I stepped out to walk the dog the other evening, and, just as we rounded the corner of the house, we found ourselves eye to eye, muzzle to muzzle, with an immense brown presence. The deer lifted its teardrop-shaped head from the azalea bush it had been munching to splinters and froze. We froze, too. I could feel the dog's muscles tense through the leash, but she didn't lunge or bark. We both just stared, and the deer, so close I could have reached out and touched it, stared back.
Though deer have become common in my neighborhood -- sightings are an everyday occurrence -- the moment still felt special. It was as if we had come in contact with another world, and in a way, we had.
This impressively large and powerful creature existed without human endorsement or cultivation. It had its own rhythms, its own means for survival in the heart of the human dominion. I'd often heard that the increasing numbers of deer were outstripping their ability to forage, driving them to mass starvation. But this animal looked to be in perfect, robust condition, as in tune with this suburban neighborhood as any soccer mom.
In that instant of communion, which was probably no more than a few seconds but seemed far longer, my mind flooded with questions. What did they eat? Where did they sleep? What were the relationships between the individuals in the groups they always seemed to travel in? How far did they roam? How did they manage to vanish so completely in even tiny stands of trees? Did they even try to avoid cars? Did they ever attack? (An interesting possibility to ponder when one is two feet away from a 200-pound animal with four sharp hooves.) And, finally, how could I know so little about these amazing animals who were probably never more than 100 yards from my home?
This may be the best part about my job: A lot of people have sudden curiosity storms, but how many can go into the office the next day and ask one of the best journalists in the country to go all out to answer their questions? Not to mention come up with a bunch more they hadn't even thought of. Staff writer Liza Mundy took up the challenge, and you can see the results beginning on Page 14.
Back at the azalea bush (what was left of it) the deer eventually tired of hanging out with the hound and me. She rose on her hind legs, twisted away from us and bounded toward the woods. She didn't so much leap as levitate, launching high into the air and almost instantly vanishing in the dusk, except for the white tail flipping up and down like a handkerchief waving goodbye.
Tom Shroder can be reached at email@example.com.