By Irena Nagler
There is a forest in the city. The ground holds the memory of it. In the night, animals hunt and mate and weave starlight with scent.
I wake one morning from a dream of family. In it I am a misfit in my generation, my eyes blinking in sunlight that streams through porch windows. Yet I sense that I am close to distant ancestors. I go outdoors. I am holding the leg bone of a doe. I throw it into a dark wood, and a herd of deer springs forth.
Outside, in the dawn, I find hoof-prints that skirt the edges of the street where I live. Two sharp markings from each tread are etched into earth. Together they form wreaths and long strands. I move among them, walking in the memory of the recent passage of deer. The sun is burning its way through fog. Suddenly a russet thing made of grace and lightning arcs across the road and vanishes into green, leaving a bright invisible line.
Both firefighters and those who set controlled flames in city parks speak of a “wildland-urban interface.” The phrase evokes a shape-changing dance, a wily sort of move, to survive and thrive.
In legends, deer are transformed men and women, caught in the hunt, always half-wild even when respectably married to their captors. Often they embody issues of moral transgression, of abuse and the protection of boundaries. In British Celtic lore, the faerie hart leads you to fresh springs, takes you through doorways that are near as breath and heartbeat.
Kes Nagler, a university student in Ann Arbor and a kindergarten teacher in Detroit, finds them often. In response to my query about an experience she has had with deer, she writes:
My friend and I were walking around the cemetery on Observatory at night. I noticed a light, and we were drawn to it. It was a reflecting crystal hanging from a little stand near a grave. We were confused, since there was no moon, and the sky was cloudy. The grave was of a fifteen-year-old boy...and we were standing there, paying respects to whoever had died so young and observing the beautiful things decorating the grave. Suddenly, a fawn...very young...enough to have been hidden by its mother...leaped up from just to the left of the stone. We both gave little screams. We watched it with eyes and ears as far as we could. We had not seen any trace of it resting under our noses! We're sure that there was something a little more than a fawn sleeping there!
Later, as we walked around more of the cemetery, we came across a few grown deer. Their eyes shone in the light of my phone even though they were too far to see their bodies in the night.
I’ve seen the cemetery deer, a herd of them, on winter days. So still that they might be memorial statues among the stones, until electricity touches my skin as I notice staring eyes that follow me from every angle. A sentinel leaps to her feet. The hart, the heart at bay. The herd materializes: nothing there, then all of them at once, watching.
Sometimes deer seem to enter the stage of human affairs to deliver uncanny messages. The interpretation of them is up to the viewer. In 2002, a deer crashed through a window at the Y.M.C.A. It had just become a bone of contention in the city. Artists and entrepreneurs who worked in the building the new Y was to supplant were cast as unwilling adversaries of an institution they may have preferred to support. It was a bitter-hearted controversy, though many tried to steer it in a creative direction.
Beyond the city, soldiers were landing in Afghanistan, preparing for Iraq. A member of our community was held for months in a tiny cell in Chicago because of his ethnicity.
A deer fell onto Plymouth Road as a friend and I were on our way to a film that winter. I could barely see the movie; it was all army-hardware in space and prolonged battle scenes. I was watching the deer’s antlers being crowned with stars.
Another dream. A wolf follows an antlered deer up a curving stairway. On a ledge they perform a swirling dance, spiraling around one another, until they appear to be two men becoming lovers.
In old Europe, spring and summer belonged to the Deer, and winter to the Wolf, named Lupercus. At equinox they dance, trade places.
I know people who swear they have seen wolves to the north and east and west of town. They tell uncanny, similar stories: the wolf near a woodland edge walking parallel to the observer’s moving car.
I’ve only seen wolves once, and not in the wild. I was with family at Binder Park Zoo near Battle Creek one December night when it was open late for holidays. We arrived at a bridge over a little chasm where endangered Mexican wolves lived. We leaned over.
