After six days of being sick and sleeping in odd patterns (if at all), what a joy to wake up well before light and sit out on the porch with my coffee again! It’s good to get back into the old rut. Sirius glows balefully above the trees to the south. A great-horned owl calls once from the same direction. Water gurgles in the ditches on both sides of the yard with a pleasing stereophonic effect — something I might not notice if it were daylight.
The deer are restless this morning. All the while I sip my coffee — some twenty minutes — I hear them crashing back and forth through the woods on the other side of the driveway. It’s not a bear or a coyote that’s spooked them, I don’t think; I don’t hear any alarm snorts or stamping of front hooves, and the mad dashes seem too frequent and too short. What I hear instead are the strange, low grunts of a buck in rut. At one point, there’s a higher-pitched vocalization, almost a moan. I wonder if I might be hearing some advanced stage of the mating game. More likely, though, it’s the sound of rival bucks contending for the privilege of servicing a doe in estrus.
Imagine what it would be like if human beings went into rut and estrus like white-tailed deer: if males were obsessed with sex for only two months out of the year instead of all twelve, and females for just one day! The economy would collapse. Without the dependable lure of sex and all the anxieties attending the quest for personal sex appeal, how would you get consumers to spend money? And with nothing to sublimate, who would bother to farm, make widgets, or write blog posts?
It’s funny, every year brings fresh evidence that most of the vaunted properties of the human heart and mind that were once thought to set us apart actually differ only in degree, not in kind, from the mental abilities of other animals. Tool-using? Complex problem-solving? Language? Altruistic behavior? Reverence for the remains of dead relatives? Warfare? Peace-making? All these and more can be found in other species. Symbolic language still appears uniquely human, and I suppose you can consider that a difference in kind if you want to. But what most separates us from other animals lies not in our minds but in our bodies — specifically, in women’s bodies. They don’t go into estrus. Along with our close relatives the bonobos, humans are virtually the only species that’s physically capable of making whoopie any time of the year.
Which is not to say that many other species don’t enjoy genital stimulation — including (gasp!) with members of the same sex — throughout the year; they simply aren’t fertile then and can’t engage in coitus. On the positive side, the virtually unique sexiness of the human female seems closely linked with the complexity of our social systems and the concomitant expansion in brainpower (I hesitate to say “consciousness,” since that’s such a nebulous and loaded term). Many researchers now suggest that extended human longevity, especially for post-menopausal females, derives from the competitive advantages enjoyed by those with the best daycare arrangements (‘Hey, Grandma…’). On the downside, liberated from the solar cycle, human females became shackled to the rhythms of our lifeless companion planet instead. Free to have sex whenever they want, they became vulnerable to sexual predators year ’round. [UPDATE: see comments section for discussion of rape among other animals.] And once we became smart enough to figure out how to eliminate or fend off our natural predators, human populations were free to grow exponentially.
In a nutshell, then: to be human means, above all else, to be uniquely capable of love. Or from another perspective, which strikes me as equally valid, to be human means to be uniquely fucked.
After I go back inside, I grab my copy of Appalachian Autumn and look up “Deer: white-tailed: mating behavior of” in the index. (Fortunately, my mother took the time to compile good indices for all four of her Appalachian Seasons books.) I refresh my memory with this passage, from November 24:
At the Far Field thicket I found more evidence of the rutting season — several secondary scrapes littered with deer tracks and feces. Again I conjured up a vision, this one of bucks and does meeting here and pairing off, an anthropomorphic idea totally at odds with what really happens between bucks and does. Although does can be choosy, they usually mate repeatedly with only one buck. Two days before a doe is actually ready, she begins seeking out a buck by leaving a trail of urine and pheromones. While every buck in the area may track her down, usually only the dominant buck, which drives off the others, claims her by “tending” her until she comes into estrus. Then he may copulate with her anywhere from once or twice during her twenty-four hours of receptivity to many times (one researcher reported eight times during the daylight alone). Since most breeding is done at night, actual figures are hard to come by. Once her time is up, though, the buck heads off to find another receptive doe. During the sixty-day rutting season, a mature buck may breed with between four and twenty does. On the other hand, after her twenty-four-hour fling, assuming she has conceived, the doe has no more interest in bucks.
It may sound as if the bucks are having all the fun. Perhaps they are, but like humans on alcoholic binges, they pay a heavy toll at the end. The prolonged stresses of the rut leave them depleted of energy stores right at the onset of winter. Many of them will linger through till February or March only to die miserable deaths from starvation and/or hypothermia. With luck, they’ll fall to the sharp fangs of a predator or a well-aimed bullet instead, but one way or another, their bodies will return to the food chain. The herd simply doesn’t need all those bucks. Contrary to the fond beliefs of many more romantic folks, nature is not a loving mother.
I suppose some people will read this and wonder why I have such a bleak worldview. I can hear it now: “Dave, you just need to get laid!” (Well, maybe I do, but that’s irrelevant. My beliefs are carefully thought out and entirely rational!) The thing is, the world doesn’t feel bleak to me. If you believe, as I do, that the only paradise that matters must be sought in the present moment, than what does it matter if in the long run we are all somebody else’s dinner? Right here, right now, the coffee is good, the stars are beautiful, and the night is alive with primal music — the flow of water, and the urgent and wondrous and terrifying dance that attends the creation of new life. Regardless of how attentive or distracted I may be, the ability to draw breath at such a moment feels like pure grace. I wouldn’t want things any other way.
Speaking of grace, this week for some reason Via Negativa has been getting an unusual number of interesting comments, which have been a welcome source of diversion to me. Maybe it’s just because the sorts of things I’ve felt up to writing about (sickness, politicians and toilet seats) are a bit more inviting than my usual fare. Actually, I rarely mind the relative paucity of comments here; nine times out of ten, I don’t comment on the blogs I read, either. I tend to do my blog reading late in the day, when my creative energies are at a low ebb, and besides, I figure I’m doing my part to support other blogs and bloggers through my Smorgasblog project, the Festival of the Trees, and qarrtsiluni. But if one doesn’t leave comments, one can’t expect to get very many in return, which is why I feel especially blessed that Via Negativa still gets so many of such high quality.
The message string for my post on toilet seats was an eye-opener for me. I had no idea that toilet seats could evoke such passions. Don’t miss your chance to weigh in, if you haven’t already, on this weighty and multi-faceted subject.
Even more recently, what do you use to keep your place in a book? If you thought the answer was “a bookmark,” you may be mistaken. Don’t miss the great contributions of Joan and butuki, among others, to the riddle thread, where the elusive sylph also makes a brief reappearance, gesturing enigmatically with a cat’s whisker.