We come to the skeleton of a deer. This is how it starts, and what we’ll circle around to. We come to the skeleton of a deer. In the sense that the deer is right at the edge of the trail, we come to it intentionally. The bones are stark white. It feels strange to see that whiteness in nature. A flower that color would be just as startling. The curve of the ribs give an impression of grace, of confidence and intention. All that remains of dead animal is a single hoof, partly masked by matted fur. The rest has become poetry, metaphor, nature. This might have been a deer that John Muir saw sprint like light through the trees in Wisconsin, belonging to the glacial drip, the towering cliffs. Something thrilling and fast, both animal and land, intimacy and estrangement. Wonderful, Muir says, how completely everything in wild nature fits into us.
We come to the skeleton of the deer on the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee. Mountain overlooking valley, pines and oaks fencing the view of patchwork farmland. It’s been about four miles of hiking. I keep wiping my nose on the rough sleeve of my black sweatshirt, and the snot shows up a ghostly white. The cold keeps jumping from place to place. My earlobes, which my cap barely covers. The tips of my fingers. The ball of my right foot, where creek water seems to have somehow seeped in through my boot. I know I look as though I’ve been crying. It’s the day before the first snow, and the light is gray. The first days of the new year in Tennessee. A cliff lends itself to a wall of green moss, the brightest sight for miles. Water drips down the moss and collects in huge, tearlike droplets that hover as though deciding whether to freeze. Like pendants. French for “during.” Everything here in the woods is present tense, tension between motion and stillness. The deer skeleton is the best way I have of describing this place in microcosm–the echo of motion embedded in stillness.
This summer, I was out running early and came around a curve to find a car slowing to a crawl. In the adjacent yard, three deer were lying in repose. Repose, because I’d never seen any animal look so perfectly relaxed, as though they might as well be dangling their long legs off a velvet sofa. I had not expected to see them, and clearly neither had the car (the driver looked at me, nodded, grinned) although our neighborhood is beset by yellow signs, warning that deer might launch themselves out of the woods and across the hood of the car. But these deer were not road deer, creatures to look out for. They were perfectly still and perfectly alive, as if they might begin to shimmer and then disappear. They let me pass by without a motion, without a sound.
After we pass the white bones we stumble over rocks and roots, miles to go, our voices drifting toward the valley through bare trees. I can’t get the image out of my head of the ribs which curve so perfectly around to where they should be. During this loop of a walk, we are venturing out and back to where we started, repose and return. The way it all unfolds feels like the only possible way, and, at the same time, this burning white surprise. Pendant. We come to the skeleton of a deer
Other than squirrels, deer are pretty much the most common wildlife you can expect to see in Tennessee. I remember my uncle, on some sleepy Christmas afternoon of my childhood, opening the back door to yell at the deer that had gathered in his ample yard, rooting around for leaves in the grass. I remember (although this might be a memory of different deer, of a different time) their heads shooting up at attention before the turn and the sprint away, back into the woods beyond his yard. The boys I grew up going to school with were hunters, occasionally showing off photos of themselves with deer bigger than they were, bloody meaty carcasses limp below their camera-ready grins.
I’ve never been hunting, my dad not being the type to take me, so I don’t know as much about deer as a lot of these boys. I knew, for instance, that hunting was a way of keeping the deer population down, but I didn’t know that Tennessee has not always been overrun with deer. In fact, it was being stocked with deer from other states as recently as 1985. Almost more surprising than the fact of this is the word “stocked,” which seems, to me, to equate deer population with cans of green beans. So, the deer are captured–mostly in North Carolina, Texas, and Oklahoma–and released to breed in Tennessee. When the population has grown sufficiently, we begin to get deer seasons. Harvests. The capture of the deer for Tennessee stocking, first reported in 1949, varies in methodology. Salt for curious long tongues, with a box waiting to drop. Or, more interestingly, dogs to run deer off an island and into a lake where a man in a boat waits with a lasso. As an account from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency offers, “amazingly, no serious injuries, to deer or humans, were ever reported with this capture method.”
As game, deer is stocked and harvested. As predator, it creeps into my mother’s garden in the early morning and eats her best blueberries, a tragedy she will tell me about later when the sun is full in the sky. As prey, it wanders unsuspecting too close to trees that hide guns-in-hands from behind or above. The deer is a feature of the place where I grew up, but it is newer than I would have expected. I thought that our deer were more deeply Southern, crucial as they are to those boys who know how to carry the heavy carcasses out of the woods with their fathers, drain the blood and divide up the meat, in ball caps and camouflage jackets, in second amendment rights, and in the idea that to respect the land is to involve yourself intimately in its patterns of life and death.
