They often visit us in the morning, their dun coats shifting through the dappled light. They graze in the woods, stepping delicately over fallen branches. To rest, they fold their legs gracefully beneath them, settle into the leaves and disappear. Sometimes from the south window, we see several new tan boulders on the hillside. We call them the ladies. No refined Victorian ever had such elegance.
White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) are liminal creatures, foraging in timber glades and along the wooded edges of streams, most active at dawn and twilight. They mate in the fall, to the peril of motorists. Fawns are born in spring and make their first timid visits to us around midsummer. Their home range is relatively small. We see the same families from year to year.
They browse in my garden. They mow the liriope foliage during the winter, and they forage for the first sweet crocus blossoms. I’ve learned not to bother trying to grow lilies or hosta; the succulent salad bar they provide is too appealing. Two spotted fawns pruned my bell peppers one year. They returned the next year, larger and still hungry.
Even supposedly deer-proof plants attract a few individuals. For several years the same doe methodically devoured the toxic camassia before it could bloom. I planted coral bells near the driveway and found the uprooted plant tossed aside the next morning. I replanted it and found it yanked up again the next day. This went on for almost a week before the deer lost interest.
At twilight, the deer emerge to glean leftover sunflower seeds under the bird feeder. One clever lady learned to slip her slender tongue into the port and tease out the seeds. She taught her daughters the trick. They can empty a bird feeder in half an hour. A friend suggested offering them cornmeal. The ladies found it a fine supplement for sunflower seeds. Now five of them show up to feast together.
If I’m lucky, I meet them when I walk the timber. I follow their trails along the hillside. I stalk them with my camera. They are cautious but not afraid of me. If I come too close, the nearest does will flip their white tails, kick up their heels, leap a short way down the hill and settle to graze again. One deer stays on watch, ears pointed, eyes wide. Sometimes she stamps her hoof to warn me away.
Among the Kanza Indians, the Deer clan served as heralds and messengers. They made sure everyone knew where to make a new camp or how a buffalo hunt would be organized. Some clan names described white tail appearance and behavior with precise detail: Gray Back, Tail Shows Whitish Suddenly, Dark Breast, Hawk Eyes, Steps Softly, Jumps Suddenly, Stands Ahead of the Others, Without a Plan.
Deer are caretakers of the earth in many native traditions. They give themselves to the people as food. They lick things into their proper shapes. They appear when you need to see them, to remind you of who you are, where you belong. They are messengers, heralds from other worlds, telling us where to find our sustenance, our people, our home. They tell us when it is time to move on.
To catch sight of a deer standing motionless between the branches is to encounter the goddess. Artemis had groves and temples in liminal settings, places that opened the way between worlds, neither here nor there but elsewhere. When I meet her ladies, I stop what I’m doing and catch my breath. My heart lifts. She pulls me out of time and into sacred space. I thank her with a sacrifice of flowers and foliage, an offering of cornmeal.