First there was only dark water. Then silvery forms in motion. Long legs slung from their hearts, each step plunging down into an ethereal abyss. The wolves approached the bridge, began to pass beneath it. I felt a bolt of lightning rivet me to the ground. Moonlight replaced my blood. Penned in they may be, but they have not lost one whit of their elegant charge.
Teaching a movement class in connection with elements in nature, I have everyone turn toward a grove of trees. I ask them to whirl once with arms held out or up, then stand still. We imagine a herd of deer among trees, standing so quietly you might not notice them. Suddenly they are in motion. A bolt of electricity runs through you. Allowing it to lengthen, you extend it through the forest, explore the hills beyond. You may find that you are sensing the presence of herds of real deer.
Drawing that electric nerve back in again, you sense the trees nearby, those beings with arms and antlers, and wait for one of them, white pine or oak, birch or hemlock or maple, to invite you into a merge.
On summer afternoons I take a shortcut past an urban field. It’s a narrow path, hemmed in on one side by dense vegetation, and on the other by a wire fence. Only room for one person to walk, or one deer, or one imaginary wolf.
In the aperture at the far end where sunlight shines in a slender column, I see a vase. Or a chiminea? A golden urn?
Then I see the face projecting above it, long and narrow, almond eyes staring at me down the length of the tiny path through green darkness.
There is a hole in the fence. Someone has pitched a tent among the aspen trees, its fabric the color of their leaves.
Walking by the field on a windy night, I want to wrap it around me whole like a great silver fur, burrow into its fabric and become it, bristling in the arms of starlight. From crushed concrete and dry earth it has sung life into being. Bacteria transform its earth into rich dark beds. The Milky Way paints glimmer-clouds beyond bleached walls of L.E.D. light. I can imagine wolves in this field at night.
Millennia ago, in Europe, forests and other hunting areas were appropriated by a few dominant humans. Hundreds of years ago, this extended to common lands and fields in enclosure acts. The Americas inherited this approach and became a landscape of fences.
Ek Zip, the Mayan god of both hunter and prey, keeps animals in a pen of divine proportions, and releases them into the woods. He has a black face and he appears worldwide — Europe, Africa, Asia — under different names. He may be one of our earliest memories.
What can we do, now that humans have destroyed the balance between Lupercus and the Deer, and encroach ever further on their habitat? We stalk on grids and calculation, holding-pens for minds as well as animals. Winter nights on the north and east of town, bait may be laid on snow or mud or understory, shots fired, a hundred deer transformed into food for those who need it, bones for batons, skins to put on in dreams and run through the night, harts and hearts at bay.
There is a place here where river meets wood and field and sandy scrubland and highway and little glowing stream, and the paths and roads and waters spiral back on themselves so you lose sense of direction. On Midsummer Night when the full moon sends white rays into the woods, they become a story that coils alongside the mechanized world still audible just beyond. Ferns glow in the light that frames great dark trunks of oak and hemlock. Paler trees shine, and tiny moths flutter into green depths where the creatures of the night are waking. And just outside the forest boys and girls are throwing fireworks off the bridge. In the meadow above them grasses spring up like electric fur into silver arms of light. And something rustles and breaks fallen branches, just beyond vision.
A hoarse cough sounds through the woods, an alarm call. A telephone pole slung with wires seems another strange, wild tree. I brush my hands along a stand of tall graceful grasses, wet from recent rain. The moon shines through them, and they seem to spring across its glowing face. They are like dampened human hair. A slender golden ray pierces through trees and lights up water-drops. There is a tree with leaves like hearts.
We leave for our homes, imprinted with the topography and soul of this piece of earth. Later, transformed into deer running over snow and moonlight, we might discover a place where stars hide among roots when everyone but the hunters is asleep. We lose sense of direction, but maybe we find a path.
The forest waits to return when we are gone. It wakes when I sleep. It is alive with present deer and absent wolves. It lives inside my skin.
Irena Nagler writes fiction and poetry, teaches environmental movement meditation, and is a visual and performing artist. She has won an award in poetry, completed several novels, and is working toward publishing a novella on tree-free paper. The website for her dance group is www.twofeather.com/nightfire.