Saturday, April 7, 2018

The Garden of the Wild: Deer Me! Visitors in the Storm




            Deer ones!
            It snows on Friday, though the air temperature is a few degrees above freezing.
            I pick up the camera and take a few shots of falling snow through the windows. I sit back down at my computer. To the left and above the computer screen I have a view of the backyard. The cherry tree, still bare. The thick wet snow falling through the tangled branches. The array of shrubs and small trees growing against the back fence. The texture is dense, the light subdued by snow-bearing clouds. I look for birds, who pay brief visits to the crown of the weeping cherry tree.
            Then I am surprised by a flash of white showing through the clotted nexus of weeping cherry branches. Not a bird. Something closer to the back fence seen through the branches. A dog?
            But I knew these angles. The body of dog would never appear this high.
            Something taller. And that white oval, almost more of an ellipsis. 
            A white-tail?
            It can only be one thing. I strain my eyes, but I can't make it out -- can't see what I now believe must be back there. I get up and go into the bedroom where the angle of vision bypasses the tree.
            There it is. A deer.
            A deer in our backyard. Nosing the green against the back fence.
            We  live in the city of Quincy. I hear the trains to Boston most mornings. Sometimes, late or on weekends, we catch the noise from the interstate. Jets fly over our house on their way to Logan. Ours is a neighborhood of small houses, built on landfill most of a century ago. The only piece of landscape anywhere around here approaching deer habitat is our thickly planted back and side yards.
            I know: Folks in suburban and rural towns complain of marauding deer who graze on their rhododendron, chew down prize shrubs, and strip saplings. I'm sympathetic, but have always assumed these incursions take place on large lots in areas with nearby patches of undeveloped land for wild animals to hide in.  
            We live closer to the Boston line than to deer country. Or so I thought.
            I start taking pictures of this surprise visitor from the wild through the window. Whoops -- what's that? I lower the camera to look.
            Oh, deer again. Another one. Same size, color scheme, tail maybe a little less bushy, moves alongside our first visitor, head on the ground cover, grazing.
             I begin taking photos through the bedroom window. 
             As I watch, the soft lips at the tip of the long, tapered snout nibbles the green vines where they grow thickest along the fence. The push their heads between the viburnum and the arborvitae, especially attracted to the piebald euonymus, feeding with a striking delicacy as they pull away small individual leaves.   
              I watch from the window, transfixed, for a long time until finally one of the deer begins investigating the laurel bush. This plant grows slowly. I hand water it. Maybe there is a limit to the magic of these large mammalian cousins that our garden can endure before my protective instincts kick in. I take the camera throw in the coat, walk outdoors and around the house into the fat, wet snow to see if I can urge them along. 
               They see me and freeze. But the human presence does not spook them into fleeing. When I stand still and observe them -- the magnetism of their presence strong now that I am close to them without a wall or a window between us -- they go back to their browsing. I come closer. They watch me when I move, heads pointed in my direction, but again go back to grazing on the ground cover, or pulling leaves off the vines when I go still. 
                 Neither animal is paying any attention to the laurel bush. I walk away slowly. 
                 This sequence happens twice more. The second time I go back with a bag of nuts (snacks I have given up for dietary reasons) to distract them. I drop them in the little mounds of wet snow amid the dried foliage of last year: An offering. But they pay no attention to my feeding attempt. Why should they when the salad bar is open?
                  The next time I go out, wearing a baseball cap to keep the snow out of my face, I dare to approach closer still, circling around to the side of the yard where our fences totally enclose the space. I'm worried that if something spooks them, a loose dog perhaps, they will not know how to get out out. I decide to approach them cautiously, urge them toward the open side of the yard. They lift their heads and look at me as I come within a dozen feet; both take a step farther away, a nervous little hop. I do this, moving slowly. At each new stop, they retreat an equal distance from me.
                 I am amazed at how willing they are to tolerate my presence. When I decide that they are far enough away from the fenced-in corner, I slowly walk around them to go back inside. 
                  Back indoors, hoping they are working their way out of the yard, I discover them just below a window on the side of the house, grazing among a patch of vinca and myrtle, pulling at the loose vines. The plants are very thick there, and a little deer pruning won't hurt anything.
                   But then they turn back to the backyard again -- grazing animals working their way this way and that. I fantasize they will still be here when Anne comes home from work -- who am I to make a schedule for wild animals? -- I force myself to go back to my own work. Eyes on the computer monitor and not on the windows.
                   A few minutes later, I decide to check on deer again and stand before the window just in time to see one of them sprinting through the neighbor's back yard and disappearing around that house. From there, it's a quick hop to the street.... And from there?  
                   I don't know where they live -- shelter, hide, bed down, winter. But now that they've been to our yard once, I can't help wondering whether they'll come back. I don't want them chowing down on my vegetable garden this summer, but their presence feels like a gift from some order of reality. I find myself scheming some way to have the deer come back without putting the plants to risk. 
                  Is it possible to lay in some deer food in case there are guests? Do they keep it in the same aisle as the birdseed?