Buck in velvet

bolete pattern

At daybreak, the sound of hooves on gravel: a small buck accompanied at some distance by a doe meanders up the driveway, sampling the vegetation first on one side and then the other. As he rounds the bend opposite my front porch, I get a better look at the branches sprouting from his head, covered in dark-brown velvet — only four, rounded points so far, but the size and spread suggests he’ll be at least a six-point, and therefore a legal target come October.

Horns, many people call them, but the remarkable thing about antlers is that they are shed and regrow every year in a matter of months, unlike true horns, which are permanent. The energetic cost to the animal must be enormous. A rack, they call it, as if it were designed by God or evolution as a place to hang coats or display trophies. But this most prized of natural artifacts is itself a trophy — to hunters, and perhaps also to the deer, who holds his head so differently from a doe.

It’s just light enough to let me observe what he eats as he approaches the house:

  • the leaves of several goldenrod stalks, starting at the bottom and working toward the top;
  • a couple twigs of a multiflora rose bush, one of two beside the driveway that are as compactly rounded as if they’d been kept pruned by hedge-trimmers;
  • half of a large, compound leaf of a black walnut seedling the same age as the deer;
  • one stalk of wild garlic, starting with the tight fist of baby cloves at the top;
  • several mouthfuls of orchard grass;
  • the tip of a leaf of bracken fern;
  • some brome grass in front of the stone wall that borders my garden.

He’s near enough now that that I can hear the chewing and the smacking of lips. He crosses the road, lured by the sight of black raspberry leaves, and starts working on the end of the very cane that hosts a paper hornets’ nest at its base. A moment later, the anters jerk upright, and he bats at his shoulder with a hind leg. Then with one leap he clears the drainage ditch and lands among the cattails, twisting and rearing like a wild mustang with a bronco-buster on its back. A few seconds of that and he prances over to the woods’ edge, head still held high, to join what I imagine must be his sister — last year’s twins. If any hornets are still following him, he doesn’t show it, and neither does she. Their association is safe for at least a little longer from nature’s maddening sting.

7 Comments


  1. For whatever it’s worth, a Huichol Indian in Mexico told me once that deer use their antlers to communicate telepathically with each other.

    The deer, the peyote and the corn make up a sacred trinity-which-is-one for the Huichols.

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  2. That really ought to start transforming into a poem, one containing a list.

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  3. Thanks for the comments. I’m not typically very list-oriented, but as most of you probably know I’m obsessed with deer herbivory, and I just happened to have my pocket notebook handy. Whether this might also contain the seeds of a poem, as Marly suggests, is something that hadn’t occurred to me. Maybe so.

    Nathan, as you probably know, the Huichol are far from the only ones in that part of Mexico to revere the deer (mule deer, I presume?) as sacrificial animals. Most of their neighbors have been more thoroughly Christianized, but the Yaqui deer-dancer retains an important ritual position within their syncretic form of Christianity, and I believe the Tarahumara still practice deer reverence, as well. The first Christian explorers to pass through the region – Cabeza de Vaca and company – were welcomed with the gift of 100 deer hearts, and they started the meme of comparing the sacrificial deer to Christ. In fact, the deer was probably an explicit substitute for a human sacrifice at some point, the work of some long-forgotten charismatic reformer. Or maybe vice versa: human sacrifice started when the ancient rituals of the sacred game seemed inadequate, for whatever reason. I’ve heard that the Huichol language is the most closely related to Nahuat, the language of the Aztecs.

    To me a fully armed buck is the opposite of a telepathic, sensitive being, but then I’ve never done peyote. Maybe the antlers funtion like old-fashioned television aerials?

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  4. A moment of googling finds that Huichol (and Cora, too) are indeed closely related to Nahuatl, yeah.

    What a bizarre gift, 100 deer hearts.

    As far as the telepathy, the only thing I can add at the moment is that

    (a) I’m wary of saying things like “The Huichols believe that xyz” on the basis of one person having said it one day, and

    (b) when I drank yagé in the forest alone for three days in ’97, I had a hunch (and it was nothing I could pin down) that the elements of the forest–plants and animals, etc.–were intelligent in ways I could not understand, and were communicating with each other in ways that I could not understand. And also that the whole forest functioned like a single brain.

    The two consecutive nights after I moved back into the hut where I was saying, I had the same dream, which put my intuitions in a concrete form. I was floating 10 meters in the air next to a vine. The vine was somehow made up of four species in a single individual. It was brilliantly multicolored and patterned, but I understood that if a human approached, it would turn uniformly brown. The other implicit information in the dream was that the vine functioned as an information hub.

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