Saturday, September 5, 2009

Oh Deer

Working part-time at Time-Life in the eighties gave me many things. A place to be in the middle of the night once a week; free telephone calls to anywhere; all the insipid magazines to flip through in down-time that one could ever want; an acerbic, brilliant proofreading partner who could keep me awake with his commentary on every aspect of American mismanagement of life; full health benefits, and, equally amazing, ten dollars cash in an envelope to buy take-out from the Japanese noodle shop; upon a temporary firing--followed quickly enough by re-hiring that it didn’t matter--a check for a thousand dollars that bought my first motorcycle. And something that just now reminded me of this whole gravy-train episode: records and books from the freebie table that held the outcasts from the critics’ desks. One night I took home an album called How Did You Find Me Here by someone I’d never heard of, and bet you haven’t either, named David Wilcox. It featured an image of an acoustic guitar, which is no doubt why I expended the effort to pick it up, and a promise that among its tracks was a song titled “Eye of the Hurricane.”

I learned to love that album, with Wilcox’s honeyed voice and tight, classic songwriting lines. It plays now in the background. And that one song has new resonance now.

It is about a girl who buys the farm on her Honda Hurricane.

The tank is full, the switch is on,

The night is warm, cops are gone

Rocket bike is all her own;

It’s called a Hurricane.

She told me once it’s quite a ride,

It’s shaped so there’s this place inside

Where, if you’re moving, you can hide.

She wants to run away, but there’s nowhere she can go

Nowhere the pain won’t come again

But she can hide, hide in the pouring rain:

She rides the eye of a hurricane.

Tell the truth, explain to me

How you got this need for speed.

She laughed and said,

Might just be the next best thing to love.

. . .

We saw her ride so fast last night

Racing by, a flash of light.

Riding quick, the street was dark,

The shiny truck she thought was parked,

It blocked her path, stopped her heart.

But not the Hurricane.

It can be one of many things, what can get you. Or you can fit together several of them to make your own individualized catastrophe. Often, deer figure in the scene.

The way motorcyclists hit deer is sometimes impossible, sometimes spectacular. The bike may stay upright; it may go down. Riders die, or they live through it; the deer always go. They explode upon impact.

Think about that.

As a motorcyclist I am supposed to hate them. They are, as one friend says, The Enemy. The appropriate response is to want to kill them before they kill you. This is the American way, after all.

But I love deer. I cannot hate anything that is made of fear, and pure beauty, and has to come up against us.

They call them “forest rats,” and I hate hearing that disparaging term; it comes from the same place that thought up "gook," and "nigger." Makes all of them easier to wipe away, diminished like that. But who in fact made deer so plentiful? Their inflated numbers are another creation of our penchant for killing; we took out the wolves and coyotes, too, so now there are no controls. We need not control ourselves.

I had a wonderful stop in Hendersonville, drinking coffee and talking with a friend. I should have been watching the clock. Because I should have gotten on the Blue Ridge Parkway an hour earlier; I needed to make Roanoke that night. Which meant I had an hour and a half of that lonely byway, made mysterious by the dark, after sunset. The deer had reclaimed the roadside; their heads raised, startled, at my headlight. They were the armies of the night, and I had invaded their territory. Fortunately, the BMW, aka the Blender, was as silent a goer as a bike can get. They watched me go by. But I could only do so at thirty miles an hour. There were so many. And though I was frightened—or at least, respectful of the possibilities—I still felt privileged to be in their presence.

The next day, after enjoying the remainder of what is surely one of the great motorcycling roads of the world, I had to face the clock again, and hop onto I-81 for the race home. The Parkway had been my gift to myself, but its wrapping paper was now torn aside.

The happy rhythm, the growing intimacy with the physics of riding the turns on the parkway, made me feel cocky and invincible. So I forgot things, important, basic things. Do not follow trucks. Do not follow anyone closely. Especially trucks.

It emerged from under one of them so quickly I could not do anything, swerve, move over. I fixated on it, and in one portion of a second it was burned onto the film of the inner eye and even now I cannot get it out of my sight. A foreleg first. Then a head, black eyes staring, shocked. Then a brown body, and the crunch of my wheels as it went over, through.

If it had been something solid, made of wood or metal, you would not be reading this. Or, if I had been going slower, it might have brought me down.

A hundred miles later I pulled up next to the pump. I looked down as I put my heel to the sidestand, and what I saw made me ill—at the same time I smelled it, which made me more ill. Not only physically, but right in the heart. I had brought that dead deer with me, dripping from every part of the machine, covering my boots. It had baked onto the engine; hair was caught behind bolts. I felt tears pushing behind my eyes, and maybe only some of them were of relief that I had escaped a spill to which I had been so close.

She had not escaped. She had no hope to. They have been made, by the same evolutionary pressures that made us, to wheel and throw the predator off track. How to hate the dead? And I saw, hanging in threads from below me, that what is inside them looks exactly like what is in us. We are the same under the skin.

Today I walked with Nelly on one of our old trails; we have missed our walks lately. It was nearing dusk; their time. I would have felt lonely, as I sometimes do this time of day, out in the woods far from anyone. Except I knew they were there, watching. And that I find myself wondering if I am more like them than I am like you.

Postscript: The above was written well before the news that several riders on the Iron Butt Rally, which just finished yesterday, were the victims of deer strikes, and one was hurt critically. This kind of news makes me feel nauseous with sadness. Do I want motorcyclists to go down in collisions with deer? No. Do I want to go down myself? No. Do I like having to split my sympathies? No. Do I not even understand why I must? Yes. I feel the framing of this problem is what has gone seriously wrong: Ride a bike; must desire to kill.

