The Deer Story

There were portents before it happened. Nothing just happens. As for how I know they’re omens? I’ve said before by way of explanation, that here on the farm it is very quiet all the time and not much happens. This is how it would have been long ago for everyone. Because there are so few distractions seemingly random occurrences start to form patterns easily. They make sense, just like language or music. And just like language and music, it’s hard to provide a tight theory as to why a sentence or chord progression works. We just know in our bodies when it does and when it doesn’t.
We’re three weeks into what’s known by Anishinnabe in these parts as the Wolf moon (January). And for good reason. This time of year the wolves are the big players in the bush. Because of the deep snow they take more Deer this time of any time of year then any other. And just to pause here, there was a time when they would take people too, thinning out our weak and old like they do for the Deer.

The first portent came on the eve of that full moon. The homestead was surrounded, for the first time this winter, by packs of wolves singing to one another through the silent starry night. The next thing in the pattern came a week or so later. I went out for a walk and was very caught up inside myself, talking about this and that, blah blah blah. Like most people I was not in reality, talking and thinking about things outside ‘the now’. I was walking an open stretch on the frozen marsh and then it was like someone called me. I looked up and it was a pine tree. I smiled and bowed down to that old one for the wakeup call. Then right out of the top of the tree a Bald Eagle flew. First one I’d seen this winter. The next came a few days later. I was working alone into the afternoon at the Dragonfly house. I had the generator and power tools running on and off all day. The sun had set and I only had a little light left. There is know artificial light in that house. I usually work very compulsively when I’m at something. And yet with all that and the fading light, with no good reason I felt I should leave the house and walk over to a little wild orchard beside it. Even though I did it I was complaining to myself about “all the time this was taking” as I walked into the orchard. When I got there I shut up and started waking up into reality and looking at the apple trees, which was why I assumed I was there, then suddenly I realized I was surrounded by about eight deer. The whole local winter herd, all within twenty feet of me. They didn’t move but were not frozen in fright. We looked at each other calmly for awhile and they told me how they loved the orchard. The shelter, the apples and branch tips. I said I was honoured to help. You should know Deer around these parts, where people hunt and poach, don’t act like that. They run at the first sight of you, yet those deer let me walk over to them. So, I felt something was up, and it was like they were thanking me by letting me hang out with them.

Then a few days later, after the sun rose I came out early in the morning just after sunrise. The day was clear, clear, sparkling white and blue out. So beautiful, so peaceful and so silent. It had snowed about one foot for the first time this year, even though it’s mid February now. When the dogs and I stepped out I didn’t feel like digging out the snowshoes. Which we haven’t needed to walk in the bush this winter because there was only about a foot or two on the ground. I didn’t want to futz around, I wanted to go. Something was driving me to walk. So we walked to the cleared road for the easy way. I never go for ‘walks’ with the dogs on the road these days because Lou our youngest, is not very obedient. Although there are only a few cars that pass here each day they move fast. Not safe. But this morning I was driven to the road and driven to turn North. The dogs set out ahead of me and not a 100 meters from the driveway they bounded off the road into the deep snow. Lou the smaller of the two moved exactly like a cat or weasel does in the deep snow, gracefully loping. The sun was shining and I was really enjoying watching Lou disappear under the snow and then bound up and out, over and over. “Like she was sowing the air and earth together” I thought. Then I noticed May, the elder dog who was twenty yards ahead. She was really onto something and so I watched her to see if it was a dear or a squirrel, the two most likely possibilities. Then I started in toward them, off the road myself. The snow was well past my knee high boots up to my thigh. It was light powder and so it was still fairly easy to move through. As I got closer I could see how excited May was and I instantly knew something big was going on, not just a squirrel. I got a few steps closer, moving across a stretch of frozen swamp toward a little raised island of trees. And then I could see her.

She was struggling, jerking and twisting to free herself from the oncoming dogs and me. It was a huge doe and she was stuck. We were back in the bush aways where there are no fences to get stuck in. So I imagined she might have fallen through the wetland and got caught in some rocks or maybe she got caught in a trap of some kind. At this point I was moving pretty quick and screaming at the dogs to stay back which they excitedly did, shaking with anticipation of the kill. When I arrived I was winded, so between yelling and growling at them I was trying to catch my breath and calm down a bit. I imagine I might free the deer although I still couldn’t see how she was caught. I got to about fifteen feet from her. I looked into her huge and remarkably calm looking eyes, and I felt I would do anything for her to be free. I slowly moved toward her.
The dogs moved with me, my will holding them back. They looked at me and said “This is it right? We’re going in for the kill? We walk around all the time smelling and looking for these animals and here it is”. I said, NOOOO! get back, and was trying to be calm at the same time for the Deers sake. The dogs kept looking at me as thought to say “you’re doin’ everything wrong here bud”. I finally got the dogs back and got close enough to see the huge Deer had her hoof caught between two Cedars about four feet up. Nothing could have looked more sacrificial. I still imagined I was going to free her so I slowly moved forward. When I got close enough to touch her hoof, that I was going to shove up, I looked around the tree and was horrified. I could see she had broken the bone and almost torn her leg off below the knee, the tendon and skin still tethering her.

