No more room between the inns
It can seem we do nothing but disgrace each other. When had I last encountered you and thought you wild, mysterious, and beautiful? Maybe thankfully, I’m spared of ever learning what you think of me. A late summer morning; I step out to the porch and gaze over the acres, where an extended family of—count them—eight whitetail deer, are browsing under the fruit trees: does, young bucks, half-grown fawns. In the small hours, if I had strafed the grounds with a flashlight, I would have lit up your retinas to an intense emerald green, where you were bedded under the same trees, your lifted heads considering my intrusion with more fascination than alarm. What’s he up to now, this insatiable fellow? And in the morning light, unless I happen to charge you in rage, I’m no more inclined to earn your fear; your raised eyes regard me with an irritating mixture of insolence and pitying curiosity, before you drop your heads and resume your Edenic browsing. I’ve grown to regard you as a worthless itinerant livestock, or worse: a semi-domesticated pest.
This land is your land. This land is my land.
We wage an everlasting cold war on these acres. I have raised an interrupted Berlin Wall around everything I grow and you would otherwise devour to the ground: sunflowers, sweet corn, blackberries, tomatoes, peppers—no, it’s saner to list the pittance I’ve learned you spare: among my flowers, daisies and daffodils; of the vegetables I raise, onions and eggplant; any unguarded young fruit tree but the peach you will shear of new growth and cripple or even kill. I’m not even especially fond of daffodils; I am resigned to exhibiting tastes I can only explain as being contrary to yours. And no secret recipe of deer retardant can long forestall you—I’ve tried dozens; in these regions, you are too many and by summer too famished to overlook even what’s barely edible. Nothing can spare the fruits and vegetables of my labors but six-foot high fencing or a careful overlay of nylon netting.
The summer night I’ve yet to forgive you for, when you crashed through my garden enclosure, and laid waste to the vegetables I strive to live on. You cropped my carrot tops, annihilated my lettuce, ravaged my tomatoes and summer squash, chewed down my early corn to the stalks, devoured my fond little watermelons and cantaloupes, stripped nearly bare my pea, bean and sweet pepper plants—even the pumpkins you don’t have a taste for you tasted, taking one bite from each on my vines; and the herbs you detest you desecrated with your black dung. It seemed less a Roman feast than the reckoning of the Gambino family for missed installments of protection money. The following morning, gazing over my crops in disbelief, I entertained the idea of poisoning you. But I only reinforced my enclosure, and when you returned the next night for a second helping, I was waiting, gun in hand—actually, only an air rifle, an heirloom from my boyhood. I chased you through the dark, back to the woods across the road, shouting curses and firing copper BBs in your general direction.
And there was the autumn I tried to kill your appetite with kindness, by leaving our substantial apple-fall for you to devour. I reasoned that with a stomach full of the organically-grown apple variety of your choice, you’d spare my raspberry canes, my low-hanging blue plums, my glory flowers. Fat chance: you nightly arrived in thrice your accustomed numbers, and even acquired a taste for my unprotected broccoli, that you had previously ignored, but that now appeared to go well with apples. And by day, up from the lake, marched in single file the Canada geese, some fifty to a hundred of those ceaselessly bickering crap-machines—when have I last thought of them as wild, mysterious and beautiful?—to noisily pick at the apple cores you left behind. So the reward for my calculated charity was a deer-and-goose shitfest swarming with five species of hornets, and each autumn since I have assiduously composted our windfalls.
Little deer, who made thee? Little deer, tell him he must positively go on making the tiger too.
Little deer, there is no more room for you—there is no more room between the inns.
A June afternoon. I’m tramping to our back shed through some grass I’ve let grow high, when I incidentally flush out another bedded fawn, spangling new to the world, that in its charmingly stumbling way, like a performer learning to walk on stilts, hurries for the woods across the road, where, somewhere back in the trees, surely a doe stands watching with riveting maternal concern. The fawn’s instinct to lay and hide when for safety it is forsaken by its parent. The mother’s instinct to remotely wait and watch for a perceived danger to pass before retrieving her concealed newborn. And my own instinct, as merciful as it is merciless, to find this fawn so dear. The child in the fawn; the fawn in the child; nothing speaks more compellingly of our own mammalian natures than the instinctual and eminently exploitable affection we feel for nearly all newborn creatures. That dreamlike earth-toned impressionism gracing the fawn’s pelt—and its camouflage is an impressionistic landscape, is it not? And to think there was absolutely no one at the easel; once again, the sense of the mystical in our age is most often founded not on religious revelation, but rather from the insights gained through rational scientific inquiry. No one at the easel: or should we say that its masters were the timberwolf and the mountain lion, as their hunger perfected the fawn’s pelt to invisibility? If so, those masters have grown as remote from their canvas as Vincent van Gogh from his Twelve Sunflowers in a Vase. There are no natural predators remaining in these haunts that the fawn must elude. In fact, I propose that her camouflage has become a liability—I could easily have maimed or killed her if I’d happened to mow this expanse while she lay perfectly concealed.
