Seeing Deer

Photograph | Jerry Dodrill/IPN
Photograph | Jerry Dodrill/IPN

October’s hunters have gone into the mountains. Smoke from their campfires rises from wild, green canyons. This time of year, the deer descend into low country for the coming winter, departing with the first frost, the first light snow, the first booming echoes of rifles. They come down to drift and mingle in fields below the mountains, touching damp noses to each other, neighbors from distant valleys meeting in cool evening light.

Younger bucks stay together, stepping like teenagers abreast of one another, their parades of antlers nearly touching, but not. They cannot hide their lives in the open country of their autumn range. Everything they do is visible. When I spy older bucks alone, I think them senile, perhaps, dominance having gotten to them so they can hardly look at anything but the spread of their own territory. They seem paranoid and irritable, nipping at the hinds of does to get them out of the way, while young bucks watch with anticipation.

Autumn is the season of rut. Fights break out. One at a time young males with four fresh points on their antlers break away to challenge old ones who wear six or even eight points. They provoke each other over fields of females. They posture and snort. They wrestle each other to the ground with their antlers. I saw them do this one moonless October night. I was driving south when two bucks swung into my headlights. With heads butted nearly to the ground, they locked antlers, dragging and shoving one another into the middle of the road. Hooves coughed up dust. They did not even glance at my sudden headlights as I stepped on the brakes. My little boy was in the back seat and I told him to look, that buck deer were fighting. He leaned his body as far as he could out of his car seat and asked why they were doing this. I told him it is a season called autumn, or fall. Deer fight this time of year to see who is stronger. Sons try to topple their fathers. My boy stared over my shoulder, astonished.

The two animals moved swiftly, throwing each other this way and that, catapulting across the road and out of my headlights. They continued into the black of night where they went on in my imagination, tearing and scrapping like gods through the rest of time.

Near winter, on crisp evenings, you see events like this. The deer, having made their lives public, sleep, eat, fight, and copulate below wrinkled folds of mountains. They come in such numbers that many are killed by cars, their carcasses leaving streaks of blood and muscle across the road. Some lie in ditches, bundles of legs. Others are left cocked in the middle of the road where a driver got out to inspect a broken, bloodied headlight and then got back in to drive away, steering around the warm, dead animal. The eyes of these deer look like tarnished glass, and in the morning their curved milky surfaces are touched by frost.

IN TWENTY YEARS OF DRIVING BACK ROADS I’ve never hit a deer. There were close scrapes, of course, clipping off a bit of tail-hair with my door handle or nicking a dewclaw, but I never hit a deer dead-on. My mother hit one; my wife. Everyone I knew hit a deer, and some did it more than once. I thought maybe I was blessed. Deer medicine. Ungulate fortune. I talked to them through my windshield when I saw them approaching the side of the road, telling them to stop, directing them left or right with a hand raised off the steering wheel. Each time, these unseen gestures worked, the deer avoided me, and I began thinking myself invincible, a deer whisperer.

My luck ended with a young buck. It jumped a fence in the face of a radiant, harvest-light sunset. I pumped hard into the brakes and urgently muttered, Stop.

The buck did not stop. I jammed the brakes all the way down and my truck skidded, fishtailing across gravel. The animal was square in the grill plate when I saw it shoot into the air. It was making its escape, all of its life given to a single, fleeing bound, muscles coiled into flight. It was so close I thought its hooves would clatter across my hood. In that half second I felt a gust of relief, thinking we were going to barely graze past each other, another near hit.

Then came a dark thud. Four slender, black hooves spun in the air and my truck came to a halt. Copper-colored dust welled up around the road. My hands were gripped tight to the steering wheel. I looked over the hood, where the deer snapped back to its feet and dove from the road, sailing over barbed-wire fence into another field. Again I felt relief, and let out a nerve-wracked sigh. The deer will be fine.

But once the deer reached the other side of the fence it fell into a weakened hobble. I closed my mouth and drew my lips tightly together. About forty feet from the road it dropped into grass up to its shoulders. My heart sank. From the way the buck fell to the ground I could see how its body was wrecked, internal organs skewered by broken bones. Adrenaline had been its last defense, just enough to get itself out of the road.

From inside the truck I saw that the buck’s breathing was labored, almost convulsive. I opened the door and stepped out. In a week, I thought, that place in the grass will be occupied by ravens. Magpies will land on the carcass looking like jesters in their black and white feathers, their long tails. The buck will become bones by winter, ribs splintered by coyotes, antlers sticking out of snow.