It was one of those anti instinctual things. She’d been standing on her back legs reaching up for live Cedar fronds and come down between the trees with one leg, and the two trees acted like the claw end of a hammer. Then her instinct worked against her. She needed to move up and toward the trees that had caught her, to free herself, but instinct said move down and away. And the more she pulled the more she was caught. It looked like she’d been struggling for many hours by the time we arrived.

Another bit of the backstory here is I have avoided killing deer for about forty years. When I was younger and learnt how to live in the bush I killed small game like grouse, groundhogs and rabbits with traps. I also fished a lot for my food. I become very well versed in what plants I could eat, how to process them and learned wilderness living skills, over four years. I actually lived with the Deer back then. We wandered around for weeks at a time in the same areas of a peninsula in Muskoka, where I lived at the time. I knew them so intimately they trusted me. I even touched one one time, but that’s another story. Anyway, even during my most hard core survivalist phase those big brown eyes were always too much for me and I could never imagine killing one. It felt as murderous to me as killing my sister or lover. I’ve been told there’s even a label for this reluctance, the “megafauna complex”, so I guess I’m not alone. But like most labels it just diminishes a deep complex reality. Anyway, a few more years pass, I move out of the bush and end up in university. I read “diet for a small planet” and get the vegetarian consciousness. And so I become a vegetarian for about twenty years, excluding periods in Central America were it was just too hard to even find beans without pork fat in them. Then I end up on a farm and learning about raising domestic animals in a good way. And that they are part of the farming cycle all the vegan and vegetarians are dependent on! In another sense I also realized that by make space for domestic animals we’re saving the wild animals and wild spaces for them. Anyway, time moves further on and after we had kids my vegetarian wife Megan began craving meat. So we started raising chickens for meat, eggs and of course their manure. But I still couldn’t bring myself to raise or kill “megafauna”. In case you haven’t noticed cows have those same big brown eyes as deer and moose. Now, proceed to present day.

Not only do we eat meat but am also some kind of authority and teach people about how to live off the land. And I still don’t hunt or raise megafauna. And, just to really rub it in, we live in what’s called a “deer yard”! . These are usually low, cedar filled areas that have less snow and more browse than anywhere else. The Deer have been coming to these same special areas for thousands of years. Their wintering over areas spots not to change even when logging and development has happened. As you can imagine I must have been popular with the local hunters when I bought this spot and band them from hunting.

Now another key piece of the story is a couple years ago my wife Megan decided with some other women to learn how to hunt. It hasn’t happened yet in part because of the shut downs but its started me on my own process. I started getting my head around them hunting. I offered prayers to the deer for about a year before what I then imagined would be the coming hunting season. I imagined I would help them, because I still always know where the deer are from living with them. But was still not interested in doing the ‘dirty’ work. The fall past without them hunting but that same year in the winter something happened. Back then I walked my old dog Sofie on the road every day because she couldn’t do the 3-5’ deep snow anymore. We have tonnes of deer around and so every now and then I’d find the remains of wolf kills or road kills off in the bush. Usually by the time the dogs and I found the kill the next day there was very little left. Just a couple random hooves and torn pieces of fur around a big blood pink pit. But one day while walking Sofie I saw, sitting on a five foot high snow bank, with not a drop of blood around, was a lovely deer hide, carefully folded up. Honest to gods, I immediately thought of the story of the silky and looked around for the stranded beauty who had left her Deer robe there while her danced in human form. But she or any sign of her was not to be found, there on the bank I picked the hide up from the snow bank and unfolded it. It’s wan an absolutely perfect and skillfully removed deer hide.