This last large wild mammal consistently in our midst, in this paradise cleansed of her ancient foes, that like all paradises on Earth, turns out to be one more sordid purgatory, if not a new, incomprehensible hell. Where will she end up, this fawn, as she grows like Alice in her dreamland, as the woodlands go on shrinking beneath her hooves—as square by square the woodlots are eaten away by periurban sprawl; as the web of well-traveled roads grows ever more intricate and deadly; as the barbed-wire unspools and ensnares; as the vast cornfields go on serving the feasts that fuel the famines, as the sport-hunting grows more grotesque as is grows more necessary; as the next rampant infectious disease decimates her herd, so devastatingly overconfined, and culled by inadequate and unnatural means?
Maybe this will be her, this light-colored elevation I spy one steamy summer afternoon in our grass along the road. I don’t have to approach very close to recognize it as another dead deer. Struck by a vehicle in the night, then dragged to the roadside—to our side of the road, where, as I’d learned in earlier phone calls to local authorities, it becomes my dead deer, to dispose of with my brawn, and as I see fit. I feel nothing but contempt for the reckless drivers who maim and kill so much wildlife along our back roads; I myself am obsessively cautious at the wheel, and take a certain pride in having avoided such harm for many years. But the deer where it lay on its side evokes from me no particular emotions. This is a large doe that, but for a wide track of blood leading to her from the road, shows no obvious signs of trauma; and there is an unsettling moment when the moist ebony eye staring my way seems to be that of a living deer, but then I see that flies are swarming her muzzle, that her belly is distinctly swollen, and my boot reveals that her limbs are already stiff with rigor mortis.
The spring rut, the summer’s running boil of biting flies, the autumn hunts and the winter-long starvation, take their seasonal turns driving the whitetails out of the woods and onto the roads. The inevitable altercations constitute for us a gruesome, literal rite of passage. Our auto-body shops loudly advertise free loaners to car-owners in need of major repairs after a collision with a deer—a collision the car-owner implicitly survived. But no one insures the deer a decent burial, and so a Sunday drive to Grandmother’s along our major byways is like an easy amusement-park ride whose theme is the slaughterhouse. The wine-dark isles of gore every half-mile, the bloated and eviscerated carcasses strewing the medians and side-strips, the legs often sprouting into the air, the funereal flocks of feasting crows, can acquire the ambiance of a Francis Bacon retrospective. You might suppose that all the butchering for our immaculate supermarkets was conducted in transit, with the offal periodically flung to the roads. What do the mommies say, I wonder, as they chauffeur the little ones to and fro past these massacres? Maybe it’s best if our angels are watching Bambi on their little screens. For me, the best incidental music for these morbid excursions is rock—our soundtrack to the hideousness of the world. Rock’s post-industrial primal scream, like these interstate hecatombs, remind us that we’ve left nothing, absolutely nothing behind. We are not inclined to view our highway casualties as sacrifices because they are not direct propitiations to the heavens. But if we demystify the past, we see that these bloody offerings and those of old are essentially one and the same. For what is all the slaughter that barbarically gores our daily travels, what but our own animal and even human sacrifices, placating the Demons of Speed and Convenience?
