Saturday, December 1, 2012

Oh Deer!

It was sometime in the mid-nineties when I was driving my new car on a small university road from my home to my lab that I hit a deer.
My lab's building was on top of a mountain. The drive up was through the woods and the season was a picturesque Fall of rural Pennsylvania. It was before 9 AM. The valley was clear and crisp, even now all I need to do is- close my eyes to put myself there and feel the air on my face.
The morning drive was the favorite part of my day. I rolled my window down a crack so just enough of the breeze blew across my face and rustled my hair.

A few minutes before the hit I saw deer on the road. This was when I was still in the valley, where there was no traffic, when the deer suddenly came from nowhere and raced straight across the road, about three blocks ahead of me. I had never seen herds of deer come out like this. It was usual to see a deer or two at dusk, their eyes reflecting in the headlights. The herds usually stayed in the woods. These galloped and jumped on and off the roadside fences in tight lines of twos or threes, back into the woods. Awe. It was a show.
I stopped until they passed and went my way. At the posted limit of 30mph. A half mile later, I heard a thud. My car jolted. I didn't see anything. I pulled over. The front of the car was bashed up. Huh? I looked around and only then saw the deer. It took me a few seconds to realize what happened. Oh no. A lone, straggler deer.

The deer was lying on the other side of road. It was struggling to get up on its feet using strong upward jerks but couldn't raise itself up and was lying back, tired. I tentatively walked to it. The size was something I had underestimated, it was very big. The tall, strong antlers were cutting sharp angles in the air as it moved its head with the effort of getting up on its feet. I went closer. Denial and horror. The deer was looking at me as I approached. Its eye had a diffuse expression, of pain, confusion and being wary of me. There was no blood, no external injuries. 
Deer smell came from it. Its taut body gave off a powerful vitality that filled the area. Then, just like that, it quietened down. I looked away for a second for something I don't remember why and when I saw again, it was very still, its eye became glass-like with no expression. The smell and the feel were all still there. It was unreal. In less than a second it became lifeless, as I stood watching.

My car was ruined. My husband had just bought the car for me and we had driven it back from Chicago. That I got locked inside a lonely rest area in Ohio during the long drive didn't feel like a story anymore. The red car had 10k miles and was used-new (what we could afford). My old Honda had been giving me all sorts of trouble and with the winter approaching we figured I needed something that could take me up and down the mountain at day or night.
No one was in at the lab to talk to me. I couldn't just leave the deer there. I looked up the nearest police station.  I don't know why I couldn't just call, somehow I had to go there and tell somebody, file a report or something.
I called Chicago from the lab, he wasn't home. We were a long distance couple, he was working and I was going to school, living alone. Mother-in-law answered my call (in-laws were visiting).  I told her about the accident and that I was going to the police station to report the deer. She got flustered, that I was going to a police station. It even became a source of worry (it isn't safe for women to go alone to police stations in some places in India).

Fall, there. (..a lousy pic)
A policeman came to the window and took my account.
Where is the deer? he asked, genially.
Still there, I said.
He seemed satisfied. We'll send somebody.
That was it. There was nothing to do.

I hit a deer, I found myself telling anyone who came by, the entire morning. There was coffee but it did not help.
Later that morning I happened to be working with two workmen from facilities, the only two for our building. We were standing near the power supply cabinet of the floor and talking about rerouting some wiring for my reactor and I told them too, I hit a deer.

They were listening so I gave the details.
Oh yeah, it's hunting season, they said. The deer were probably running away from the hunters.
Ah! that explains the mad herd-crossing. Then they asked where the deer was.
You left it there? Didn't try to take it?
Which confused and surprised me. No? Why?
Oh, you can make deer stew, deer this, deer that, deer sausage…. they went on about a list of things from parts of body, reminding each other with happy interest and telling me. The meat keeps through winter and stores well in the freezer, they added.
I am vegetarian, I grew up like that, my parents' cuisine had no garlic, onion and even radish, I did not say. It's not that I was a stranger to meat. My previous roommates cooked meat, all kinds and forms and sometimes fish with beady eyes stared from the refrigerator. Even made faces at me. But that was fish or meat from a package. This was a deer that, err, I killed (in an accident, but still).

Oh, someone must have already taken it away, they added ruefully.
How will they ... my voice trailed.
They take it to the deer processing shop at the corner of this-and-that where they process and cut up the meat for ya.
They continued to talk about the deer. In the hallway, in their name-tagged dark blue uniforms. They were tall, burly men and I was a petite. They had German-Dutch ancestry like many in the area and were of strong faith. I must have seemed very different to them (not just in size) but it did not show at all. They were courteous and pleasant even when asked at rare times to give a hand for heavy work in the lab, which was not part of their job. So, deer-hunts and deer-meat were a way of their life.
The deer was gone when I drove back home late in the evening. A few days later I drove to the corner of this-and-that and saw from the outside, the said deer processing shop. (we did not have Google Maps at that time).

Life eats life. That's how it is, right? We eat other life forms to live. Other life forms as in animal or plant origin or both. But nevertheless a life form in one way or the other.
But here's the thing – hunting, killing and then eating an animal in the wild somehow seems... balanced. Part of natural law. Responsible living. Personal courage. Forced respect for other forms of life that feed us.
As opposed to food through faceless consolidated large-scale farms and processing facilities. From where food arrives in packets and we do not give much thought as from where and how it got to us. This last aspect increasingly becoming a source of concern for reasons of health and humaneness.
Our perceived scale of consciousness of our food sources, animal or plant, seems to play a small role for most of us, compared to our cultural and personal food preferences.

The native Indians here used every part of the buffalo they hunted and killed only what they needed. Mark Zuckerberg (of Facebook) eats only what he kills, is what I have read. There must be others who follow this to different degrees.  On the opposite side, there are those who hunt only for sport and leave the carcasses to rot.
But not everyone in this overpopulated earth can have access to grow their own produce in a garden or raise their own animals in a farm or find a place to hunt or fish.  Even small, local sustainable food sources or co-ops are still a rarity and are mostly expensive.

Nature's Balance is a topic in my son's lessons at this time. Last week we read about The Return of the Wolves to Yellowstone.
It described how the wolves were hunted down to elimination by 1927, how the food chain changed and the ecological balance got upset over the next few decades. There were no wolves to kill and eat elk, so the elk population grew, they ate too much so new trees did not grow, the bird numbers went down, the beavers almost disappeared. The coyote population grew, smaller animals got hunted down and they ate too many pronghorn fawns. Someone had an idea to reintroduce the wolves. So things are changing towards a more balanced animal population numbers.
We also watched some videos of wolves hunting elk. I asked - So dear, what will happen if the wolf population at the top of the food chain goes out of control?

Or like Earth, I added later, where things are out of balance. Because of human overpopulation at the top of the food chain. 
But, I also said, we can try for a responsible lifestyle. Use only what we need. Be deliberate, close-to-ground in our choices, in our thinking. That way we are respectful towards nature and in doing so, hopefully, to ourselves., his hand on mine