Thinking Fella's excellent diary about getting close to a deer, and the discussion in the comments, got me thinking about my experiences with deer. I live in the DC area, where deer have thrived recently thanks to the eradication of their natural predators, laws against hunting, and the human creation of vast lush arrays of ideal edge habitat.

I have deer to thank for bringing me into wild places, 10-15 years back, when I made a gradual life decision that I wanted to be closer to nature, despite being stuck in the city. I started leaving the paved trails that ran through the local parks, started following increasingly narrower trails through the stream valleys, and realized that I was following the deer.

When I was younger, deer were always a moment of awestruck wonder, amazing graceful beings that came out of the forest. I didn't see them often, and when I did, I wanted to be closer to them. I particularly remember a moment on Skyline Drive, in Shenandoah National Park, when habituated deer approached us for food. I found the moment amazing, and at the same time knew it was wrong.

For a kid growing up in the suburbs, squirrels are exciting at first, and then they get boring. We had brought 2 cats born on the streets of Jamaica that came with us to Canada and then DC. They were great housecats, but still had a lot of wild in them. They hunted lizards in Jamaica, mice and birds in Canada, and did a pretty impressive (but destructive) wildlife survey of the life around us in the DC suburbs - voles, moles, weasels, mice, snakes, birds, squirrels. They brought back a seagull wing one time.

(Bear with me here - I'm getting there!). I always hated their death prowls, but also admired them. I wish I'd had better naturalist/biologist training as a child because then I could have learned more from our cats. But they did teach me what they knew, and brought me closer to other beings, often as twitching corpses. They had a pretty effective hunt worked out, where the black and white one would do a prominent stalk, and flush the prey towards the well-hidden grey one. I tried to train them out of it by scolding but that didn't go very far, and their natural instincts got them through various life challenges, so it's just as well they didn't learn much from a cossetted kid in the suburbs.

I have an indoor cat now, and wouldn't have it any other way. Outdoor cats are invasive murder machines. But I do have my outdoor cats to thank for showing me how much wilderness there was in the suburbs. I explored the back yard and climbed trees with them, buried the corpses of their prey in our compost pile, and explored the local streams.

As I got better at exploring, I started following deer paths. They're easy to recognize in densely populated urban/suburban areas, and over time I started to learn their logic. Usually the break from a human path is obscured, requires a careful pick through a brush tangle, but then they open up. Over time, I realized that these tangles must be deliberate - a way to lose predators and pursuers.

The contrast between the openness of the established deer trails, and the transition barriers between the human paths and the deer paths was too extreme to be accidental. And when following deer trails, I'd periodically encounter a "blunder", where the path disappeared into dense brush, thorns and bushes. If I pushed through, I'd pick the trail back up 10 feet later.

It took me years to work this out. I walked and ran stream valley trails and started learning patterns. Deer moved between water, browsing areas, and sleeping areas. They usually had 3 established trails, on each side of a stream - one meandering close to the stream-bank, with drop-downs/fordings every 50-150 feet, one in the flat broad span of the stream valley's floodplain, and one that followed the adjacent ridge. There were many crossings/connections between the 3 parallel paths, but they were much fainter, and all the paths were insulated from the human paths (roads and paved trails). The sleeping areas were mostly off the middle trail, in areas of high grass, with multiple exit paths for quick escapes.

I slowly realized that the trails were tools - manipulations of natural resources in order to more efficiently obtain habitat requirements - food, shelter, water, a place to raise young. Trails as tools sounds strange, until you go off-path - the 5-minute amble can become an hour-long bloody sweaty tear through thorns and tangles. Trails get you where you want to be. They get you what you need.

And most interestingly, trails are unconscious tools. They don't need to be planned. In a pristine environment, where nothing's ever walked before, after 10, 100, 1000 passes, there will be clear trails. Not necessarily the absolute optimal routes, but adequate ones. And the more beings that walk a path, the better it gets. It's like having a blade that sharpens itself when you use it. Trails get better when you walk them.

One of these days, someone's going to write a PhD on this, but not me. For those who still doubt, I say, "You've not hiked off-trail enough!". Even the most obedient of hikers, will occasionally find themselves "Garden-Pathed" - accidentally following a path that leads nowhere. Well, next time you do, before turning around and walking back to the "right" path, look around and ask yourself, "Why was it easier for me to get here, than it would have been for me to just randomly go off-trail? What convinced me to leave an established trail for this dead-end?".

Answer: You did. And not just you, but all those hundreds or thousands of similarly-programmed beings before you, that took the same turn, and pushed through the same brush you did to end pointlessly dead-ended. You all made the same choice, that something you wanted was that-aways, and each time one of you walked the garden path, you made it easier for the next one to.

Stop and think how far back those who made that half-way in the wilderness go back? How long does this trail go back? When did beings start walking it? If you're privileged to have a rough estimate of how long human beings have been in this area, stop thinking and sit down.

Be in one place for a long time, long enough at least for the shadows to move. Long enough for the birds and other beings to forget the noise that you brought to this place. Long enough for a spiderweb to settle on you. Long enough to be ignored.

Almost all paths walked by humans had at some point previously been made by other beings. They followed deer wolves bear otter mouse bison buffalo otter moose. They followed beings that are no longer, are extinct, killed at the hand of men and women who walked this path and others before you.

