Deer

Published by Trevor Bechtel on

Good morning,

I’m happy to report that much of this sermon was written outside in the wonderful weather of yesterday afternoon. I don’t know if that increases the authenticity of my reflections or not, but it has been great to be able to spend the last two weekends outside, although I did have to travel to Savannah last weekend to make that work. In the midwest we can sometimes get the timing of Lent and Easter almost perfect so that Lent remains mostly wintery and Easter bursts into our imagination with the popping of crocuses, tree buds, tender shoots from bulbs and bushes, and the return, finally, of the sun. And sometimes, mostly to our relief, spring comes a little early pushing us to consider both the traditional themes of Lent and the resurrection of the world alongside each other.

I sat in my backyard writing these reflections looking at the small rise between my house and the neighbours a space that is covered in periwinkle or myrtle, depending on what we call it. Just north of the property line there is a narrow path cut into the periwinkle. This path was made and is transited by deer making their way down from Bird’s Hill Park and the woods around Barton pond to visit the little woods that covers most of the open ground around the cluster of houses that I live in.

When I moved to Ann Arbor 10 years ago I was hoping to live in a condo downtown. I was tired of small town living and ready to experience the vibrancy of a larger city. That didn’t happen but as the saying goes, we don’t always get what we want, but sometimes we get what we need. As I’ve said multiple times in this series, I have really enjoyed living in space that is routinely visited by many different birds, most rodents, a host of insects but most of all by deer. Looking out my window at dusk to see a group of 2 or 5 deer moving through my yard, pausing to nibble at some of the trees, or ivy, or hastas, or actually just about anything else that is growing, well, it gives me a sense of a world beyond the one that I expect that impresses itself upon me every time. I think that this is because deer are just so big. I can’t not notice them. Even if I only see them out of the corner of my eye, I’m definitely looking at them, because it that’s not a deer I need to know what it is.

Deer have long loomed large in the human imagination. The Cave Paintings at Lascaux in France, some of the earliest human art, include more than 90 images of stags. Throughout the ancient world deer are featured in sacred texts and beliefs. The Hindu goddess Saraswati takes the form of a red deer called Rohit. Deer are sacred in Shintoism. Artemis, the Greek God of the hunt takes the form of a deer. Deer show up throughout the Hebrew Bible commonly in metaphor and allegory. While they are absent from Christian Scripture, deer immediately played an important symbolic role in Christian legend. Deer were seen as symbols of Christ. Throughout the Ancient Near East they had been associated with snakes and pictured as attacking and defeating them, even drawing them out of their dens first. This association persists right up to around a hundred years ago. The sometime farmer, sometime journalist Silas Turnbo collected stories of deer killing snakes in Arkansas which he published in 1902.

It makes sense that deer feature so prominently in human thinking. Species of deer exist on every continent except Australia and Antartica. They would have been a major food source for hominids and more efficient killing of deer might be the reason humans and dogs established their close partnership tens of thousands of years ago. And for their size, force and grace they are sublimely beautiful, able to simultaneously symbolize both gentleness in their calm feeding on plants and power in the clash of magnificent antlers. The deer of Brooks Street don’t have the full array of antlers that I’ve seen in photographs, but both are enchanting.

I have some neighbors though who have a large vegetable garden in their backyard and who don’t view deer quite the same way. When I read the people on the different sides of the deer cull debate in Ann Arbor I know that deer are no longer unambiguously positive symbols. Susan and I have mostly given up on gardening, content with the trees, the hastas, and the variety of perennials that survive in the shade. Our surrender is probably more about the deep shade and the black walnut trees, but when the deer started eating some of Susan’s zinnia’s last year they attracted some ire. Deer thrive in the suburban ecotone that composes so much of our contemporary geography. The combination of some trees, some clearings, lots of tender plants and zero predators is deer heaven. It is a version of the spaces that they naturally prefer, along the edges of the forest and the clearing. As humans have reduced the number and size of large forests we have increased the amount of edge space. Once a forest becomes too small it won’t support larger predators and the deer are almost entirely off the hook.

Deer are a keystone species not just in a suburban ecotone like ours but also in any forest they inhabit. A keystone species plays a unique or crucial role in the way an ecosystem functions. Without the keystone species the ecosystem would be dramatically different or would disappear altogether. The first species to be thought of as a keystone species was the sea otter. To be healthy a kelp forest is dependent on the sea otter’s keeping sea urchins populations in check. Without sea otters the urchin will eat too much kelp and the who ecosystem degrades. One of the most dramatic examples of the impact of a keystone species was the reintroduction of the wolf to Yellowstone park. This put a new predatory pressure on elk, which had become too numerous in the park. In the 20 years since the wolves were reintroduced Yellowstone has gone from one active beaver colony to nine, which has helped to reshape the flow of the rivers, which has greatly increased the suitable habitat for fish. Many plants that had been overgrazed by the elk are flourishing and that has brought back birds and small animals that were disappearing.

