Monday, December 12, 2011


THE YOUNG DEER – one who’d maybe just lost his spots – and his doe stepped right into traffic. I saw the whole thing as if it were in slow motion. Actually, it was slow motion, because I was in town, not on the highway, and I was neither on the BMW nor the Guzzi. Wouldn’t have mattered if I had been on a bike because, as I said, the whole thing happened in slow motion.
NORTH AMERICA’S deer population resides in two emotional spaces at once. For many of us, they are graceful, placid creatures occupying a certain place in the meadow, the forest and the food chain. From a distance, we watch one ear twitch, then another. They raise their noses and, once they’ve caught our scent, they bounce out of harm’s way and then prance off into the brush. But for many of us they are vile vermin who graze in our gardens, wreaking havoc on our cucumbers, tomatoes, and strawberries. They crane upward and fetch our low hanging apples and pears. They drive the dog nuts.

And they step out into traffic as if they were here first. Exhibit A: Up highway 70 about fifteen years ago, one bounded in front of a pick-up fifth wheel combination and its entrails spattered across the front of the Mazda MPV my wife was using to pass the combo. Until we sold that vehicle, the van bore scars in its finish from the deer’s gastric acids. Exhibit B: On State Route 9 in Washington, a riding buddy, travelling at about 60 miles per hour, glanced momentarily at some Cascade arête. When he returned his focus to the road, it was too late – both for the deer and his expensive riding suit.

Still, the sight of a yearling grazing the mule’s ear in some pristine glade prompts pause and wonder and feelings of peace.

SONORA, CALIFORNIA is a foothill town whose roots are firmly planted in the Gold Rush. The old town site spans several small streams where pockets of gold were uncovered by miners from Mexico in the early days. The current water system still relies upon small dams and a network of ditches that course along the sides of area hills: a system set in place over 150 years ago. In this Central Sierra region, deer summer in the high country at places like Kennedy Meadows and Clark Fork. Come fall, they migrate down to the foothills; some sharing pasture land with horses and cattle, some living off the bounty of residents’ vegetable gardens and orchards. Sadly, the urban/forest interface is invisible. The path from food to water crosses pavement.
Washington Street is Sonora’s main thoroughfare leading from the antique district up to the town’s signature Red Church. It is Sunday and there is not much traffic. Services ended early enough that the men folk could arrive home in time to gather beer and chips and settle in for the kick-off of the 49er game. Three or four streets join at this intersection: Washington, Elkins, Shaws Flat. Down the way a bit is the creek that runs next to the high school. I wait at the stop sign on Elkins at Washington Street because there is a little rise over which traffic flows on its way in from historic Columbia, perhaps at a clip a bit too great for the old downtown.

Looking across the intersection, my wife and I see the mama and her yearling, clippity-clopping across the pavement. The scene unfolds. They are in the crosswalk, but they are not watching. A car comes over the rise, but it is a vehicle from the other direction – a direction from which the deer are evident – that moves unabated. In the seconds before the inevitable, I wish I’d have yelled or sounded my pick-up’s horn, but as I said, things were happening in slow motion and that slow motion included me.

The doe is bumped broad side by the car and bounces away; the yearling is not so lucky. We see him tumble under the front wheel, his foreleg run over. The automobile didn’t stop. Perhaps the driver didn’t even feel the impact. Perhaps the driver understood deer as vermin. The little fella struggles to its feet and falls. Struggles some more and falls again. And again. Mother waits in the churchyard. Finally, the yearling finds its balance and hobbles – three little hooves operational, one dangling, helpless – next to the doe. They make it to the edge of Washington Street. By this time, I am out of my car, waving at traffic that creeps up to the scene. The animals cross the main street and head past my vehicle. I call 9-1-1 and animal control, but what I really want to do was intercept the little deer and hold on to him – hugging – hugging until the authority can arrive and dispatch the little guy. A second yearling comes to the scene; bounds recklessly across the street and the three of them make it up Elkins taking shelter somewhere in the woods just beyond the Aronas Women’s Club.

The police arrive. I point the direction and the young officer thanks me. (Privately, I wonder whether he simply returns to patrol because there is likely nothing he can do – it being a Wild Kingdom and all.)

Returning to the truck, I rejoin my wife who is reliving visions of Highway 70 and shaking with angst.

VERMIN OR PEACEFUL CREATURES, deer are living beings. Pity’s fingers wrap around my throat and hold on. For a long part of the drive home, I cannot speak.

© 2011
Church of the Open Road Press

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