One Looks at One

A walk through nature and life


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“In a dark time, the eye begins to see,” the poet Theodore Roethke says. For me, a moment of seeing occurred in the pale half light just before dawn one morning toward the end of July. Waiting for the carafe of the Mr. Coffee machine to fill with just enough coffee to banish the last vestiges of drowsiness, I happened to glance out the backyard windows into the garden and saw, as if conjured from that auroral seam between night and morning, a fully-mature, antlered buck nibbling on some sedum. I knew deer were paying calls to the garden. They had left their visiting cards: Cropped day lilies, gnawed hostas, and cloven, heart-shaped hoof prints. Neighbors had spoken of seeing deer in their yards, but, until this particular morning, they had been only trace presences in mine. I came to think of the hoof prints as ungulate footnotes without an accompanying cervine text.
The buck was a stunningly lovely creature, built for speed and agility and lithe strength, so smoothly muscled it seemed hewn from sinew. It seemed at once ethereal and material, an annunciation of grace and power and beauty. And I experienced a conflict, for my wife Kathy and my stepdaughter Alma and I had labored all through late May and most of June, sometimes in chilly rain, sometimes in dizzying heat, to prepare the garden for a friend’s wedding. A part of me wanted to bang on the window and shoo the creature away. So much work went into making the garden over, so much artistry, so much imagination made real and palpably alive, and I wanted it to stand, unblemished, as a testament to that investiture of purposeful effort. Should I continue to watch or frighten it off?
I thought of William Stafford’s poem “Traveling Through the Dark,” where the speaker, finding a pregnant doe, dead but bearing a living fawn “never to be born” on a twisting mountain road, must choose, for the safety of subsequent drivers, whether or not to push it off the road into a canyon river, for a “swerve might make others dead.” He “thought hard for us all,” he says, his “only swerving–,/ then pushed her over the edge.” My dilemma was surely not so fraught, but, still, I felt as if I were traveling through the dark. I thought, hard, for myself. I watched.

One day, when I was a high school senior, I was on the practice range of the local golf course. My across-the-street friend Ben was sitting in a lawn chair watching me. Ben was the most devoutly Catholic of those in my circle of friends—had even considered the priesthood at one point. Oddly, at least to my thinking, his faith seemed to stand in inverse proportion to his robustness: he was beset by allergies and migraines, cadaverously skinny, and wore a nylon warm-up jacket in even the hottest weather. But he was a good friend, a good golfer, and an astute swing analyst. I was working on a swing change that I wanted him to monitor. Suddenly, from the far end of the practice range, a small squad of three deer emerged from the jack pines and came running full tilt straight at us. We were transfixed. The deer loomed larger as they closed upon us. We could hear their hooves pounding on the hard clay soil under the grass. Straight for us, at us, closer and closer, thundering, until, one after another, they leapt over Ben, who, though never touched, uttered a distended vowel-laden sound, fell over backwards in his chair, rolled once, and wound up under the chair. His face was drained of color; his eyes, like two 16 point Verdana O’s. “Jerry,” he said, as I lifted the chair off him, “that was a sign. How about we call it quits for today.” I agreed. Golf seemed pretty petty just then; the course, not a true place.

As I watched the buck in my garden, it abruptly looked up from the sedum and stared straight at me. I raised my hand, palm outward, in greeting. It tipped an antler in what I like to think was a civil acknowledgement of my presence, and trotted off at a nonchalant gait, disappearing finally into the dark tree line along the west edge of the back lot. Had I looked at that moment at the title to my property, I’m sure I would have seen, in place of my name, a heart-shaped hoof print.

During my summer visits to my mom and dad, I ritually rose just before dawn, biked to the Schmeekle Wildlife Reserve about a mile away, and took an hour-long walk on its miles of wilderness paths. It was a cathedraled place, holy in the way certain places can sometimes forge ligatures to something outside of and larger than oneself, and my walk was, I suppose, more spiritual than physical exercise. The rising sun, filtered through the heavily treed canopy, was cool and green, with here and there a shaft of pure morning light, in which I momentarily lingered, breaking through. The silence was noisy with trills and whirs and scurryings, with humming life.
As I rounded a corner and stepped up onto a wooden bridge, I saw a large buck staring at me from the other end, staring hard, aggressively. Behind him stood a doe and a fawn. His family. I suddenly recalled an article I had read about deer using their keen-edged hooves as slashing weapons of defense when threatened. Having no wish to invite such a lacerating response, I relied on my only weapon of defense: I talked to him. Slowly turning both palms outward, I said, “I mean you no harm. I was just out for a walk. I have no wish to hurt you. I’ll just stand here as still as I can until you move on.” The buck turned his head to the right and I heard a rustling in the reeds. Six more deer emerged and took up positions alongside and behind the buck. His clan. For a moment, a clock-frozen moment unpinned from time, ten looked at one looking at ten. A language of eyes meeting—unblinkered, unblinking, tensile sightlines. Then the buck moved off to the left, followed by the others, and I found myself back inside time, back inside me.

In Robert Frost’s poem, “Two Looking at Two,” “love and forgetting” almost cause a couple to hike too far up a mountain trail to return in daylight. They stop by a tumbled stone wall “with barbed-wire binding,” and on the other side see first a doe, then a buck enter the field from the surrounding spruce. The two couples, deer and human, each “in their own field,” stare at each other across the wall until, with “a spell-breaking,” the deer “pass unscared along the wall” and out of sight into the spruce. “Two had seen two,” Frost says, and the couple felt “A great wave from it going over them,/ As if the earth in one unlooked-for favor/ Had made them certain earth returned their love.”
The human and natural realms are separate, different orders of created being, Frost seems to suggest with the barbed wire-woven wall, but the wall is “tumbled.” Though different, the two realms can reflect something of each other in each other at some deep level of homology, and in Frost’s poem that shared plane appears to be love, at least as the human couple experiences it, and, who knows, really, the deer couple as well, or at least some version of a feeling our language labels “love.”. Two looked at two; the looking connecting them, if only for a moment, through some shared essential; and the human couple finding that nature itself, embodied in the paired deer, honors their love by reinforcing its felt experience.

My neighbor tells me of some homemade concoctions he uses to repel deer: rotten eggs work well, he says, or a mixture of dishwashing liquid and cayenne pepper or garlic sprayed around the garden perimeter. But, having resolved my momentary conflict by choosing to watch, I have no wish to repel deer. Gardens are the seam where nature and the human are sutured, where the power of human design and purpose are attuned with the fecundating power of nature. Appropriate, then, a deer in my garden. And I did not ask where it came from or by what means, convoluted or simple, it got there or where it was returning to when in disappeared into the tree line. In that suspended, pre-dawn moment, I made no demands on the experience. I simply accepted it as it was, the rich sufficiency of the deer’s thereness and my thereness, and one looking at one. 2 October 2011