Path of the Veteran Deer by Lucas Shepherd

Whitetail deer buck  West Virginia by ForestWander

Through tangles of blackberry canes gallops a regal creature of the timber: Odocoileus virginianus, or the white-tailed deer. This one is a buck with cracked antlers, his coat birch brown. He sniffs the air before crossing the man-made paths. This veteran has survived so many hunting seasons because of his respect for orange vests and the pump of a twelve gauge shotgun. The whistle of a meadowlark shrills in a nearby gorge and the deer hops out of sight, perhaps to find an alternate path to the overflow creek where he can drink to his content.

No matter where I travel in the sprawling Sockum Ridge Woods in southeast Iowa, evidence of deer persists, whether in the form of flattened foxtail grass where a fawn hid from the strange newness of this world, a discarded antler on the winding path to Lookout Hill, or the beating sound of a herd moving through the hickory and oak trees to a safer location. At the turn of the 20th Century the white-tailed deer was hunted to devastatingly low numbers, but a regulated hunting system and conservation programs saw a steady proliferation in many sections of the United States. In Sockum Ridge, if you sit long enough in one spot and acclimate yourself to nature, you will surely see the white-tailed deer moving over the carpet of dead leaves, silent as Sunday School. If you are lucky enough, you will spot the patriarch of the royal family: the twelve point buck.

The springtime rattle of antler against antler means competition for the most desirable doe has begun. The patriarch of the deer herd avoids most of the battling, because his lofty crown wards off any potential challengers and attracts his mates. He is the king buck. His life is good until hunting season creeps up and he finds himself the most popular object in the hunter’s iron sights. It makes me wonder, on this Indian summer day in the Sockum Ridge Woods: Was the veteran with cracked antlers whose water route I disturbed earlier a rival of the king buck, the former’s antlers bruised by the latter’s?  Will poetic justice be served when a hunter passes up the sublime veteran and fires upon the picturesque king?

In any case, if I am to go any further in my speculations, I must leave the trails of Sockum Ridge Woods—that is, the man-made trails. Deer paths are harder to spot because of their narrowness and the many fallen branches that impede one’s trajectory. Deer are excellent leapers and have no need to traverse solely through clear crossings.  Nevertheless, if one observes the timber as a deer would, the path is all too obvious, for it has been beaten down by a thousand thirsty trips to the overflow creek.

The overflow creek is the runoff from a large, spring-fed pond. The deer do not drink out of the pond often, for it is in a clearing, and they prefer to lap the braids of water twisting down the far side of the dam where they are hidden by trees and bushes. One summer I placed a salt lick out on the dam, just out of reach of the treeline, and with binoculars watched several does and fawns emerge to taste the white square. They seemed to appreciate my salty gift, but no doubt it contributed to their many trips to the overflow creek.

I find a hard-fought path to the creek, seeing to my left the gentle blue water of the pond through a patchwork of crisp leaves that refuse to give way to the impending winter. Thorn bushes on both sides of the path pull at my jacket sleeves, and I wonder if the deer ever become annoyed at the sharp tangles that seem to sew each tree branch together. Perhaps the deer’s naked bodies are not affected in the same way as my clothed form. Indeed, I look down and see that my milky-white shoelaces have turned forest green, clogged with hitchhikers—spiky balls of cocklebur plants that seek to colonize all parts of these woods. I both admire and loathe the tenacity with which the cocklebur operates, and again wonder whether or not deer are affected by the flora in such a way.

Seven quick paces ahead I have my answer: A small tuft of birch brown fur, frosted with tiny white hairs that are unmistakably white-tailed deer, no doubt snagged and pulled off by a greedy thorn branch. I smile because it makes me feel as though I share some small misfortune with the deer of Sockum Ridge. If not the cockleburs, at least we have unity in thorn bush annoyance. The fur smells musty, breaks apart easily into hundreds of individual hairs, and floats away in the tiniest breeze.

At last I approach the muddy creek bed where a stream of knife-gray water cuts through the ravine. Later in the year, the creek has been known to dry out, the rainy season long gone. But in the springtime, when the icy pond melts, the creek is a small river, a constant flow of water sliding down the far side of the dam. Today, the sliver of wetness barely cuts through the terrain and is another reminder of the long winter we are about to corner. But for now, the cool water refreshes worn out travelers.

I kneel in the soft mud and realize it has dried out. Cracks spiderweb out in the dirt on both sides of the creek bed. In the winter, when snow falls and the creek is barren, the deer will eat the crystal flakes and drink the liquid as it melts on their hot, pink-brown tongues. I sit and wait for my veteran deer with his cracked antlers and tired shoulders but he never shows up. Perhaps I scared him away and he is searching out a new watering hole, or maybe he is finding the last withered blackberries in a thicket somewhere. The lack of leaves on the trees drives the herds deep into the Sockum Ridge Woods, and at a time of year when they should be the easiest to locate they seem to completely vanish.

When the springtime thaw begins to blow across this timber, I hope my veteran deer is still alive, having survived a scarcity of food and water as well as the booming shotgun hunting season that runs from December 1st to December 16th, not to mention the subsequent muzzleloader and bow periods. As I sit in the faint aroma of dying wild mustard plants, listening to squirrels chitter-ritter and cha-tat-tatter and the woodpecker’s incessant knocking, I think of the veteran deer’s future. I would very much like to see him grace the paths of Sockum Ridge again next year. The forest would feel less than operational without him. Somehow his presence reminds me that although we are all broken in some way, although the survivalist mode necessary to thrive in the harsh wild can weary the broadest of shoulders, there are crisscrossing trails that cut fast and hard through the brush and lead us to the reprieve of a cool-water creek.

Moss-covered log by Amy Shepherd

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A veteran himself, Lucas Shepherd is a junior at The University of Iowa, where he is majoring in creative writing. His fiction has been published or is forthcoming in two local journals: Little Village and The University of Iowa’s undergraduate literary review earthwords. He finished a four year enlistment in the United States Air Force in 2010, and now resides in Iowa City with his wife Missy. When not writing or reading, Lucas enjoys volunteering for the Iowa Youth Writing Project, a non-profit outreach collective.

End photo of moss-covered log is by Amy Shepherd. Thank you, Amy!