"Solve the deer problem!" say the posters on the riding forums. But it's not the deer's problem.

Bring back their predators. Control human numbers. I hope I am ready for the flak this is going to cause to rain down on me.


ren said...

In all fairy tales, wolves are the bad guys. But in reality, wolves are a special and integral part of what is —or was—around us. They have reason to be, and in this case, that reason is to eat some deer. If they get a cat or dog along the way, so be it, there are too many of them, too; just check out your local animal shelter. And if you love your pet, then take the responsibility for its safety personally. Don't make everyone pay for your selfishness, that selfishness that kills wolves, leaving the deer to starve in their overpopulated forests and live in fear of the human gun. Let the wolves be the good guys.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Hear, hear.

Beautiful comment, Ren, and unimpeachable sense.

More and more I find myself wondering what it is in us that has set murder (to call a spade a spade) as the default in our behavior: whether it's those we designate as our "enemies"; the mice in our houses; the weeds in our lawns; the native people on the land we want; the beavers in our waterways; anything alive that interferes with our wants--the only action is to kill.

Either this is an ethical malfunction, or one of wiring. Either way, it's stunning, when viewed in the aggregate.

Can we not think our way around a problem other than to resort to death? Bizarre.

Kevin G. said...

I really hope this doesn't sound maudlin, or seem like "Andy Hardy responds to a blog". But yesterday,I was returning home from the store on foot with my son (with me totally preoccupied and hearing less than a third of what he was saying). He stopped when he saw that a neighbour had put a small wishing well, on their front lawn, a pile of wishing stones and an invitation to make use of it. We did. He with a grin and myself after a few shoulder checks to see if there were witnesses.We left, but the image hasn't left me.
There will always be four legged and two legged predators. But hiding in plain sight, are striking contrasts. Sometimes I see them. Sometimes I don't, whether I'm flying along the highway or walking home.
Thank you for "Oh Deer" & "Eye of The Hurricane", but please don't wager on David Wilcox's anonymity with someone from Toronto!

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Kevin, didn't you know that kids add a full two-thirds of incomprehensible gobblydgook to their soliloquies, because they know that we're only ever listening to a third of what they're saying?

I appreciate your confession. And therefore I hope your wish comes true. 'Cause I *know* you made a real one that you are hoping will come true.

In return, I will be unashamedly honest about something best left hidden about me: I wrote David Wilcox a fan letter. See, there was an Ohio connection with him, too, and with the motorcycle thing, and the serendipity of picking up his album out of the blue and then discovering all these points of reference . . . I figured we were destined to meet. At least.

I didn't get a response.

tina said...

Now there are great white sharks off Cape Cod (fortunately, not till after my vacation), closing beaches. They are coming in,I'm told, for the seals (which I saw myself just yards offshore at Coast Guard), and the seals are coming in for the striped bass--fishing for which was restricted for years because their number was declining. Don't fuck with Mother Nature, seems to me the obvious lesson. We never know better. Don't think we can out-maneuver predation among animals just because we feel bad that we're frustrated that we can't prevent predation among humans.

I feel for your experience with the deer on the road. How awful for you, truly.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

How strange to think that a single piece of the original balancing act has now grown so large and lopsided it has upset the whole tower of blocks. (I refer to us.)

I feel bad for the sharks, too. I suppose I shouldn't get started on that.

Once upon a time I wanted a permit to carry a gun--just in case I hit a deer with my car. The thought of leaving an injured deer to die a protracted death was so painful I couldn't stand it.

Anonymous said...

Melissa, I am just catching up with you blog tonight. I can not post this on my own but we've been raising a faun since early June. In fact, she comes into our room and sleeps on the floor at night.

It is very illegal to do this but the story of her raising has more to do with saving her from being baled up and then not having the sense to have brought her further into the woods.

In January, after hunting season, we will let her go onto our 250 acres where we don't allow hunting. She is more than welcome to come back to visit us and we hope that she will--our porch will always be open onto the pasture.

But it has been a magical summer with this magnificent creature.

I feel your pain but am so glad that you were not injured.

Your faraway writer friend from Akron ~

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

What an amazing experience that must be, to raise a fawn--one not looked for, but only given. Good for you to do it. For what's the choice?

Please let me know how it turns out. I suspect you've got a friend for life . . .

Anonymous said...

Yes, today was quite magical. I tried to lure her to my abandoned fenced in garden with a bottle and some grass, but she had other plans.

She leapt around the yard (she'd gotten free before but was too young to be on her own) and ran on her spindly legs--really ran and cavorted for the first time. One of our dogs played with her. I saw this leap and dash of white tail up over the knob and I thought, well, that would be it...that we might catch a glimpse one day.

A few minutes later, there she was at the back gate looking for me. I find it so symbolic of letting go our children--those first initial tastes of freedom, where they are safe and still with us, and then a warm bed and milk and love at home. Then one day, off again for good.

I have heard of other people who raise injured or abandoned wild mammals and will see them return with their own babies the next year: deer and foxes in particular.

We are waiting for that (planned) moment after hunting season is over...

I'll keep you posted.

Evan said...

I know you can keep deer out of your yard with repellents like that new Deer Off, but I'm not sure how you could repel deer when you’re on a bike. Don't they make those deer repellent whistles that you put on the front of your car?

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

I know a fair number of people who have deer whistles on their bikes; the jury is out as to whether or not they work. Their main value may well be talismanic. Not that I sniff at that . . .