If you are contemplating committing a murder, and the crime will entail digging your victim’s gravehole, think twice, my friend. Never mind your soul; if only on account of the shovel work, it may not be worth it. For the next half-hour or so, I am laboring at our burn pile, spading out a gravehole fit for—and this doesn’t escape me—a human corpse, first through the ashes of the wood fires, and then through the wet clay beneath, that clings to my shovel blade with annoying tenacity. The chore at last complete, I am standing waist-deep in a broad clayey pit as obscene as a crone’s gaping genitals. I am breathless, drenched in sweat, and composing my own epitaph. For example: Marked by the deer Mafioso, he even dug his own grave. Then I’m retrieving from the garage our Massey Ferguson tractor and some lengths of drag chain. With difficulty, trying not to handle the rigid carcass, I wrap the links a few times around the abdomen, and in turning over the deer I see that her trauma was substantial, that the anus is gored, and that blood had escaped the mouth, from which the tongue is also protruding. But the doe doesn’t seem like such a large deer now, and she is indisputably handsome, and the gentleness in her gaze grieves me a little. Lovely animal, why do you cause me so much trouble? Why can’t you be reasonable? You only know how to take. And it’s true, we are alone on the planet in our mature, relatively unself-interested giving—what pittance of such unnatural giving we manage to manifest. We are alone on Earth with all of God’s greedy children. The web of life is a web of countervailing greeds, and only when that web is damaged and skewed are we inclined perceive how infernal that equilibrium of greed really is. I give the chain ends a test pull; the deer is heavy, as anticipated, but moves adequately over the ground. I fasten the chains to the tractor and without much difficulty haul the deer to the hole. But unwrapping the now-bloodied chains, and worrying the carcass to the pit, are not so easy, and there is a sudden frightening moment when the deer seems to come to life, when with a deep interior rumble blood begins to gurgle from the nostrils, and I have to stand aside to regain my composure, unsettled by both my alarm and then my amusement over the alarm. Oh full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife. It’s as though, in digging this gravehole, I have revised the past and become the murderer I have often dreaded becoming. Finally the carcass lay in the pit bottom in a position I would describe as comfortable, and without a thought to funerary rites I begin shoveling in the clay from the mound alongside. This is less of an effort than digging the hole, but by the time the ground is fairly level, I’m perspiring heavily once again.
Boom. Here comes the shotgun slug with my name on it. Boom, boom. I’m tilling my garden at autumn’s end. Boom. Coifed in orange, I’m running my miles on the wood paths. Boom—boom boom. Pruning the fruit trees, cleaning out the birdhouses—the targeted buck bolts, the bullet improbably clears the woods, and the one-in-a-million headshot is on its way. Boom! So the run-on sentence of my life is punctuated by the sport hunters…and just keeps on running. My estranged boyhood buddies, for whom I still feel much affection, the outdoorsmen—those fellows who can only appreciate the wilds by viewing them through a rifle scope, or down the ferrules of a fishing pole. Like the acquisitive birders with their checklists, they have to be doing something out there; they have to have an assignment. With my late father, I myself was a small-game hunter in my youth—a blessedly incompetent one; and now in middle age, in the contest between nostalgia and the largely vacuous ritual slaughter of today, nostalgia can be a whole lot stronger. I can still enjoy our weekly local sportsman’s television program, Michigan Out-Of-Doors, that I fondly remember watching as a boy with my dad. But the early winter episodes dedicated to the whitetail hunting season, when it appears that the entire state of Michigan is an open-air butcher’s freezer: it’s still another experience that makes one fear there aren’t enough souls to go around anymore, that maybe three of every four of us are simply doing without. All those carcasses hanging by their rear hooves from the meathooks in the gloomy, boozy deer camps; the hundreds of kills on macabre display at the gun clubs that swarm with celebratory hunters, male and female these days—and this is one of the growing revelations of the triumph of feminism: that women don’t have many original ideas of what to do with themselves, that it’s still little sister following around big brother, and maybe it will always be that way. And there’s the annual parade of snapshots sent in by viewers posing with their kills, the shooter raising by the antlers the deer’s often deformed, oozing head, so that the lusterless eyes of the carcass are directed at the camera like those of the proud hunter crouched alongside, and you can imagine the portrait gracing the front of a personalized Christmas card: Season’s greetings from Bill and his buck! And later, when the prize heads of the season are back from the taxidermists, and the hunters appear in person with their mounts to relate their winning strategies—how