Friday, May 4, 2012

The lives of animals

From the track along the brow, I can see across a shallow valley of sedge-filled fields, wet from the rains of winter, the soft earth pocked by the feet of sheep and the incessant pecking of rooks. To the north, a small nature reserve, a low downy copse of alder and birch ringed by bog, folds itself to the curves of the land. Southwards from here, a small stream, a trench of murky water, flows from beneath the village and crosses the broad valley. It is a passing route for deer; I see them running close to the hedges, the slip and curve of their dun-coloured hides indistinguishable from the olive smurr of sedge which lines the valley bottom.
On a rainy afternoon, towards evening, I saw a young female grazing in the field which slopes upwards from the beck, its head bent over the scuffed remains of autumn's grasses, the curled leaves of docks. The slope of the land allowed me to approach unseen, to peer over the brow only a dozen yards from her. She paused, raised her head, and looked at me. I hung my arms by my side, stilled my movement in the damp evening rain, my breath unrolling in the breeze. For a while she watched, assessing me, and then turned back to her grazing. I stepped closer forwards, lifting my feet deliberately through the damp grass. She looked again, then turned towards the hedge. After some time, her grazing finished, she turned and loped slowly across the field. Around twenty yards away she stopped and looked again. This time I felt the intensity of the gaze, the calm unblinking certainty of her moist eyes, as though there was some message to impart, some warning that I have failed to register. She turned her head to the rise in the land ahead of her, and trotted away from me.

For years I have watched deer amongst these marginal lands. I begin to learn the places where they can be seen at certain times of the day. I find their bedding scrapes - circles of compressed grass in the damp morning earth – and I linger with a sense of envy of their fluidity, their freedom, their poise and balance. I try to imagine how their lives are; the places they frequent for food, for water, for play. I picture their world as it must seem to them, the mental geographies they carry with them; see a network of hedges and fields, a series of green corridors along which it is safe to move, broken by the threads upon which our own limited lives depend: roads, villages, fences.
In the early morning, it can be possible to see them more closely, bewildered in the dawn light, restless yet immobile. Sometimes, on foggy mornings, I have surprised them amongst the hawthorn trees and, for a few seconds, we have watched each other in mutual incomprehension. Their eyes are like polished pebbles, the colour of wet slate.
One March evening, I walked with my son to the top of the brow where the wind comes from the south-west. The trees droned with the ache of it, a constant hush of motion and sound. Two deer were scuttling in the lane, perhaps sheltering from the wind. They bolted towards the gate and then, finding it closed, vaulted the thorn hedge, five feet high and three feet wide. We watched them cross the field, bounding and leaping as they ran. They paused to drink from a rain-filled pond in the corner, then cleared the farthest fence in a single, fluid bound, like a bolt of cloth shaken in the wind. A moment later, a third deer broke from the dense hedgerow of thorns and crab apples and crossed the same field. This one was heavier and ran with a more purposeful, flatter gait. It too cleared the fence and was gone. Hoof prints pitted the damp earth at the edge of the field.

It is in the mornings when I earn that sense of privilege of seeing deer at their early grazing; there is an unspoken alliance amongst animals who pass in the flush of first light that owes something to the complicity between the hunter and the hunted, that is not so much trust as a mutual wariness. I find myself thinking of them when I leave the village early, bent over the handlebars of my bike, dreaming them like a talisman against the chaff of modern living.
And then, last week, on the long slope downhill by the village church, I saw something flapping in the road a hundred yards or so ahead of me; a bag, perhaps, or the wrappings of a silage bale. A car which had passed me moments before had turned and was returning up the hill. The flapping took shape: long thin legs, the rise and fall of a chest, a deer which had vaulted the high hedge directly in front of a passing car; a young male, his antlers only two short prongs, their dull shine like polished ash.
The driver of the car was shocked; the speed with which an animal can appear in the road, the powerlessness to stop or swerve. We took a pair of flailing hoofs each, and dragged the animal from the tarmac onto the soft verge. His eyes were closed, his breathing fast and rasping. I watched the warmth of his laboured breath as it plumed in the chill morning air, the heaving of his body , like the shuddering of someone in tears. I wanted to put my hands on his heaving chest, to offer some form of apology for the senseless hurt we inflict on animals, for the warning that I saw in the eyes of that deer only a few weeks earlier.

The passing of deer always leaves a sadness, like a love remembered and lost. They are pure movement, when all around us in autumn is wilted and dying. I ache for the ease with which they travel across the land, the sense of grace they bring to our landscape. I imagine the mysteries of their lives, and feel a sense of completeness, as though complicit in their wildness. I see the fear in their eyes, and can only imagine the atonement we must give, the concessions we have yet to make.

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