,” he says, to a place where it can decompose naturally and won’t bother anyone. If the deer is already too far gone to be moved, the Road Commission douses it with lime.
December 22. Something is building in me—I can’t get deer out of my head or eyes. Wherever I look, I see deer. And I don’t look away. I don’t say I have something better to do. Out my study window in the side yard or at the bird feeder, in the back, down by the river, lying down, at night when I let the dogs out, there they are, in the morning under my window, walking in Sander Farm, dead on all the roads I drive to get to work, to go anywhere. I’m trying to sort it, as the British, say. Sort it covers a multitude of meanings—figure out what’s going on, what you feel, fix it—it being some form of trouble, of confusion, of malfunction. But in this case, I don’t think anything is malfunctioning. All my senses and feelings seem in high alert, watchful, fully alive and engaged. Something inside me says, “Look, here they come, the deer, pay attention. This is a moment in time like no other, when what is ordinary becomes something else.”
Sighting, December 28. Deer across the river, lying down. I get out my binoculars and count them: seven. Bright sun, blue skies, and biting cold. They’re scattered, not far from each other. Hours go by in this resting position. At 4:30 one deer gets up, and then another, and eventually all seven are on their feet. Not doing much. Cleaning, urinating, more cleaning, taking slow, leisurely steps down to the river, drinking. Calm. Then my husband lets our dogs out into the side yard before he feeds them. The dogs are on the other side of the river from the deer, a long way away. Each deer freezes and look across the river at the dogs. At first none of them looks alarmed—they’re just paying attention. And then, as if in response to something I can’t detect, all seven lift their white tails and bound in a group out of the woods.
With deer, we cannot know and we cannot be known in the usual sense—there’s a freedom in that, freedom from the usual forms of feeling. The deer emerge out of the woods and take me away with them. I put down my task, look out, and suddenly the window becomes enormous and I feel shaken awake. Maybe the deer reintroduce me to parts of myself I thought I had lost or thwarted—a capacity for receiving a vibration of beauty that has rearranged the wiring of my brain.
Sighting, January 1. Off Dobie Road, on my way to a trailhead, a bit of undeveloped land. Getting out of my car, I glimpse in the corner of my eye a young buck on the other side of the railroad tracks that parallel the trail. I walk toward the opening of light made by the right of way. At first he doesn’t sense my presence. When he picks me out of the landscape, he rotates his head and focuses, like a camera adjusting a zoom lens. I expect him to disappear into the trees, for that’s what deer do, flee, lifting tails high in white dismissal. But when this creature moves, he moves toward me. I try to hold my ground, but unwittingly I shift. And at that, the deer turns and leaps into the brush.
I keep after him, following his course. I spot him again, atop a mound of colorful cardboard boxes and other garbage, on the track behind him an abandoned railroad car, red and black with graffiti. His eyes hang on an invisible line running to me. We share a moment. And then with a snort that hangs in the air, long, humid, and velvet-lined, he jumps for the woods and disappears.
If I could I would follow him anywhere.
January 3. News reports say that residents of Meridian Township have responded positively to the managed hunts. Among respondents to the survey, 72.7 percent answered yes to this question: “Have you or a member of your family experienced or come close to a deer/vehicle accident in Meridian Township/” The question provides no time frame—in the last year, in the last ten years? What does “come close to” mean? It is impossible to ascertain from the results whether there has been a real increase in collisions, or a perceived one. A managed hunt was approved by 74.6 percent of respondents, 68.9 percent favored “encouragement of residents to hunt or allow hunting on large parcels of private property, defined as five acres or more.” As of today, forty-one deer have been harvested, and the township board has approved an extension of the hunt through the end of February.
 The township’s draft Deer Management Plan reads: “It is difficult to obtain exact numbers of the deer herd population.” In other words, the township couldn’t say with any convincing authority whether the number had indeed increased. Local biologists were quoted as saying that damage to vegetation and incidents of deer-vehicle accidents were sufficient measures to justify the hunts. I could find no statistics that would indicate a recent surge in deer-vehicle collisions.
 In all the materials deer are treated as a resource that government agencies have a right to manage. And manage they have—decreasing or increasing their number as the historical moment dictates.
About Marcia Aldrich
Marcia Aldrich is the author of the free memoir Girl Rearing, published by W.W. Norton and part of the Barnes and Noble Discover New Writers Series. She has been the editor of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. In 2010 she was the recipient of the Distinguished Professor of The Year Award for the State of Michigan. Companion to An Untold Story won the AWP Award in Creative Nonfiction. She is at work on Haze, a narrative of marriage and divorce during her college years.