Deer Eyes

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

“The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness.”

John Muir

A young deer was looking at me. I held the gaze of its dark and shiny eyes, its long eyelashes and dark snout. I was close enough to hear it breathing above the trickle of the burn, where it stood with both front legs squinching into the gravelly edge of the water. It seemed caught between surprise and curiosity, looking back at me, ears twitching, dipping its head then snapping up and looking at me again. I had stepped out of the trees beside the burn to kneel down and fill a pot with water, and there it was. Front feet together; rear legs spread; back flat; head raised and still; ears twitching. Brown furry flanks that had not let lost the last of its white spots. An expression on its face I could not read. It was young. I realised I could well be the first human it had ever encountered, so although it teetered on the brink of flight, that had not yet become an ingrained response to encountering a person.

It looked at me. I looked back at it. Absorbed in awareness of the other. This fawn was not even a year old, yet standing there with its feet in the water, its flanks blending perfectly into the heathery bank behind it, I realised how utterly it already belonged here – how much it was a part of the forest, and I was not. 

As with all such encounters, to move or to make a noise is to end it. Had I been able to remain utterly still, I wonder if the deer might have relaxed, become comfortable with me, and gone back to drinking. But no. Even awareness of the moment of connection is enough to break it. Something happened – maybe my eyes twitched or a stone clinked under my foot or something, or maybe I did nothing at all but wonder how long we would stand there. In a moment the young creature turned and leaped up the bank, vanishing instantly between the thick pines.

I stood alone in the burn, still not moving as I tried to make the moment last, aware again of the bubbling of the water and the space of the forest all around me. The moment of encounter was over. I dunked the big aluminium pot I was holding into the deep part of the stream and brimmed it with clear, gleaming water, straight down off the Cairngorms. The pot was heavy as I lifted it out and walked awkwardly with it back through the woods, my other arm sticking out sideways for balance like a branch. 

In camp the water went straight on the stove. The gas lit and roared as I turned it up to maximum. I sat and tended it, dropping in pasta and veggies as they were handed to me, giving it the odd stir, saying nothing. I did not join in with the banter and blether of my companions, and not a word to anyone of the fawn. Somehow it feels like I’m not supposed to talk about it, or not yet anyway. What was it about that moment that made me so content, looking into the eyes of that deer? What passed between us? Anything? Or am I inventing it?

Laughter and speech from my own kind went on all around me, accompanied by the various material noises of pans, lids, self-inflating (and self deflating) sleeping mats being blown up by mouth, the sveek-sveek-sveek of waterproof trousers as someone walks. I sat and thought about the deer. How quiet it was, how perfectly it fitted in. Compare that to us – all the stuff we had with us here for a single night in the woods, most of which we did not need, if we’re honest about it. The deer physically was everything it needed, and anything else it might want the forest would provide. It was soundless when I found it, and when it decided to leave it vanished at will. I’d never have been able to find it again if I tried.

Looking around at our camp, I suddenly can’t help but feel some sort of dissatisfaction. For my whole life, I have been coming to nature. I’ve journeyed in the hills, the woods, the rivers and lochs of the Highlands for years. I’ve stood on the peaks of winter-crowned mountains in blizzards, followed the flow of rivers through roaring falls and walked, walked, walked over many a Ben and Glen. The number of hills I’ve put under my boots is certainly dozens and maybe in the hundreds. But in all that time, through all those days and nights, I’ve never felt out of place before. Until now. Or perhaps it was that I was in the right place, but was myself somehow wrong. 

We ate dinner, we sat and talked, we laughed, we went to bed. I stayed awake in my sleeping bag to listen. The forest was full of life, and the night sounds came out and took their rightful places as our noise faded. A short summer night. The wind whispered through the darkening woods. Millions of pine needles on the ends of branches singing slightly. I heard a creature scampering across the forest floor and thought of the deer again and wondered where it was tonight. Was it warm? Curled up somewhere in the grass with its fellows? Was it snoozing peacefully or lying awake, scared of the night noises? Probably not the latter.

I decided I wanted to lie outside myself, to see what it was like. I dragged myself out of the tent and went and lay with my head nestled between two root boles of a huge pine tree. With my head against the trunk, staring upwards, the branches were wrought-iron shadows across the brighter blackness of the night sky, and I could see the white gold of stars shining down between each twist of wood.

What were the chances of that? That centuries ago, millenia maybe, some light should set out from that distant star, cross the cosmos at precisely the exact angle to someday reach our world, to land here in Scotland this night, pass between the branches of a pine tree and ultimately enter the miniscule target of my eye. I close my eyelids, and millions of photons make it this far, but no further. I open them again, and destiny is fulfilled. There’s something wonderful about that.

My thoughts drifted back down from the stars to the terrestrial darkness. Down, through the wind of the sky, down through the wood of the trees, down into the soil of the earth and to the roots of the trees and the deeper roots of the mountains. I can just see the outline of the hills above the ground – a deeper mass of blackness against the starry sky. The Cairngorms. The darkness reduces their three dimensional reality to just a line in the sky, their lumps and bumps every bit as unique and individual as the serrated edge of a key. I’m starting to sense that they might unlock something inside myself.

Can I find a new sense of belonging? Can I find a way to view this whole picture, with myself in it, and understand where and what I am? I don’t mean ‘to understand’ in the intellectual sense; my head is already full of science and theory that may satisfy the mind in one way, but it is not bringing me any closer to bridging the gap I now feel between myself and the forest. I mean it in the way that a young deer understands, from the moment it takes its first steps on shaky legs. The hills, the whispering pines, the drooping eyes of a deer sleeping in the grass – they are all a part of something much bigger than themselves. 

There’s more to a place than one person can experience, or even the place itself. It’s story is woven together by threads of life and time of different lengths and weight, but they are all a part of the tapestry. Pull at one and you find it tangled irretrievably to everything else. When I looked into the eyes of that deer its thread crossed mine, and now mine is passing under those of the stars and the hills. Tomorrow it will cross the thread of sunrise, which loops back and forth eternally through it all. Then what? Where will my thread go next? I don’t know. But there and then, beneath a pine tree and by the light of the stars, I resolve that I want to weave myself through as many of those place-threads as possible. 

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