Startled and Startling

The deer is lost – out of place – in the civilized world of pavement and traffic beyond the woods. It runs past us at break-neck speed, capturing the attention of customers in the coffee shop.

Such primal fear invokes a hush. Everyone is standing at attention now, hoping against hope that the beautiful frightened animal will make it across the bridge over the divided highway to the woods on the other side.

As it reaches the overpass, a car approaches from the opposite direction, startling the deer. With high wire fences on each side of the overpass, it races toward the car and then, as suddenly as it had appeared, it jumps 10 to 15 feet into the air, over the fence, plunging headlong to the berm of the highway 30 feet below. It gathers itself for a moment, wobbling up the hill to its right, and collapses on the entrance ramp like a lump of warm putty.

Fear is a deadly thing. The deer had lost its bearings in the man-made world where natural landmarks get displaced by bridges, and unnatural cliffs take the place of natural terrain.

The picture is etched in my mind. It wake me up early this morning thinking about mortality. The mortal vulnerability of a thing so beautiful and precious as a deer — the beauty and preciousness of all mortal life.

Death is the limit that binds together the viewers in the coffee shop with all other creatures. Fear is the acolyte of death – the unconscious or unconscious knowledge of our fragility, our ultimate dependence, our vulnerability to forces we cannot control, the reminder of our own ticking clocks, our time-bound nature within nature itself.
I’m sad for the deer. Sad for a civilized world that displaced it, confused it, frightened it to death. Sad over the sight of something so beautiful leaping so gracefully into the air, leaping into open space into the nothingness of death. Sad that something so lovely experiences such terror. Sad that it not know better; sad it did not take a breath and think before letting fear control its course.

Something in all of us at the coffee shop stood still for a moment at the Caribou — made us put down our coffee and touch this deeper place of vulnerability, watching this pantomime of our own inner lives, the too real to face reality of our struggles with anxiety, with fear, with death, with sudden and final extinction.

When the dear leaped from the overpass, Katie, my adult stepdaughter, put her face in her hands. Others of us could not take our eyes away, too stunned not to watch, staring in stunned silence in hope, at first, that the poor thing would get up and walk away from it all, that it hadn’t happened the way we’d seen it, plunged into the reality that the deer couldn’t just get up and walk away to safety.

Wendell Berry reminds us that we Americans are the descendants of the road builders — the placeless people who cut the forests, leveled the trees, and bulldozed their way to their ideas of what the world should be. says Wendell Berry in “The Native Hill.” Our European ancestors fled their familiar places to escape them. To build something better. Something freer perhaps, less restricted not only by law and custom but, more fundamentally, by the limits of creaturely life: time and space. They landed on the soil of the path walkers, the indigenous people whose foot paths wound their way harmlessly following the contours of the hills, rivers, streams and valleys.

Today is Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday, the day after the deer leaped into the air to its death, and the day Jesus walked the road-builders road in humility on a donkey. The liturgy reminds the worshipers that the grandest leaps — personal or collective —lead to tragic ends, but an essential goodness greater than ourselves surrounds every leap and every plunge.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, March 19, 2016