Zen And The Art Of Mule Deer
The pinks and golds of reflected sunset disappear from the virgin snow with the last straggling rays of sunlight. What meager warmth the day had on offer dissipates as quickly as the color, and an insistent voice in my head urges me back to the house. Take your armload of firewood and go, it says. You don’t belong out here, not in this. If you stay, you will stay forever. And so I turn, eager for shelter, and see her standing there, twenty yards away, a muley doe.
Last year I tallied a personal record for hiking distance during elk season. I’m not sure what the exact mileage came to. I know only that a weeks long meandering route through the hills brought me to the elk I shot and killed exactly 243 yards from my truck. When I recounted the ironic end of the hunt to my buddy Tim some days later, he wasn’t the least bit surprised at how things turned out.
“Oh sure, I know the place,” he said. “That’s where elk in those parts go when they just can’t take another Wyoming winter.”
The idea of an elk calling it quits gave me a chuckle, even as it delivered a sting to my ego. But now, twelve months later, with my hands, nose, cheeks and toes stinging in the sub-zero temps, it occurs to me that Tim may not have been far off. The doe and I stand stock-still, staring into each other’s eyes and I can see that she is making some very difficult decisions. I am a mortal threat. She knows this. But so is wasted energy. I will, in all likelihood, be on my way she wagers. The cold will have its claws in her her until spring. And it’s only November.
Stamping the snow from my boots and the feeling back into my limbs inside the front door, I try, and fail, to imagine how a creature faces four months of this without hope of shelter or reprieve. And having survived such a winter, how does a soul muster courage for the next?
The answer may lie in the question itself – or at least the fact that I am asking it and that she is, I imagine, not. She’s not thinking about April, or next week, or morning. She’s thinking about now, and now, and now. She is alive in the eternal present, even if she doesn’t see tomorrow. I am in a weather-tight home before a glowing woodstove thinking about the depth of my woodpile, the state of the pantry and the cost of new snow tires – worried enough for both of us. I wouldn’t trade lots with her for the world. Of course, no one has promised me tomorrow either.
There’s an allegory in there somewhere. Maybe a wiser soul like Tim will be kind enough to decipher it for me. In the meantime I’ll keep hunting contentment amid the blended aromas of wood smoke and elk steak.