MULE DEER

20 miles east of Kanab, UtahApril 6, 1988
 
UTAH:  Kane County
 
In desert about five miles north of US Hwy 89, about twenty miles east of Kanab

At dawn I peep from Henry's rear side-window, needing to focus on something outside, to anchor myself after a night of full-moon dreams. However, in this dim light the outstretching sagebrush is unapproachable, somehow teeming, somehow flowing, just like my dreams.

Not fifty feet to the north, moving above the vibrating sagebrush plane, three pale globes of light serenely float down a shallow gully. It takes long minutes, my having to wipe my breath's steam from the windows several times, before I grasp what I'm seeing: It's white rump patches on three Mule Deer. Yes, even the deer's gray flanks, necks and black-snouted heads are visible now.

Eventually the deer stop walking and stand still, looking complacently toward us. Henry has been parked here for two days and nights and I've been monk-quiet so to these deer we are just a new boulder in the landscape, and nothing to fear.

A little later, sunlight hits the red mesa walls to the west. In the calm morning air, smoke from my sagebrush fire rises to a level just above the sagebrush, then spreads horizontally into a thin blanket drawing itself across the desert. The smoke mingles with sunlight and makes an abstract lens of smiling energy which the mule deer, still standing in the sagebrush, simply look at. As my cornbread and hot tea minister to me the campfire's heat and goodwill, I wonder what the deer are thinking.

With the sun a little higher the mule deer become works of art. One stands warming itself in the sunlight, with a juniper's broad, black shadow spreading behind it. The glowing deer looks like a translucent image etched on crystal held before black velvet. Every curve, every fold of skin, every muscle and the black wetness of its eyes and nose are violently clear.

Another deer stands inside a juniper-shadow's blackness, silhouetted by inflamed mesa-walls behind it. With binoculars I look more closely. Though the temperature is only 30°, rambunctious sunlight causes air between this deer and me to shimmer, making the shadow-figure ethereal, other-worldly. When the creature sets forth its front paw, then arches its neck to lick beneath its knee, the graceful curve formed seems too perfect to be real.

When the herd moves behind a rise, to where the deer cannot see me, I begin approaching. During past nights many mule deer have left their hoofprints here. I see that they have walked only upon these little streamlets that during storms carry water but, most of the time, are just shallow, foot-wide troughs of sand.

As the streamlets ascend the slope they branch and rebranch like slender trees. Moving through the sagebrush, crossing one shallow streamlet after another pocked by the hooves of mule deer, in my mind's eye I visualize the deer at night with their pale globes of light moving upslope and downslope, and I see not just small herds widely spaced in time, but all the deer at once, as these hoofprints seem to say, continually flowing, their numbers always branching off or joining again the main stream, and I imagine those dewy-night mule-deer confluences and dissolutions as being accompanied by chiming sounds, the chiming generated at night when my sagebrush yearnings yield to half-sleep and full-moon dreams.

Inside a juniper's shadow I pause and look into the shallow valley below me. It's full of red boulders, broad, unsymmetrical, dark-green junipers, and acres of gray-green sagebrush. I know that the mule deer are there, but I can't see them. I know that they are depending on their stillness to make them invisible.

I lift my binoculars and the magic of my lenses undoes the magic of the deer's stillness. Now I see them holding still beside junipers and rocks, looking squarely at me, tense, with erect ears and black eyes so intense, so intense.

But, now I feel as if I have betrayed the conditions under which a man is allowed on a morning like this to witness the secret rituals of mule deer. I am not supposed to neutralize a wild animal's magic with the store-bought wizardry of a different world. Stepping from the shadow into brilliant sunlight I wave my arms and bellow an "Ufgh!"

I see nothing but I do hear hooves stamping the ground, and then there is silence. I walk away. At least the deer have performed the morning's final magic.

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