Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Life and Struggles of The White-Tailed Deer

    The sky is dark. The airy woods of a poplar swamp are still, and the tree crowns above remain tangled in silence. The crisp chill that hangs in the black air is beginning to make the sun seem like a blessing not to return after expiring an age ago behind the impenetrable wall of pine that surrounds the swamp. Frost seals the soft ground with its ice crystals, keeping any and all warmth out, and the cold, threatening mountain air that seems to be hovering just above the treetops is yet another indication that the sun may indeed remain set. The silence is deafening, and the conscious, seemingly empty world seems to begin and end at your earlobes, but now and then a faint rustle brings the silence to life, and gives real depth to the eerie setting.
    On the east side of the swamp, the sky turns gray. The three-pronged silhouettes of mature white pine crowns begin to appear, giving the restless inhabitants of the brushy swamp the reassuring knowledge that the circle of life will once again rise. The thick enclosure still prevents any light from penetrating to the swamp—but that doesn’t matter. The patient souls that slept here tonight are restless, dawn is approaching, and they have existed on stored plant forage and the final remaining carbs leeched from withering acorns for a full half day. The rustles grow in volume and number as a hardy family rises from their warm beds of leaves, slip their adept hooves between hardened leaves to the frozen ground, and shake the frost from their warm, gray backs. By some thin stroke of luck, dawn comes, and finds a herd of young White-Tails on their way to feed for the morning.

    The last doe disappears into the shadows of the barricade of pines and the swamp again seems empty, but after several moments there is movement in the heart of the swamp. Behind a maze of vines and bushes, on solid ground, with moss and decaying pine needles as bedding, a stocky, solitary buck lies in the nook of a fallen spruce tree and its root mass. The hefty animal, who is up in his years, is planted firmly in his warm bed, eyes wide, as if determined to never leave his position. Emotionally and physically calloused, this is purely meditation, for his way of life has made him who he is, has kept him alive, and made him a veteran of the fall. Today is a very important day in every deer’s year, but particularly his, for he is the most sought after animal in his neck of the woods. Today is the opening day of deer season in the north woods.
    The buck knows from experience that today the hunters will be thick in his woods, for opening day is the most popular day afield for most. He knows there will be a large number of deer taken from his woods this morning, for a new moon makes them particularly easy to read, and he concludes that delaying his movements would be beneficial. Hunger pulls at him, tensing his muscles, any other deer would give in, but giving in to desire hasn’t kept him alive for this long.
    Several Red Squirrels emerge from the pine stand surrounding the swampy heart of the woods when the sun acquires height, and they play carelessly, always keeping their distance from the bedded buck—never challenging his position as king of the woods. Head held high, the cold sun embraces his gleaming, white antlers.

    After the sun has been up for several hours, a slight breeze begins to filter through the woods, and the buck rises from his bed cautiously. Hunger plays with his mind, and he dismisses some caution, knowing that he must satisfy his hunger to be as alert as possible. Like an opening day ritual, he lumbers off into the breeze, through a brushy draw cut by a trickle through the pines, head held high, in the direction of a small patch of grass irrigated by a flowing brook in the open woods that has always yielded late forage.
    Following the trickle, the buck shows a humble personality. Like an old man, whose youth and muscle is gone, his headgear has decreased in size over the recent years, but his wisdom is unparalleled, and he is confident in his ability. Several times squirrels or fisher put him on alert, but he doesn’t dwell on these kinds of interruptions, and he quickly resumes his steady pace.