I felt awkward, not sure if I should get back in and drive away or if a formal apology was needed. Should I hop the fence and slowly walk across the field, where I would plant my hands on the buck’s heaving heart, where I would explain that I had been in a hurry to get to town and the sunset was so bright in my eyes? The buck looked back toward me. The way he held up his head, alert, seemed to tell me not to bring my apologies across the field. He would simply have to rally again, taking his last bit of life to reach another place where he could die in peace.

I did not cross the fence. I stood and watched the buck work his breath in and out.

A small herd of does crossed nearby. One separated from the others to stand beside the fallen buck. She lowered her snout and nearly touched her black nose to his side. Then she lifted her head and stood still for a long time, the buck’s antlers raised beside her. Both of them were preserved by sunset light, everything about their living and dying naked in this autumn field. It was too private to watch. I got back in the truck and drove away.

This article, along with other landmark Orion essays about our connection to the animal world, are collected in a new anthology, Animals & People. Order your copy here.

Craig Childs is a commentator for NPR’s Morning Edition and has written over a dozen books including Apocalyptic Planet, which has received the Orion Book Award and a Sigfurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award. Childs’ writing has appeared in The New York TimesLos Angeles TimesMen’s Journal, and Outside. He lives in Western Colorado.


  1. After reading Craig Childs’ sensitive article, I feel that magic and mystery surrounds us, around that dignified deer. We need to have reverence for life around. Thanks Craig!

  2. One cold autumn morning, I came across a dying buck along my rural path to city work, and saw his chest heave once. I stopped, knowing what I must do, and cursed the errant driver whose speed in the dark and insouciance had left this creature thus. I drew my never used pistol from my fanny pack and finished him. No more suffering, but mine. Sad morning, crying my way to work. Go figure.

  3. I spent the last six months in Pennsylvania. I traveled lonely roads at night knowing I would encounter these beautiful creatures, and took the time to slow down, to be careful not to hurt one and enjoy the scenery.

    One night I talked for 10 minutes to a group of deer who seemed to have no fear, just stood there listening to my babble and singing without making a comment of their own.

    Thank you for this lovely story that suggests these beautiful creatures are kindred spirit with us. Frankly, I think they rise above us.

  4. I had two teenage friends die when they swerved off the road trying to avoid a collision with a deer. I have hit deer when I was driving fast, and when I was driving carefully.
    More than once, I have shot a deer out of a group and watched as the other deer looked up at the sound, and then returned to feeding in the grass around the body of the deer I had just killed.
    An average doe has two yearlings annually. Without hunters and automobiles, we would be neck-deep in starving deer and we would just give up on raising any crops -because the deer would eat everything.
    Deer are pretty, and they have their place in the environment, but also on my dinner plate.

  5. Thankyou for that beautiful story. I too say a prayer/blessing when I get into my car, that I harm none, on my way to work in the hills of Southwestern Virginia where wildlife is abundant and many creatures are seen smashed on the road and ground into the pavement.

  6. I once had a run-in with a group of deer who were crossing the highway. I slowed down, they ran across in front of me, I thought they had all crossed, but another came out of nowhere and glanced off my car. I called the state police to report the hit and they came to inspect my car, as insurance requires. When I told the trooper about the experience and that I cried all the way home, he said “Lady, you are lucky to be alive.” Since then, I have learned to drive slowly on warm rainy humid nights as that seems to bring them out of the woods up in New York’s Catskill Mountains, where I reside. Since studying PermaCulture, I have let my previously formal garden go back to nature, and enjoy watching the deer forage in my yard. They don’t even run away when I am outside if I make a sucking sound like one does when calling a cat.
    I guess that is a universal nurturing sound. I have observed that making that sound seems to calm a frightened animal. Try it and see for yourself.

  7. Mr. Childs writing touches on a point that we often overlook, that we humans are another animal in the grand scheme of life. He has an obvious gift for putting this connection with other living things into words.

    Mark in LA has a point in that the only controls on deer populations at this time are humans. However, we humans are the reason why there are so many deer. Our irrational fear of other predators has eliminated the environmental checks (mainly wolves) on the populations of wild ungulates.

    Collisions with wildlife kill 200 humans and 1.5 million elk and deer each year costing us $10 billion per year. On top of this one million other vertebrates die each year from auto collisions (see High Country News, Safe Crossing, Nov 12, 2007).

    So what we need is not more auto collisions and hunting, but more predator reintroduction programs and highway wildlife crossings to curtail these automobile deaths.

  8. This is one fine piece, Craig. It moved me to tears. I so appreciate your sensitive telling of such a personal, tragic experience. Thank you for sharing it with the rest of us who love wildlife, love animals, and have hit one on the road. It’s truly a heartbreaking experience to which you brought grace. Thank you.

  9. What a beautiful article. the intersection of man and nature has never gone well for nature, but it is nice to know that there are men who know enough to know this.