they contributed to culling our deer herds by selectively exterminating the very fittest, the mightiest bucks shouldering the heaviest racks, insuring that future epidemic diseases of the herds will be historically ruinous. (And there is the human tally of this anarchic harvesting of what has become a nomadic livestock: a license to kill is an ostensible license to be killed. Everyone remembers someone who saw his last on a deer hunt; my own cousin was dead-on-arrival in his teens, after a companion’s dropped hunting rifle discharged into his head.) By then my nostalgia is no match for my nausea; and yet I am still moved by the appearance of a fortyish father with his two sons, eight and ten, with each boy presenting the modest antlers of his inaugural deer. The proud pleasant father was maybe as thoughtful as he needed to be; but the older of his sons, who with such unself-conscious earnest proceeded to describe his first hunt—how in the morning mists his buck materialized in the bean field their hunting blind overlooked, how just as he had been trained by his father, he took aim and fired, and then how the deer was successfully tracked by the blood trailing from its fatal neck wound—there was an unmistakable intelligence in that boy, and the gift of a good storyteller, and almost certainly therefore an emerging conscience. At the conclusion of his fond soliloquy, his father is positively beaming with pride, and the emcee glances incredulously at the camera, before laughingly extolling on the boy’s eloquence—with no eloquence at all. And I wondered how decades from now this boy would grow to feel about this footage, this documentary evidence of—well, of what? Of a proud family tradition, maybe, that he had loyally, even responsibly, passed on to his own children; possibly he would return to Michigan-Out-Of-Doors like his father, balding and with some early gray in his beard, to introduce his little daughter with her own inaugural rack. Maybe the family tradition included consuming the venison of their kills, in lieu of meat procured from the nightmare of the industrial feedlots. Or maybe, like me, he would cure himself of the tradition of carnivorism, and grow to deplore his own legacy of sport killing—his enactment of a family tradition before he was morally equipped to assess that tradition. And maybe, reflecting on his early fate, he would ask himself how he would have been led to behave as an insecure white boy in the Jim Crow South, or as a Catholic kid tagging along on Kristalnicht, or as a Hutu youth passed a machete and the word cockroach. Maybe he would conclude that he was as blameless as he could bear to be, that he was fortunate his preordained quarry had been only legal game, and that when we punish even the most egregious war criminals, we are punishing first and foremost the contingency of their birth.
And however he grew to relate to that tradition, I suspect he would recognize that if there if a species of nihilism at the core of sport-killing, there is also often one at the heart of its proscription—in the sentimental denial that we are all death-bringing and death-deserving. The human legacy of hunting and carnivorism is visible in our mirrors and inscribed in our genomes; in seeking an extreme moral purity antithetical to the biological laws of existence, we criminalize not only our ancestors but the rest of the Earth’s inhabitants, and our lives as they must be lived are inclined to become worthy of nothing but renunciation.
A mild evening in early October. I’m hiking the backwoods. The tree canopy is still in its waning, late-summer green, but the sumac have flared and mast is abundant—nearly every glimpsed squirrel has the prize of a nut in its jaws. As often happens late in the year, the return leg of my hike is in near-total darkness, but I know my paths like the deer know theirs, and in these benign woods, except in hunting season, I have nothing to fear but my own despair. Getting lost is for me less a concern than is the realization that I have always been lost. But now it’s the deer bow-hunting season; mornings and late afternoons I encounter dusty vehicles pulled off along the dirt access roads; and when ahead of me on the benighted path I see the wavering, piercing beam of a halogen lamp, I am attentive without being alarmed. Continuing my approach, I cough once into my hand, to discretely signal my presence, and I’m immediately scanned by the blindingly fierce ice-blue of the beam. Soon I can just make out the bowman’s silhouette standing among the trees. I see that the beam emanates from his forehead, and that a second light, a rather sinister ruby targeting laser, is emitted by his bow; crucially, the laser is not trained on me. The first silent moment of our encounter in the dark I find to be very unsettling. I will be reminded of Robert Frost, and the poems wherein he encounters a neighbor he thought he knew, thought he knew to be civilized, until the fellow is incidentally before him clutching a boulder in each hand, or with an ax poised over his head, and the poet is disturbed by a moment of doubt—doubt that we have left anything primal behind, doubt that we can know anyone.
“How’s it goin’?” I offer his eerily persistent silence at my nearest pass—his silhouette stands a few feet off the trail.
