Sunday, January 10, 2010

Lessons Learned

I sat on a knoll concealed by trees and brushes on the edge of my deer woods one early fall morning. Straight ahead was an old farm road overgrown and brushy save for a small patch of open field, an acre, maybe two. To my left, a tree dropped its hedge apples which are said to be the perfect cure for ridding a home of spiders and which cattle munch in loud bursts. Just to my right the old pond was smooth, the banks containing it in covered with gnarled trees. Behind me, tens of acres of wide open grazing land cross-fenced and still green from last summer's showers.

Nothing much was stirring that morning and even my 360 degree check of the land every ten minutes or so detected little since the break of dawn. But finally, during one of those vision patrols, I spotted something moving. I slowly turned my head to see several deer making their way behind me and to my right, toward the pond. Three does and three fawns. I moved the rest of me just as slowly so I could better discover what was going on.

As I watched, the six of them stopped about three quarters of the way across that expanse of field. The three does gazed at each other and none were concerned with my presence, never looking my way at all so I was probably as invisible to them as an old fallen log or a harmless bush. The fawns stuck close to the older animals and looked anxious.

After a moment, maybe two, the largest doe began to walk in a circle, calmly and in a way that looked decidedly deliberate. The others - all of them - followed her. It wasn't a tight, follow-the-leader type circle but a circle nonetheless.

To my astonishment, the six of them made another circle, just a bit wider than the first and a third one with a slightly larger radius than the previous one. Then they stopped and gazed at each other again, this time even the fawns exchanging glances. The does looked back across the field toward the distant tree line. I thought I was beginning to understand what was happening and I continued to observe, still and quiet from my perch atop the knoll.

Another circle and another. A stop, one more circle and they all ran as fast as deer run off past the pond toward a spring-fed creek that divides one property from another and runs cold and clear all throughout the year.

Only a few minutes later, I saw them. Two beagles sniffing the ground, making haste toward where the deer had been, following the trail and looking up once in a while as if to get their bearings from landmarks and outcroppings.

When the two dogs made it to the confluence of circles, they ran smack into a wall of sensory confusion. They tried to pick up the direction the scent would take them but kept running into another deer path that seemingly went into a different direction. The dogs smelled and barked and kept their noses to the ground for a long time before one of them finally found the way out of that maze of confusion.

But by then, I am certain, those six deer were a mile or more away. And I would bet they did not cross the creek, not right away. I think they hit the water, followed it upstream for 60 or 70 yards and then emerged on the other side to further camouflage their scent. Wise creatures these deer.

I have thought about that day in the woods many times over the years. And I have assured myself that, although there was no language spoken, there was communication, although there were no blackboards or lecterns, there was teaching, and although there was nothing audible to my ears, there was most certainly laughter.