Five years ago I planted two fire bushes in the back yard with hopes of having some hot color in my October garden. For the past four years the deer ate them for brunch, lunch and late night snacks. After the second year of leafless, stubby bushes I took out a contract on those elegant does and their spindly-legged offspring. I bought chemical deer repellent and even hung bags of human hair. Nothing worked. The gluttonous grazers returned and I had to concede that I flunked backyard warfare . . . again.
Then I reasoned if they can't continue using my garden as their normal thoroughfare through the neighborhood, maybe they'll eat someplace else. A fence was a possible solution but didn't suit my checkbook so I settled on bushes. As a last ditch effort I planted a mini-forest of deer-resistant shrubs hoping that they wouldn't be able to navigate through. And voila! This year the bushes turned into an impenetrable jungle and I have a tall, bright blaze of firebushes at the back of the garden. Of course, the old axiom "be careful what you wish for" applies here . . . all those bushes now need heavy fall pruning before they take over the backyard. Sigh.
The hungry herd has detoured around my all-you-can-eat buffet. I've only seen a handful wander into the yard from the other direction looking confused, lost and adorable before they skip off to the woods. Adorable was the way I liked to think of them, before I knew the damage they can do.
Yeah, yeah, I know they're only hungry and following their instincts for food and protection, but I wish we didn't have to share the same well-traveled routes, and not just my backyard avenue. It's the highways, the country roads, the sudden dashes out of nowhere that unnerve us all. . . and those same car paths are their road to ruin. I'm resigned to the fact that the hunter and his deer quarry are the norm, but my drive to Jamestown for dinner could just as well yield an 8-point trophy. It takes a huge toll on my nerves and my heartstrings to say nothing of the doors and fenders.
When we first moved here the children were small and we'd moved from an area in New York State where I thought we were used to the presence of deer. In fact we often drove out in the evening to the well-known crossing areas just to spot them and count the bucks, does and fawns. Three months after we arrived I was driving home late one snowy afternoon, both children in the car. As I rounded a curve in a wooded area, a doe and her fawn leaped in front of us. My first reaction was to brake but I instantly fishtailed so I continued to steer into the curve, remembering those early driving lessons. The twin thuds were heart-rending and I thought, "Oh no, I've hit them both and they're probably dead." Instant remorse.
Then I remembered my early driving instructor telling us that it's them or you. "Do not swerve to avoid them and wind up off the road, or worse." It still didn't make it easy that snowy day, especially as I realized that the kids, ages 3 and 7, might be traumatized. I stopped the car and told them to stay put. The doe struggled out from under the right side, wobbly scooted to the berm, fell down and slid into the ditch. I gulped. It took some searching to find the fawn because he was behind a tire. I returned to the car, backed up and got out again. This time I hadn't told the children to stay inside and as I bent over the baby deer who had curled up tightly like a sleeping cat, I heard a sob from behind me. My pre-school son wailed, "He's dead isn't he?" And indeed he was. I shooed them back into the car, picked up the precious small bundle and put him off the road next to his mom. He was still warm . . . and I cried.
When Tom got home from work, he asked the usual "Well, how was everybody's day?"
Alix piped up quickly, "Mom killed Bambi."
And as quickly as I had thought I might be recovering from the somber scene of the afternoon, I was now an accused murderer and it felt awful. These days the family occasionally jokes about it, but I wasn't in a kidding mood at the time.
In the thirty years since, like all of us who ply these country roads, I've learned to be super watchful, especially at dusk. Someone once taught me, always look behind the one you see for the next ones coming along and that advice has served me well more than once. I guess we have to accept that we share this part of the world with the deer herds but I do wish they were easier to live with, or less beautiful.
In the meantime, I'm grateful that they're not feasting in my garden now that it's ablaze with crimson . . . but I'm also wondering if they'll get enough to eat in the neighborhood. My joy in my red bushes seems a little shallow compared to a gentle creature's survival. Maybe I'll have to plant some leafy hors d'oeuvres by the road.
Marcy O'Brien lives with Ollie, a privileged feline who watches wildlife from whatever window he pleases. She can be reached at MOBY.firstname.lastname@example.org.