Life and death
"Our leaves are falling.
Come spring we will renew,
But you, alas, fall once."
Haiku by Adam, Machines Like Me, by Ian McEwan.
The winter which has yielded some of the best cross-country skiing we've had in years has had a different consequence for others: starvation. This morning I found the lifeless body of a young deer under a fir tree near the horse paddock. It wasn't entirely a surprise. The deer had been nestled under the tree yesterday morning, too tired and weak to respond to Oliver's excited barks. Against sound judgment, I had tucked a flake of hay in the snow nearby, hoping it might give the small deer some relief. The deer was gone last evening, yet this morning I found that it had returned to its sheltered spot under the fir. Last night the temperatures were in the single digits under the cloudless sky, too cold for the weakened body and spirit of the underequipped youngster. The hay was untouched.
After morning chores, I brought the old plastic blue sled to the fir and slid the deer onto its bright platform. The sled has had a long tenure--first the delighted ride of squealing kids, hurtling down the steep driveway from the barn, around the curve, past the pond. As the kids grew, the sled became more utilitarian, transporting hay, firewood, and even sometimes weeds from the garden to the edge of the forest. Today, it was transporting the soft body recently abandoned by a hopeful spirit. I have never had this happen before--not in the yard, at least--and I knew that leaving the small deer where it lay under the fir was simply not an option. Too many conflicting uses of the lawn. Too many dogs. Not enough privacy for natural decomposition. I pulled the loaded sled over the crusted snow--the crust which facilitated pulling the sled being the same crust that required me to be pulling the sled--and we set off for the remote valley which embraces the North Branch of Sandy Creek.
The small deer fit easily in the sled, and we were making good time in the bright sunshine, crows cawing overhead as if excited for the trip. Halfway down the mile-long trail to the valley, I stopped near a grove of hemlocks on a grim hunch that another young deer seen the last couple of evenings might also need a ride. It did. I pulled its lifeless body up the bank and added it to my sled. Now with two passengers, the sled pulled a bit harder, but still slid along without much effort. On the downslopes, I released the sled and the deer and let them slide quickly ahead of me through the trees, as though the deer were having their last runs through the forest. Hardened tracks from our winter of skiing kept the sled on the trail and negotiating turns.
Academically, I know that winter brings death to the weak, which in turn provides sustenance to others, but I still felt a bit of the loss. I thought about the young, curious deer of last summer, approaching me on the trail, testing me by stomping their cloven hooves and circling me. They were roughly the same age as the two in my funeral sled.
The distance was traversed and the destination was reached. We made our way steadily to a little snowy knoll in view of the creek, centered in a meadow, and I gently unloaded my charges and arranged them on the solid snow. There was a peacefulness to the spot. My intention was that they would now be easily found by the crows and eagles who soar over the valley and thereby add to the welfare of the more fortunate of the day. I smoothed the fur on their cheeks and left them to rejoin the circle of life.
I carried the blue sled--it now made too much noise on the snow and I wanted the distant calling of the birds and the soft whispers of the trees.