And those beings followed others. Follow the ant, the slug, the wasp. Follow the roots. Follow what grows here, look at the curves before you, and ask what made them. You're sitting in a path that was made long before the paths you're walking. You're in the Path of Water. Part of you is lower then other parts, part of you is closer to some things, than other parts of you are, Part of You is Leaning!

And why that is is because of things that were happening long before you, and anything you know, and anything you have awareness of, ever existed. Think as far back along as water, and then think of how it came together, how its various existences developed. Think about how much you know of what it does when it falls, when it flows, when it rises, when it rains. Think of how water moved everything around you, several thousand times over, and how you're made of the water that moves around you, that most of you is that water, that it came from somewhere and is going somewhere else. Water was where you now stand, and made it be where it is.

Think about where your water comes from, how important it is to you. Think of the longest time you were without water. Think about how you would be if
 the water you needed was that which was closest to you. Think how important that water would be to you. Imagine it was the only water you knew existed, beside rain. Imagine that you had toddler memories of cupping it and drinking for yourself the first time. Imagine that water was as much life for you as a tree on which all you needed grew.

The paths around you, the crossings and connections, are a place of worship. Before we knew/thought that there was some separate powerful entity that we had to abase ourselves before, there was this entity - Water - that fed the life around us, that cut the mountains low, that fed the lush places, that grew the trees, and brought food, that killed with cold and with force sometimes. Water that brought us  everything.

And now think how the deer know water. They never left it. They walk close to it like we build cathedrals. The paths they make to and from water are their greatest danger, the place where others will attack them. They walk nonetheless. And you're following them. Imagine yourself tool-less and hungry, somehow the human world gone, and you alone to walk through this world of nature.

Check the weather first, what will happen in the next day week month? Where's the closest natural shelter? What do you have on you? What do you know of making fire? And if you get through the first night, start thinking about food. You're going to start moving on deer paths, stalking, waiting. You're not going to catch anything the first day. Might as well wait. Find a rock and start sharpening sticks for spears. Making cordage.

You're hungrier than you've ever been but at least you haven't burnt all of your energy chasing things. At least you sat. A fox walked its path at dawn and at dusk, deer moved past you, but at a distance. Birds flitter past. You push back logs and search out grubs.

On the second dawn, you're warmer, because you built a deep nest of leaves and grass. You didn't sleep much more than the cold night before because you noticed what was happening around you. You now appreciate that nests are nice in the night, and that many things move at dawn and at dusk. You set some traps, but they're total crap. You've still not made fire. You're chewing on grasses, and some of them are better than others. You really really like the sun because it's so warm. You absolutely have to eat some flesh and drink some blood soon.

This is why the Native Americans considered the deer to be relatives. They walk all the same paths we do, and bring themselves to us. We live from them, and they live from the water just like we do. The water brings us together. Over the years, we build relationships with certain deer, and certain families. Maybe they trust us, and we them. Maybe we make habitat for them - slash/burn clearings that flourish with grass and saplings for several years. Maybe we kill the clumsy, the outsiders, and stand awed at an unexpected moment with the proud buck or doe that we met previously, maybe often - enough to acknowledge each other.

That's how you get close to the deer. A moment that I still don't quite believe happened was when I spiraled up on a pregnant doe in West Virginia, walking restless at sunrise from a B&B, cold-wet in the dawn, fog like an omen, the deer slow-bright in the greenery, unnoticed until I stopped. Maybe an ear-flick caught me, and we made slow contact, the doe calm and I unmoving, then riding the wave of her attention and moving a slow spiral inward, always turned away, until I sat beside her, four feet away, close enough to smell her breath, her warmth, still comfortable in her night-bed. I watched her chew her cud as the light rose, warmed red and pink, and then at one point, because that was the right time, she rose up, and wandered off, still mellow.

And since then I've flushed 8-point bucks out of swamps, 6 feet eye to eye. I've watched fawns totter and surge past me. I've been challenged and threatened, snorted and pawed at. I've held their skulls, traced the strange beautiful scrawls. Held bones and horns gnawed by others - mice, rats, raccoons, opossum. I've smelled the wet-rot of their bloated corpses. I sat 10 feet up in the forest canopy on a fallen tree and watched 2 bucks wattle/warble in rut against each other, soft and comical but for their fierce strut and menace towards each other.

I've shared the river in flood and mist with deer, calm strong paddlers even in strong currents. I've chased them, sprint-curving stream valleys, meadows, slopes. I've sometimes stood my ground and sometimes surprised them, and sometimes moved soft and slow to respect them. I've gotten ticks from them. I've curled up in their nest places, tracked them through deep snow in leaping flurries, sat with their slow-scattering sun-warm carcasses, followed their scrabble-paths through mud and scree, dense forest and wetland sloughs. I follow their browse - roots and moss pawed out from snowbanks and nibbled, the gouge of fresh horns against saplings, the dense grows of pawpaw because the deer eat everything else, their rich-scattered pellets along paths.

I don't yet know deer because I've not yet spent a day with one. Let alone a year.

Originally posted to erratic on Thu Jan 24, 2013 at 09:28 PM PST.

Also republished by Personal Storytellers and Community Spotlight.

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