Along with not killing the Megafauna I also never pursued learning the skills of tanning and butchery. I knew lots of folks who were hunters and did that end of things so I had always focussed on learning what plants to eat and what medicines they might offer. But that day I really felt that Deer hide had been left for me and I didn’t even really have a choice to take it or not. The prayers I’d made also came to mind and felt like this was part of a conversation I had opened. And part of my preparation for hunting. It made sense to learn the skills of tanning and butchering before learning to hunt. So that spring, I somewhat reluctantly got the fur off the Deer hide, scraped it and tanned it in Oak and Alder bark. Plants are something I know a lot about. I didn’t have the brain to use for tanning but tree barks abound in this area with tannins and dying agents, all of which are essential to turn a hide into leather. Real leather is an incredibly durable idem. While I did get some satisfaction from processing the hide I was far from having crossed over to the other side.

Ok, now we can come back to this moment out in the bush when I realize the caught deer is truly fucked. The best she could hope for would be to suffer through the day and then be torn up by wolves that night. Suddenly my plans about shoving her foot up changed, I thought it best if she wasn’t free. After speaking with her for a bit I turned and left with the dogs. I got them back in the house and then took off to find a neighbour with a gun. Once again, as with the hide the year before I felt I had no choice. I wondered what a PITA person would do under these circumstances? Where it seemed obvious the most ‘humane’ thing to do is put the animal out of its suffering. It’s also important for the reader to know that there are a lot of Deer around. Maybe too many, if she was having to stand on her back legs to find browse during a year with little snow. Anyway, for me the choice could not have been clearer. My neighbour Bill and I were back with her in about a half an hour. She held still and calmly looked right at him. He took care with the 308. He shot her between the eyes, and she was down right away. After the silence returned from the echoing shot I came to her gently with prayers. With water for her thirst and tobacco for her spirit.

Not sure what Bill thought and it didn’t matter, he played his part perfectly. He’s military and a hunter so I guess he knew he’d have to have the ‘out-of-season kill’ cleared by the local MNR before the animal was “dispatched”. Without getting into it and torturing you, the MNR was unbelievably insensitive to the situation which called for a quick response. We did what we had to and later easily justified the action with nasty pictures of the stuck deer which they demanded. He gutted her, while I went back home for the sled. She was a full grown female with calf. Supper healthy, in her prime and weighed more than 120 lbs. We put her in the sled and I dragged her out through the deep snow. I felt glad for the effort it took. We brought her home and hung her through the tendons of her back leg under the carport.

By now much of the day had passed. The temperature started to plummet and was predicted to drop to -25C that night. I went in, had a drink, and prepared to take the hide off before it froze on (which makes it almost impossible to get off cleanly). Megan came home with the kids just as I was starting so she helped me skin the Deer. A couple days later a good friend Daniel who has great skill in tanning and butchering, and most importantly has a sacred approach to the animals, came over and butchered Her with us. We ate Her that night.

Now this all just happened, so I’m not so naive as to think that all the teachings from that experience have already come home to roost, but something did change in me. The grandmother and grandfathers gently brought me over to the other side step by step. And I will tell you, after knowing and loving the Deer people for so many years and feeling I would do anything to protect them and their wild lands, I feel closer still, now. I’ve lived with hunters when I was younger, and as a family we’ve been lucky to be gifted venison many times over the years. I’ve also eaten her in many local potlucks, and I’ve felt the power, but this time the meat was different. By accepting this sacrifice of the deer, by being the one responsible, I have become one with them and the land here in a new way. In eating this sacrifice I take communion with the wild, and with the dead. By ingesting that holy wafer I fully realize life does not just happen. Nothing just happens. Our life did not just happen. There is a story of ‘destruction’ behind everything ‘created’. And in this story it is the sacrifice and death of the holy that births life and feeds her into the glory and grief of being.

The morning after I was up at sunrise again and I went out to offer prayers. And in a different way I felt like I knew where her herd was and what they were going through. Just as I was feeling this I heard the strange screeching cackle and chirp of the Bald Eagle voice. The dogs and I walked back over to where we’d left most of the guts and the fetus. The Eagle chirped and flew up off a tall pine. He circled around sunwise to say thanks and then few off before the dogs reached the site.

I feel there is so many lessons here but one that we can all relate to is that this is like so many things in our lives, that we know about, have studied or lived with, but have still never touched at the deepest level because of our fears and prejudices. Things we ‘know’ with our mind but have never really brought into our own bodies with love.

I didn’t write this to say I’m going to become a big hunter or that you should, but just to say we all have our own path and to pay attention because it can all change on a morning walk. Here was something that I full on believed for decades that I would never do. But I have learned to follow the Earth’s lead religiously. It took a while, as it does often does, but she has taught me to let go our my gruesome ideas about killing and death, and fully receive the sacrament of life.