The deer drift in and out of the trees like breathing. They appear unexpectedly delicate and cold, as if chill air is pouring from them to the ground to pool into the mist that half obscures their legs and turning flanks. They aren’t tame: I can’t get closer than a hundred yards before they slip into the gloom. I’ve been told these particular beasts are fallow deer of the menil variety, which means their usual darker tones have been leached by genetics to soft cuttlefish and ivory, and they’re the descendants of a herd brought here in the sixteenth century as beasts of venery, creatures to be pursued and caught and cooked. The look of the estate hasn’t changed much since then. It’s still an extensive patchwork of pasture and forest—except now the M25 runs through it, six lanes of fast-moving traffic behind chain-link fence threaded with stripling trees. The mist thickens, the light falls, the deer appear and disappear, and the deep roar of the motorway burns inside my chest as I walk on to the bridge that spans it. This bridge is grassed along its length, and at dusk and dawn, I’ve been told, the deer use it as a thoroughfare from one side of the estate to the other. I know my presence will dissuade them from crossing so I don’t want to stay too long, but I linger a little while to watch the torrent of lights beneath me. For a while the road doesn’t seem real. Then it does, almost violently so, and at that moment the bridge and the woods behind me do not. I can’t hold both in the same world at once. Deer and forest, mist, speed, a drift of wet leaves, white noise, scrap-metal trucks, a convoy of eighteen-wheelers, beads of water on the toes of my boots, and the scald of my hands on the cold metal rail.
Deer occupy a unique place in my personal pantheon of animals. There are many creatures I know very little about, but the difference with deer is that I’ve never had any desire to find out more. They’re like a distant country I’ve never wanted to visit. I know the names of different deer species, and can identify the commonest ones by sight, but I’ve always resisted the almost negligible effort it would take to discover when they give birth, how they grow and shed their antlers, what they eat, where and how they live. Standing on the bridge I’m wondering why that is.
Perhaps my feelings about deer might partly be down to their place in British culture. About five years ago, their images started appearing on soft furnishings and homeware. Deer candles, deer drinking glasses, stag’s-head wallpaper, prints of antlers on curtains and cushions, mock trophy heads stitched out of patchwork tartan. I was used to reindeer motifs all over Christmas, but this cervine proliferation was new. At the time, one design spokesman ascribed it to the British public’s love of cozy country hotels and log fires in winter. But I suspect there was more to it than a yen for seasonal hotel atmospherics. The years following the financial crash of 2008 were marked by a growing glorification of myths of Englishness, ranging from a flourishing of books on the countryside and rural life to “Keep Calm and Carry On” World War II posters and chintz-printed aprons—and a strong shift toward political populism. When a country is hurting it so often grasps for ideas of itself in a longed-for past, and a simple motif like a stag’s head can function like an upholstery button to pleat together a whole slew of useful meanings.
Deer tend to signify a conservative view of the world. I learned that in my twenties, at a time when I was spending a lot of time with hunters, mostly men, many of whom expressed a sneaking admiration for the antics of powerful stags who battled each other to take possession of harems of docile hinds. And it was around that time that I spent a rainy afternoon wandering around an exhibition of paintings by Edwin Landseer in a London gallery. The walls were hung with sad dogs, gleaming horses, various British game animals being torn to pieces, and numerous portraits of red deer stags that seemed the very type of elite Victorian manhood. These stags were grand and harried and very good at striking poses, Monarchs of the Glen whose fragile rule was perpetually threatened by upstarts, whose crowned heads were always lit perfectly by mountain sunlight, paragons of strength bound entire into unshakable courses of action by virtue of being what they were.
The wash of traffic noise subsides as I leave the bridge to regain the path. It’s too dark now to see the deer but I can hear the hollow thump of hooves trotting on sward and when I look behind me the motorway casts the palest, faintest glow behind the trees. Something about this place, I think, will solve the puzzle of my attitude to deer, and I’m beginning to understand that this puzzle isn’t just about a type of mammal. It’s about animals more generally, and what it might mean to not want to know more about them: a much bigger why.
I trudge back to the car, wondering whether motorists passing this place sometimes glance up and see a procession of antlers against the sky, a slow parade of ancient beasts walking across modern infrastructure. The thought brings to mind much older notions of deer, like the white stags that were Celtic emissaries from the underworld, or creatures in medieval romances whose appearances portended the beginning of a quest or great adventure. In this tradition they’re slippery, spooky beings in possession of the deepest spiritual significance and their visitations are always a surprise. I think of one quiet, cold afternoon nearly twenty years ago when I was glumly traipsing through a small wood near my parents’ house musing on the shape of my life and finding it sorely wanting. As I approached a tangle of briars growing over a fallen tree I saw a small, slow curl of smoke rising from behind it, glowing palely on its ascent through rays of winter sunlight. It was exceptionally unsettling. I moved closer and was treated to more incomprehensibility; a sweeping arc of something like upraised bone, something skeletal behind the leaves, and then the resting fallow buck whose rising breath I had been watching leaped up and crashed away into the trees. My heart kicked and raced and for a long while afterward the wood seemed made anew, fretted with rich possibility, and for a long while after that my life also.
