The Deer, My Totem Animal?
by julie swanson
Yesterday while outside with my daughter, we got this photo of the very friendly deer family who frequents our yard. Just twenty feet away from us, the mother stopped to stare at us and then two fawns ran up to her and began to (rather roughly) nurse from her. When my daughter pointed her cell phone at them to get a picture of it, the mother startled a bit and tried to run away, shaking one fawn, but with one still hanging from her, slowing her down. We decided to leave them to nurse in peace.
Every summer we have twin fawns romping in our yard. One year we even watched a doe lying on her side at the edge of the woods giving birth to twins–they stood on their wobbly legs almost immediately, while still wet. How do they do that?! It was an amazing thing to witness and the long-legged fawns were tiny and adorable (these are quite large). I’ve always thought that this was unusual, to have a doe on your property who has twins each year, or an extended deer family, a local deer population, with a tendency toward having twins, but when I looked it up online just now, the consensus seems to be that deer can give birth to one, two, or three fawns, though three is rare.
It always surprises me how tame the deer here in Virginia are, how close you can get before they run off, how they’ll walk into my garden under the bay window in our kitchen and eat my flowers right in front of me, and just sort of look up at me, munching, when I rap at the window to shoo them away. I’ve tried all kinds of ‘deer-off’ products. None work. Or if they do, you would have to reapply them every time it rained or something–which I can’t remember to, and probably couldn’t afford to. So I’ve just learned to share with them. They’re beautiful and graceful and I love their peaceful gentleness. Pests maybe, if you don’t like having bushes and flowers nibbled at, if you don’t like how they rub their antlers on your newly planted trees and wear the bark away. I put these black tubes over new trees in the fall and that protects them. They seem to leave a tree alone after it’s been there a year or two.
One thing I’ve noticed in the past couple years is that deer aren’t the totally quiet creatures I used to think they were. Growing up in northern Michigan I never heard them, never got as close to them as I do here (although I did once reach down and almost touch a tiny fawn curled up in the grass when picking wild strawberries as a kid!). But here, if I come outside at night or twilight and a deer happens to be standing nearby, I’ll hear it sort of snort before I can even see that it’s there. It’s like they blow their breath through their nose very forcefully. I often hear them making this noise in the woods, from a distance even. It’s not the friendliest noise. It sounds a bit aggressive, as if they’re trying to scare me off or at least let me know they are there, and a force to be reckoned with.
When I’m alone during the day writing on my porch, or out in the yard, or taking a walk on the rural roads around here, I hear and see lots of deer, at least several a day, sometimes whole herds of them running by in the woods. Most often I’ll hear a stick snap, or one of them will snuff a breath, and I’ll look up and be startled by how close it is, wonder how long that deer’s been there sneaking past at the edge of the woods, or just on the other side of the split rail fence–has it been watching me? It almost seems as if they seek me out or that I’m drawn to them.
I dream a lot about deer, too. Dead deer, deer being put out of their misery, deer that talk, deer who remind me of people I’ve known, deer I bake cookies for and invite into my house to eat them, deer stuck headfirst/upside-down in snowbanks with their hooves kicking around in the air…
The first year we moved here, I hit three deer in the first month (one of those times I did not really hit the deer; it hit me. The insurance guy didn’t believe that one, but seriously, I stopped the car to let several deer cross, and a confused fawn who hadn’t yet crossed and was looking at its mother on the other side up and must not have seen us, he ran right into the side of the car, fell down stunned, and got up and ran off again) and did damage to our car each time, but in the 13 years since, I’ve not hit a one, despite having to stop to let them cross the road often.
Sometimes I wonder if the deer is my totem animal, the way some cultures believe we have certain animals that are our spirit guides who appear to us in dreams and in real life. I feel an odd connection to deer. Yes, they seem peaceful and calm, but there is a fragile-ness and skittish-ness about them, and I am those things, too.