My day of ecological field work along the banks of this old river had gone well. I was just finishing up, doing some proof plots of a vegetation analysis, when I sat down putting my back against a very large boulder to write some notes in my yellow field book. As I finished writing I stretched out my arms and looked around. The large gray and brown banded boulder, with smooth strands of quartzite woven into the fabric of the rock, sat on the slope facing the river. It looked rather precarious as if it could rolled forward with a shove from a small child. The rock was grossly misshapen. There was a large corner of the stone missing on the bottom side. This created a large cave-like space big enough to hold several large adults. It appeared that the missing piece of rock had been broken off by freezing water-perhaps centuries ago. Expanding ice has power beyond most of our imaginations. The missing section of the boulder was long gone and the edges where the missing section of rock was once attached were worn smooth. Glaciers, time, weather, wind, and raging river currents of a flooding river had all played a part in the changing character of this stone transplanted from some distant bedrock formation.
Curious, I moved over to the miniature cavern and looked in. At first I only saw partially decomposed leaves that had blown under the stone during the last autumnal season. As my eyes adjusted to the dim light under the stone I saw a long white object. I reached in and pushed the decaying leaves to one side. I was surprised to see a skeleton. As I moved more leaves aside I could see that it was a skeleton of a large animal. The bones were well organized, appeared to be complete, and I soon recognized that it was a mature white-tailed deer. The skull was devoid of horns or horn buds and so I knew that this was the skeleton of a doe. I looked closely at the skeleton for signs of trauma. There appeared to be no broken bones. All of the skeletal parts seemed to be in tact and arranged as if it were prepared for a museum display.
In considering this wonderful animal’s demise, my first thought were that it was amazing that none of the many predators in the area had consumed the deer after its death. Typically when I find a deer skeleton in the wild it is widely scattered. Coyotes and other predators utilizing a carcass are not particularly neat. Their consumption of other animals is absolutely essential to their own survival and they are very, very good at finding prey that is in a weakened condition. I also wondered why it had chosen this hidden location. Was this deer hiding? Was it trying to seek refuge from the elements, especially the harshness of a cold winter? One thing was clear, this skeleton was very clean. There was no hide, no soft tissue parts, nothing that would indicate that this wonderful animal had been dead for less than a year and a half.
Crawling under the boulder next to the skeleton I examined the skull. I was intent on not disturbing the remains so I brought my head close to the off white cranium rather than picking it up and examining it at eye level. I retrieved a small LED light from my pocket that was attached to a multi-tool. The bright light made my observations easier. The teeth on the upper jaw were extremely worn. All of the ridges were smooth. Some of the rear teeth had been degraded to the point where they were even with the jaw bone. This was the remains of a very old female white tailed deer.
The passing of all things living is a normal part of the natural cycle. We all have our day in the sun. Some are certainly luckier than others. This deer appears to have been one of the fortunate ones. By all the evidence before me it looked as if the deer had lived to a ripe old age and died of natural causes. That’s about as good as it gets for an animal in the wild. This is very rare occurrence. The odds of a white tailed deer living to 9 or 10 years old and not meeting its maker while in the jaws of a predator are beyond imagination.
I backed out of the stone crypt and sat with my back against the boulder. I realized that although my investigation had resulted in minimal disturbance I needed to put things as they were. I reached in and covered the bones with the leaves and debris I had pushed aside. I was returning the remains to their original state to the best of my ability. For some reason it seemed like the right thing to do. After I covered the skeleton I backed out of the dark overhang. I stood up and noticed that the day was still bright and sunny. I thought about this deer and said a prayer as a gentle wind pushed down the river valley. I wished the deer a good journey. I hoped its spirit would find a new and pleasant place to rest and rejoin the natural world. I pictured my hopes floating along with the wind and finding a place to land in some distant location.
As I walked away from the river through the woods I imagined the life of this doe. She had many years to wander this peaceful river valley and the surrounding woods. She had, no doubt, born young and known the joys of love. She ate green grass, the tender buds of trees and shrubs, and wild apples. She survived the rigors of life in the wild escaping predators and enduring many hard winters. She wore trails in the woods where other deer can wander.
And those that do follow her old haunts and paths will be very lucky to walk on the ground that once held her tracks.
Written for www.wildramblings.com in April of 2010.