An unedited lesson on the life around us


March 05, 2000|By MIKE BURNS

IN THE embrace of the twisted roots of the fallen oak tree, toppled by storm or snow or merely old age, we found the dead deer.

Rather, the meager remains of the forest creature, stripped bare of most flesh and organs and left as skeleton, only the shriveled rear legs left with a scant shroud of hair and hide that confirmed its recent life and demise.

Beside the churning stream, now gorged with the snow melt of unseasonably warm winter days, the mighty tree had dropped, its thewy branches broken by unstoppable collision with the forest floor. The upper trunk was split in jagged wound, as if struck by the vengeful axe of some mythical god.

But the venerable oak had uprooted cleanly, its sinewy roots lifted in piece from the soil. And in that cavity of the trees former base, sheltered by the projecting overhead tree roots, lay the residue of the inanimate animal.

The deer had undoubtedly met its end by nature, not by human hand.

Perhaps it was sickness that forced the cervine creature to seek shelter there, to curl up in expectation of a better tomorrow that never came. The cause was probably not lack of food, for the deer herds in these parts find ample nourishment.


Hungry animals may have hastened its death, themselves anxious for the vital sustenance of its flesh and blood before the deers spirit had finally departed.

For my six-year-old, typically wide-eyed about the wonders of nature, that hike in the woods behind our house was an important lesson: The death of one animal provides food and life for others.

The evidence was that a number of living things had fully partaken of the deers mortal coil.

We humans cannot choose who will be the beneficiaries of such happenstance.

It may be the annoying crows that intimidate songbirds in our yard, or the opportunistic hawks that frequently circle overhead in search of toothsome prey, or the hovering turkey vultures whose sensitive radar of smell drives them to rotting carrion.

Perhaps it will be the elusive fox or the various small rodents that live in the hidden burrows beneath the leaf-carpeted ground. Most certainly, diverse insects were present at the banquet.

And judging from the unwelcome beneficence of our dog, delivering deer hoof and evicerated rabbit to our doorstep in votive pride, the carcass may well have seen the ravages of the neighborhoods canine pets.

To stand beside the well-scavenged remains of the deer in the quiet, impassive woods is to experience a sense of unpredictable, yet inevitable, finality that comes to all living creatures. It is a nature lesson that does not come in a kit or a book.

Watching the edited scenes of television nature programs, or catching a glimpse of a dead deer by the roadside while whizzing by at 40 miles an hour does not provoke the same depth of emotion and thought.

The deer is also a particularly apt example of the ambiguity of our love for nature.

We thrill at the sight of a deer, or a deer herd, in the local woods. It is the sign of wild things.

We marvel at their unaffected camouflage that makes these large creatures nearly invisible when still, even when observed at close distance. Entranced, we stare into the deep dark pools of their big eyes.

Yet my children know that deer on the road are a danger to autos and to their human occupants. They are often watchful at night for deer crossings, warning us to slow down.

And when these animals venture into the familys garden, the children are certain to shoo them away from eating our carefully cultivated plants. The deer are then potential pests, not intriguing visitors to our piece of turf.

(The setting can make a world of difference. For example, when the kids visit Shenandoah National Park, they gleefully gawk at wild deer that slowly move over the roads and up to the cabins, seemingly indifferent to human presence. The animals then represent no threat to our well-being; we are their visitors.)

Mixed feelings

Deer are increasingly a suburban problem as development creates more and more forest-edge habitat and draws these adaptable ungulates closer to new human habitat. Deer hunting proves to be ineffective at stopping the population increase; their numbers thrive in proximity to human dwellings, areas where hunting is more dangerous for people than for the nuisance deer.

Other wild animals in our midst carry mixed values for us. The raccoon that boldly strides onto our deck in search of food if we dont shut the gate (and maybe even if we do) is a compelling, interesting creature to watch from behind the glass window, but not up close and personal.

The children understand about rabies the animal may carry (even if it shows no symptoms). They know those sharp claws of the masked marauder can tear apart a dog, and they keep our pet collie safely leashed inside the house.

Even the squirrels that entertain with their porchside antics are bad if they tear down the bird feeders and eat up all the seed. We try to intervene to prevent it, but with little success.

Through the lives of other creatures, nature teaches us about our limits, about our own mortality and our own place in the system.

Mike Burns writes editorials for The Sun from Carroll County.

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