The deer

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(HOST) Commentator Willem Lange often marvels at how dumb animals know at least as much as we do.

(LANGE) Sunday afternoon. Very quiet inside and outside: Mother in her office at the back of the house; I in mine upstairs; the dog snoozing in front of the gliding doors looking into the woods.

I’d just taken a break and stuck my head inside the office when the dog growled softly and raised her head. She glanced at us, meaning, What do you want me to do about this? We stared out the glass door and spotted movement way up the hill.

I don’t know how the dog knows. She hadn’t been looking before she growled, but she knew the deer were there. Now here they came, down the hill toward the little patch of cracked corn outside the kitchen window. We settled down to watch. But they meandered right past it. Only one little gilt turned aside. With exquisite delicacy, and much swiveling of ears, she slowly approached, looked back to make sure the others weren’t leaving her, bent her head, and nibbled at the corn.

There can’t be many animals more beautiful than a deer just going about its business. Ever alert for any threat and with a grace accentuated by their long necks and slender legs, they’re one of our loveliest living ornaments. They suffer from a bad reputation when gardens are in bloom, but our little growler seems to keep them at bay just beyond the flowers.

There are more Odocoileus virginianus now than in colonial days. They range from southern Canada to Bolivia. They were classified by a naturalist named Constantine Rafinesque-Schmaltz. Honest. Looking at a fossil deer tooth in a Virginia cave, he gave its owner the name “hollow tooth,’ which, if his Greek had been better, would have been odontocoelus. But he came pretty close.

White-tails have eight scent glands, including one in each of their hoofs. No wonder the dog enjoys snuffling each print in the snow. They’re mostly browsers: hardwood buds when they can get ’em and hemlock needles in the wintertime when the going’s tough.

It didn’t occur to me Sunday afternoon there must be a reason for the change in their behavior. Instead of the usual lunch stop, they passed slowly by, moved down through the swamp, jumped the brook, and finally blended perfectly into the brown brush. They’d be crossing the road just before dusk.

Next day I finally figured out the change in their routine. Deer don’t often live beyond six years, but they sense far more than we do, who live ten times longer. I awoke Monday to the wind moaning in the trees, and realized the significance of their pilgrimage. They were headed for the shelter of the hemlocks beyond the swamp.

Thermometers, barometers, and calendars don’t mean much to them. But when the hellebores push up through the snow, they’ll know at least as well as we that it’s spring at last.

This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, and I gotta get back to work.

Willem Lange is a contractor, writer, and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire.

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