In an oak forest, like the one that we live in in Washtenaw County the deer are a keystone species. They shape the undercover and by their dietary preferences control what plants thrive, and indirectly what insects, birds and small animals will have good habitat. As a large animal that eats mostly plants they allow for larger predators to survive. And, since there is little good habitat for large predators they are commonly killed in accidents with human cars creating food for scavengers. More humans are killed by deer every year than by any other animal. Interestingly, the role that the deer

now play here used to be played by the passenger pigeon. The passenger pigeon was much more numerous than the deer and their preferences and feeding cycle meant the the white oak used to be the dominant tree in our forests, but with their demise and the different cycle of deer the northern red oak has been on the rise.

God acts very much like a keystone species in the passage from Joel that we have been using as our theme scripture throughout our Slow Faith Movement Lent series. God has sent the locust in various species, God’s great army, against human habitation, but God also knows how to restore the ecosystem, to carpet again the wilderness pastures in green, to give the fig and the vine their full yield. The soil, the rain, the seasons, all will respond to the God will use the health of the ecosystem to restore the people so that they will never again be put to shame.

Joel makes a vivid and direct connection between the emotional health of the people and the ecological health of the land and it follows for me that the spiritual devotion of the people, their willingness to follow God and God’s action in the world are deeply connected. This message, that God will save God’s people from shame is a powerful restorative message to a people caught up in climate change.

The deer has been an important animal for a long time. It’s not surprising that the deer has become a symbol of Christ. The reasons for this symbolism in the reading that Curtis read for us seem strange to us now. Taken from mediaeval sources which had a clear grasp of the imaginative and allegorical structure of the Christian faith, but a much more shaky grasp on natural history, the deer who can resurrect herself makes an enchanting but unrealistic symbol for us sciency moderns. And likewise, we might wonder what we as a faith community have to say now that we are caught up in climate change, when we are implicated in wholesale shifts in the environment. This is a moment when I think that we can feel like deer.

Because deer need their predators. Some keystone species, like the wolf are apex predators able to keep ecosystems in balance, able to manage the world. Deer have great effects on their world, but for all their grace they are lousy managers. The humans of Washtenaw County have created a beautiful world for deer, but by excluding wolves, cougars, bears and jaguars from our spaces we have created a need for hunters. And while I’ve mentioned Artemis the most intellectually dishonest thing that I’ve done in this sermon to this point is to fail to mention how interconnected the appreciation of the deer and the hunt have been throughout human history.

The deer occupies a very interesting space until very recently: highly respected for their nobility, grace and strength, and as prey for the hunt. Human hunting of deer is an old but very active passion. I find this a real paradox. Nathan Kowalsky writes very usefully about this paradox in his essay The God(s) of November.

So we keep on hunting. We take our deer to the house and hang them up for skinning. A few days later, we take them to our butcher, who makes amazing double-smoked Mennonite farmer’s sausage. I do not need to buy any more red meat for a whole year.

We will pray over these meals as per usual, but in blessing the hands that have prepared the food, I will also be thinking of hooves. I am learning how to make rawhide and parchment from deer skins, and I can take them to the tanners to get leather for apparel. This deer, or that one, is in my body or on my body or in my house. I can show you the photos, or tell you the story of this buck whose antlers memorialize him to me. Dead deer permeate our little life here in the city, but my real home is where the deer live. 171

He goes one to talk about how hunting embeds him in a landscape among other creatures, deer, human, and bird, but also that that landscape is the place where he encounters God.

All we can hope for are traces that nourish us and a faith that helps us with that. While there is something Eucharistic in this model, let us not get carried away: I know that the deer isn’t giving itself to me freely as Christ went to the cross, and what’s more,
hunting is not sacrificial. But God(s) are like deer in their freedom from domestication and domination, and only in that freedom are the god(s) meaningfully divine. If the land lacked such divinity, it would not feel full enough. And yet when I hunt, the land and I could not possibly feel any more full. So, I have to think the divine is in there somewhere, deep down things. 174

I don’t know that I follow Kowalsky in finding God in the hunt, even if I find the landscape relevatory. I know that I don’t find the meaning of Christ’s life only in his death.

But the deer might emerge again as a good symbol of Christ for us exactly in their paradox. Good things come from both their life and their death. And better things come when both their life and death and measured, taken to account by humans. This means taking care of our forest, but also managing their population. Much of that work is not only in how we approach the deer. It is also about how we approach each other. How do we talk about the best way to share space with the deer among us.

Perhaps part of a slow faith movement is pushing ourselves further towards the deer. Sometimes with wonder, sometimes with a weapon, but always with gratitude.

Kowalsky, Nathan “The God(s) of November” in Encountering Earth, edited by Bechtel et al., Cascade: 2018.

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