  10. How sad that Craig Childs fails to understand his responsibilities as a driver and a sentient being. In a hurry, he was not driving attentively. After pulverizing the deer, he waffles a little before driving on; his essay might more realistically have been titled “Torturing Deer.”

    I consider it doubly tragic that ORION, by paying him for this elegy and printing it without apology, has compounded the error. Drivers reading it are free to assume a well-written essay is payment enough for the damage we do with our vehicles.

    Most of the responsible drivers I know carry pistols or sharp knives in part because we know that if we fatally injure an animal, it’s honorable to finish killing it before we get poetic. If this happens to you and you’re unarmed, call the nearest law enforcement agency for help.

  11. How wonderful – this is a beautiful story written with such expessive feelings. Craig Childs was able to take us to that place visually and emotionally.

    A BIG thank you to the writer.

  12. Sensitive, beautiful, just the way every one of us should feel in the presence of Nature’s bountiful creations. I am an artist. I have painted a deer and other animals. Thank you for reminding us of how we could all simply be of this earth with respect and love. Jackie

  13. Linda on high plains wrote on Dec 17th that “Most of the responsible drivers I know carry pistols or sharp knives … If this happens and you’re unarmed, call the nearest law enforcement agency…” Well, here in Cincinnati, nobody is allowed to discharge a firearm along the roads – not even the “law enforcement officials.” In fact, when my friend witnessed a deer hit and called the cops, they came out and killed the deer with a hammer – bludgeoning it to death slowly and painfully and to the horrow of a teary crowd, becaue the cops siad they werne’t allowed to use a pistol to kill the deer. things are different in the city, I’m afraid.

  14. Nice article. It’s unfortunate that humans have thrown off the balance of nature across the globe, and then they proceed to blame the very animals they’ve impacted. Of course, many people live in a constant state of denial and avoidance, seeking only to align themselves with others who have committed the same acts that deep down they know are wrong. This of course, makes them feel right. Most people aren’t even interested in what is right. Their interest is primarily in being right.

    Imagine for a moment that animals had the same thought processes as humans. I dare say that it would be difficult to step out our front doors without being taken out. The real bottom line is that wild creatures feel, they may not think like humans do, thankfully for us, but they do feel, they do seem to form bonds with each other. People look around and wonder why there’s so much violence, war, disease and suffering in the world and then in the next moment they commit an act of violence or look the other way when someone else does.

    Yes, there is seemingly an over population of deer in many parts of the country but as stated in various posts, this is because so many of the natural predators have been virtually eliminated by man.

    Humans live in a constant state of fear, many are not in touch with it because it’s just one more thing to be in denial about. In order to deal with this reality it seems man has developed a mantra. It goes something like this, “I don’t understand you so I must fear you and if I fear you it’s because I can’t control you and thus because I can’t control you I must kill you”. Read the papers, watch the news, mankind does this all over the globe in every walk of life.

    Many humans seem to have an odd approach to the concept of help. The concept breaks down like this, “I want to help you, but first I have to kill you”. This sad state of affairs is where we find ourselves today as a species.

  15. I heard a story about the head monk at a Buddhist retreat, he would get out and bow before each dead animal that lay on or near the road when he was driven to the nearest town. I thought about that story when I rode my bicycle through the Pacific Northwest and witnessed all the creatures killed on the asphalt. So, now when I drive and see a dead deer or other animal lying beside the highway, I bow. All life is precious

  16. My photos are used to illustrate all kinds of ideas, concepts, and stories that have little personal meaning to me. In reading this piece, I found myself standing in the book-store on the verge of tears. My wife asked what was wrong. I showed her the article. “That’s your photo,” she said. “Yeah. Read this.” We sat on the floor, legs tucked in, while people walked around us. She read while I re-read it. Heavy. We thumbed through the magazine in silence. Words seemed inappropriate.

    The responses here are proof of the quality of Mr. Childs’ writing. We can all relate and have had similar experiences. I too have been driving the back roads for years and have been lucky so far to not hit a deer. Guess I better knock on wood. Thanks to the editors of Orion for selecting my image to illustrate the piece, and for producing such a fine publication.
    –Jerry Dodrill

  17. I find the story moving in the sense that all that involves the rhythms of life around us is moving…and even spiritual. As a fellow lover of wildlife, to me it is not tragic. It is not an encounter between two “animals”, man and deer. It is a part of our current ecological and cultural reality. All the more reason for us to be sensitive to our obligations as mankind to exercise as wise a stewardship over nature as possible. That we feel moved and at times chagrined to be a part of the death of an animal speaks to our humanity. To overdramatize it speaks to our tendency toward foolish decisions that only disturb the natural world only more.

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