Grown to be picked clean. The deer is inseparable from the hunt in our narrative, all the way from Artemis, goddess of the hunt. The deer is sacred to her, and yet in sculpture and painting their relationship manifests in the elegance of her arrow. The bones of a deer suggest the animal but mark it, being left to the land as it is, as beyond the hunt, confusing mythology, bringing a sense of the uncanny to the woods. We come to the skeleton of a deer.
On a walk in the woods, ideas are laid bare. Suddenly filled with thingness, they are more physical, less expressible. Ideas are wet bark and a leaf frozen over and preserved, amber, in ice. I talk more on walks in the woods, no matter with whom. I feel more sure of the possibility of communication and the power of words. Noam Chomsky notes how a naturalistic approach to language would, and has, put forth the seemingly uncontroversial idea that language is a property of organized matter making up different parts of our bodies, mostly the brain. “It is unclear,” he writes, “why the conclusion should be resurrected centuries later as an audacious and innovative proposal.” It is audacious because we are wary of the overlap between “brain” and “mind.” Talking and walking in the woods are intimately related. The deer begs us to think about language–it is all-natural, ripe with metaphor, ready for myth.
The tallest trees are rooted deeply, where we cannot see. Butterflies struggle out of cocoons. Birds fly as free as…birds. Emerson, infatuated transcendentalist, is obsessed with the connection between nature and language. “Who looks upon a river in a meditative hour,” he asks, “and is not reminded of the flux of all things? The world is emblematic […] the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind.” The physical world for him is a language that we are born able to read for our more spiritual ideas. Metaphor as relationship, as the love between human and landscape: is there not something divine in this? Amazing, how quickly the Romantics let us organize a forest.
The woods have always been romantic for me. As a kid, I used to burrow into the straggly bushes at the end of our yard to pretend that I was married, and a gypsy, and conjuring up a stick-and-herb stew for my husband to return to. When I got older, I was allowed to go for short hikes in the state park, an activity that always came with a sharp, illicit thrill, as though I was breaking into someone else’s home to rifle through their things. I’m not sure why that was. Maybe it was that the privacy of the woods, away from my house where someone was always home, offered a freer setting for my most confused and languorous romantic fantasies. The streams of sun through the trees and the blue mountains in the distance, provoked my capital-R Romantic inclinations. I was as serious as Wordsworth (and then my heart, with pleasure fills! And dances with the daffodils!) I did not know the name of a single tree or mountain range.
These daydreaming excursions usually did not last long. The complaint of mosquitoes would become more persistent, or I would begin to crave a glass of Koolaid, and return back home. I say this to warn you: I did not see very much of the landscape, in these woods in Tennessee. When I say that the mountains were tinged with pink in the distance, and that the valley as perfectly flat as pure green ironed down, and that the creeks sparked like stars among the dark browns and grays of wet leaves and stones, am I telling you anything at all about the woods in Tennessee, or just about myself?
In 1967, J.A. Baker published The Peregrine, which chronicles in hypnotic, obsessive detail a year of observing peregrine falcons in Essex. Here, nature is beyond metaphor, it is active subject. “There is an animal mystery in the light,” he writes, “that sets upon the fields like a frozen muscle that will flex and wake at sunrise.” The snow stings. The falcon, the shape of the valley, the smell of predation is overpowering. It is difficult to sit still for long enough to let a place be your subject, difficult not to trample it as object.
The first thing I see is the contrast between bone and soil. A line of bone. A line of soil. A line of bone. When I follow the curve of the bone, see all of the spine and the small, delicate skull, I feel surprised that my mind didn’t immediately capture the image of the whole skeleton, translate it more quickly into deer. The hoof I see last. But here, again, I’m arranging the bones as I saw them. On paper, can I gaze on them without creating them? Re-pose. Clean bones lie on the ground. They pulse into vision, cut a perfectly clean contrast. The form of no-longer-animal funnels in the silence of the woods, pushes it back out in a roar. Underneath, worms must be pushing upward against the hard resistance, as muscle must have yielded to claw and beak. Each bone has done more, outside of my observation, than I could know. And this is the best way I have of describing the whole woods, the trees and the space between them, the birds that flitted away above me. A single leaf is beyond my powers of observation. This place is holy, breathing, terrifying. We learn to slide from subject to object, become a verb. The skeleton of a deer comes to us. The skeleton of a deer us-ifies our arrival.
In the January dusk on the Cumberland Plateau, just dark enough to strain to see, the shadows become words, the cold rocks ideas. The deer’s bones bloom into a new ecosystem, the expected breaks down. We come to.
Author Bio: Heidi Siegrist is a PhD graduate student at the University of Virginia, where she studies American literature. She is interested in ideas of place, specifically “Southernness,” and has been published in Appalachian Heritage, Q* Anthology of Queer Culture, and Rkvry Quarterly.