“Good,” he replies, as I continue on. And that good: the way it was articulated, without the accustomed rising inflection, with none of the affirmation or generosity with which it usually answers my salutation; his was more of a parry, at best a flat, manly denial of dejection, at worst a one-word end to a conversation before it began. I am chilled, and almost immediately I think: No, good is not the right word, however it was meant. Possibly he realized that the moment the word left his lips. Not good. Inevitable, maybe, this killing for sport. Irrepressible. Natural, even. For some, a covenant. And now conceivably necessary to the well-being of the deer. But not good.
No, good is not the right word.
The pale swath of the immediate trail is all I can see. When I enter the double darkness of a stand of conifers, even that disappears; my feet take over from my eyes, and I journey on with a Zen-like intuitiveness, until a vague berth in the trees is perceptible once more. And then, further on, I am startled by a violent commotion: large animals, just ahead of me, thrash away invisibly through the understory. Deer, I realize—they can only be fleeing deer, and my terror subsides. Amid the ballet-like reports of their striking hooves, one emits the vehement hiss that, however often heard in such encounters, always disturbs me. Obscenity: you know it when you hear it; and that earful of sibilance from a deer always jars like unanticipated profanity, like a vile curse spat out by an angelic-looking girl. I hear it as the hiss of a release of pressure, of so much secretly built-up enmity, now safely directed at a lone unarmed man in the dark, and I am inclined to take it personally, even to bear the unacknowledged guilt of all of my kind. Groping onward, I realize I am lost. Lost between the human and the inhuman, between right and wrong, between Nature as it is and Nature as we can bear it to be; between the Earth that is our home, and the Earth that can never be our home.
My own first deer. If I can tell it as well as that ten-year-old boy. Late February. I’m doing thirty or so down a back road through a light afternoon snow. My mind is elsewhere, but no amount of vigilance could have helped me avoid her. I glimpse the deer the instant before she is hurling herself against my driver’s door. It seems less an incidental collision than the premeditated charge of a suicide attacker—the deer Mafioso has turned to Islamist terrorism. I hear her bones clatter against my door and window; my sideview mirror disappears. As soon I can brake to a stop, I find her in my rearview mirror, a smallish doe crumpled on the road, but for only a moment: she rises effortlessly, and without a perceptible limp dashes away, across the road in the direction she had been heading. As I double back, I’m cursing aloud, but not at myself, at her: for having spoiled my sterling record in sparing wildlife at the wheel—and my perfect record in avoiding deer. I pull off the road where we’d collided, and look for her through the falling snow. There is no sight of her along the windrow she likely followed over the whitened pasture, to the dense woodlot beyond. But I will track her. If internal injuries finally drop her, I must end her misery, then manage some sort of burial. Out in the snowing cold I consider my car: the shattered sideview mirror dangles from its mount by an interior cable—this I can at least partly repair; but there is also a dimple in my driver’s door—the bitter madeleine of a door dent that I will see each time I approach my rusting crate, until I can finally afford to junk it: a stigma to remind me that any pretension to innocence or purity on my part is a sham—that I am up to my neck with the rest of my kind in the mire of the world, and maybe all I can decently strive for is to not sink in over my head—if only so I can be heard to scream.
I follow her prints scoring the snowy pasture; soon they merge with the tracks of other deer; she was likely trailing an extended family scouring for winter sustenance. And reaching the woodlot, a sixth sense awakens in me: I am being watched. Turning presciently to my right, to a thinly wooded elevation, I see a half-dozen deer through the tumbling snow, gazing down on me in sculptural stillness. Raised ears cupped my way, eyes dark and moist as if with emotion, their gray pelts grayer than the snowing sky, less gray than the trunks of the nude trees—a medley of grays that is the one gray of a glimmer of hope. The smaller doe at the periphery, that grows impatient with my own stillness and petulantly stomps a front hoof, a mild provocation very familiar to me, a demand that I show my hand, but I have nothing to show, nothing but a futile empathy, and a hope: that she is the doe that had struck my car. The largest deer, another doe, shivers the snowfall from her hide and turns to depart, her lively tail erect. The others sequentially turn and follow her slow, bounding retreat through the trees. And then, as sometimes happens, I experience the relativity of the falling snow: where once I perceived the snowflakes descending, I see the deer in ascent: behind a static veil of snow, I see the unhurried athletic grace of their departure raising them toward the firmament, with brief glances back to note if I am following. I see their climb of the treed slope as also a miraculous ascension into the latening winter sky, into a snowing, rarefied wilderness, a wilderness not of this Earth, a wilderness without end.