    Traveling downhill now, numerous fallen pines crisscross his path like a giant’s wooden fence. Easily, or with seemingly little energy, he lifts himself over the obstacles with his spring loaded back legs capable of propelling him over nine feet in the air. His beauty increases with every moment, as he meets obstacles with hundreds of years of evolved physical tools, and conquers them with a single, flowing, controlled movement.
    As the pines begin to thin, so do the brown needles that layer the soft ground, and the thick, white pines give way to an open grove of hemlocks and loblolly pines. A mountain brook, swelling with the accumulation of a hard rain, makes its presence known over the static of the breeze. 
    The wise old buck remains hidden inside the shadow of the pines, surveying the ground he’s about to tread on. He’s been surprised here before, and is always careful when entering, because the setting is much more revealing than that of the pine margin. With his nose in the air, the gentle breeze flows through his nostrils with ease, giving him confidence in his knowledge of the contents of the woods ahead of him. He presses on.
    Off in the distance, a pack of Gray Wolves initiate a gathering call, putting the wary buck on edge. Several deer have been taken from the herd recently by wolves, aside from the countless fawns taken in the spring, and they are becoming more proficient at their jobs with every meal. This being the case, the logical action would be to bed down and wait for the dogs to leave the area—but there are certain risks involved:  hunger is already playing a part in his decisions, but to be caught by the brook amongst a pack of hungry wolves would mean certain death, but going without food for now would surely mean starvation in the event of a sudden winter storm. The northern buck maintains his proximity to the thick pines, and beds by a patch of laurel bushes, munching on starchy green leaves to take the edge off of his hunger until he feels safe once more.
    After wearing out a couple of laurel branches, thick clouds had covered the high sun, spreading gray light throughout the woods. The buck has forgotten about the wolves, and redirects his attention to his main food source. Moving more quickly now, he aims himself towards the crest of the ridge, and the hollow where he will feed.
    Upon reaching the crest of the hollow, the big, northern buck is satisfied with its contents. The breeze holds no sign of human, and the squirrels rummaging through the crunchy leaves of the forest floor seem content and at ease—he loses no time in descending into the creek bottom. Eyeing a beaver, playing in his stillwater creation, cautiously, and with careful footing, the buck crosses a beaver dam, making his way to the edge habitat of a beaver field.
    Feeding, or grazing, often brings out a false sense of security in all deer, and the northern buck that is feeding alone in an overgrown beaver field knows it. He checks his back frequently for any signs of a difference in his woods—he knows what they are.
    After several minutes of grazing broom sedge and other assorted grasses, the cautious veteran of the fall woods notices the silent retreat of the tree squirrels to their safe dens in the lofty hardwoods. He eyes the sky, which looks as if it could begin spitting precipitation down through the dormant arms of the hardwoods at any moment, but that’s not what they fear. At that very moment he could make out a steady noise originating on the upward slope on the opposite side of the thick field—wolves.
    With straw still hanging from his flat teeth, the three hundred pound tank lunges from his foot prints in the soft mud, clears most of the beaver dam in one long, bounding stride, landing roughly on the sticks just inside of the bank, and shuffles up the steep wall of the hollow with speed rivaling a racehorse. The open woods of hemlock put forth no obstacles, and should be easy traveling for the buck, but a large splinter just below his dewclaw, acquired from the busy beaver’s woody creation, is hindering his movement, and must be removed.
    The northerner is still glowing from his spectacular escapade up the hill, when he converges with yet another danger. A surprised, wool laden hunter stands motionless in the open woods, caught by surprise by the fleeing buck quartering towards him on his way out of the woods on an unsuccessful day’s hunting. The sheer magnificence of the loping deer stuns the astonished hunter for several seconds, fixing his eyes on the oblivious animal, and tugging at his rough, gray chin, but he quickly snaps from his daze, and raises his weathered, wood-stocked rifle.
    The buck raises his head to scan his surroundings just in time to catch the movement of the old mountain man switching off his safety. More vulnerable than ever, the old buck can’t react to this very real threat, giving the hunter a perfect opportunity to take him. With a resounding crack of his rifle, the weathered hunter sends a .270 mm. bullet, shattering the confused buck’s left knee cap.
    The splinter doesn’t matter anymore, and the overwhelming rush of adrenaline sends the crippled buck on a mad dash for his life towards the safety of the thick pine woods, and the excited hunter fumbling for his bolt and another load. Halfway to apparent safety, the handicapped buck realizes his chances of survival are slim, but he presses on with seven years of luck and determination to drive him to safety.
    Inside the pine margin, the buck limps to the closest piece of decent cover available—a small draw cluttered with laurel bushes and pine and gum saplings. The hunter, now on his toes, enters the shadows smoothly, wielding his weapon vertically, close to his chest, scanning the area with utmost confidence. The crisscrossing pine poles, stripped whole of their bark by reoccurring frosts, break up the outline of the concealed buck’s head gear, and pine needles blanketing the ground engulf his bulky, weak body, quivering with fear and shock. Light already dim from the cloud cover is fading from the woods, and the impenetrable canopy of the pines smother the hunters straining eyes, forcing him to retreat—the deer is safe.
    Several seconds passed, as the frightened buck’s breaths grew increasingly deeper, and the hunter’s soft footsteps faded into the silence of the north woods. A shot rang out, followed by the unmistakable racket of deer wheezing in retreat, and the downfall of another. Another animal would wear the deer hunter’s tag this day.

    Again, noise associated with the hunter faded, and the remaining group from which one unfortunate deer was taken, moved on to their precious swamp to spend the night in safety. Just moments before all hints of light were sucked from the sky, and dusk was no more, icy flakes began to filter through the covering of pine boughs. As the snowflakes fought their way to the forest floor, pattering like they do off of the semi-permeable pine needles, the motionless buck begins acquiring an icy blanket, and prepares himself for another long night in the cold and unforgiving north woods.
    He survived that day. He managed to muddle by one more day, but that was an unfortunate start to a short deer season in an unforgiving setting, one which would have to improve to ensure survival. It’s even quite possible that he would make it through to spring, if the winter snow and hunger doesn’t suck the life from him first. All of these compiled experiences with the many obstacles that oppose the White-Tailed Deer condition them to the country they inhabit, educating them with every encounter, making them the most desired big game animal in North America.

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