Not knowing very much about deer has made my encounters with them less like encounters with real animals and more like tableaux of happenstance, symbolism, and emotion. My ignorance, I think, has been purposive. It has been me saying: I wish there was more magic in the world. And then the deer have appeared to say, Here it is. This is what deer are for me. They stand for the natural world’s capacity to surprise and derail my expectations. And I have wanted them to do that more than I have wanted them to be anything else.
Driving home in the dark I know I’ve reached this understanding because of the geography of the place I’ve just visited, its conjunction of asphalt and trucks and deer. For the capacity of deer to surprise, to hijack the quotidian, is not merely a matter of legend or of remote and ethereal speculation. It is a blunt fact, bloody and frequently deadly, and it happens so often there’s an acronym for it: DVC, which stands for deer–vehicle collision. Thankfully, it has only ever been an almost, for me.
A few years ago, driving a downhill curve at night, I saw a deer in the road in front of me, stark and tense with shock, and then the deer lofted itself into the air, bright and somehow motionless, like the etiolated horses with outstretched legs in eighteenth-century hunting prints. A blooming scald spread under my skin and the car felt as light as if it were sliding on water, even before I braked. What I remember most about that endless moment, apart from the blind heat of it, was the angular neatness of hind hocks and ankles, and the deer’s hard landing against the hedge, the way it shoved itself into that cross-hatched, thorny difficulty before disappearing. And all the rest of that journey I saw nothing but deer crossing the road where there were no deer at all.
Deer are dangerous animals. In America around two hundred people die every year after their vehicles collide with them, and while official figures put the number of DVCs at about one and a half million, it’s likely much higher, for many go unrecorded. The correct advice for drivers encountering a deer in the road is never to swerve, for most human deaths occur when people wrench the wheel away, hit trees, rocks, fences, other cars. But how can you not? There it is, right in front of you, cut out of black and surrounded by a suffused halo of reflected light, a beating heart the size of a fist in a hundred, a hundred and fifty pounds of pearl and terror. It’s coming toward you at fifty, sixty miles an hour. How can you do anything else?
If you live in places prone to DVCs you can buy deer alerts: small whistles for the exterior of your vehicle that are supposed to warn deer of your impending arrival. Some drivers swear by them, but it might just be that knowing the alert is there makes you drive differently, perhaps a little more slowly, a little more defensively, a little readier to expect a deer to appear in your path, because I’ve read that there’s no statistical proof that they have any effect and deer may not be able to hear them at all. They’re tech solutions that work like nazar, those dangling blue and white glass charms against the curse of the evil eye.
It happened to my friend Isabella. She is an artist, and a truly excellent one. When I first met her she was gilding pieces of fresh fruit to make art of their slow collapse over the coming months into corrugated, shining nuggets. I asked her, “You hit a deer. What was that like?” She drew her eyebrows together, just a little. “It was like a collision with the divine,” she said. “You’ve read Euripides, right?” I said, “Yes. I have.” She said, again, “Well. It was a collision with the divine.” Turning on to a fast road at night, lights shone in her eyes from a car in the wrong place. That car had already hit a red deer she couldn’t see. It was lying right across the carriageway. “I drove over it,” she said, shivering with the recollection of the rise and sink of the car’s traverse, feeling the give of flesh and the cracking architecture of ribs. The deer may already have been dead, or perhaps was only stunned, but it was opened up by the weight of her car, which sent a wave of blood across the wet road. Her headlights shone on it. “There was so much blood,” she said. She leaned forward when she told me this, her eyes on mine. “So. Much. Blood.” She told me she could smell the terror of her daughter sitting in the seat next to her. The air around the car that night was foggy, yellow with sodium street lamps, and there was, there was this sheet of blood running in front of the car for what seemed for ever.
“Was it like The Shining?” I asked.
She looked at me levelly, as if I’d not heard a word she’d told me.
“It was much worse.”
Roads belong to us. We don’t expect things that aren’t us to interact with them, to cross from their territory into our own, and with such brute physicality. Even if you escape unscathed, the effect of a DVC can be life-changing. You can see something of that in the way they are handled in the movies, where they’re scripted narrative shocks, horror-movie jumps, choice dei ex machina that derail narratives as they total cars. Sometimes the deer breaks through the windscreen. There’ll be blood, antlers that fill the car like candelabras, and the dying stag will have its eyes fixed on the character to whom this event has the deepest significance. Sometimes, in movies, the deer lies on the road in the aftermath of the DVC. If the deer is on the road, and the deer is not dead—and it is not very often dead in Hollywood—there’s the matter of how to deal with this. Often it will be making noises that dying deer don’t make. It will be an animatronic deer, for there are companies in Hollywood who will take a dead deer, skin it, flense it of fat, cure it, lay it over a form that contains a mechanism that, once covered with skin, will mimic the slow in and out of breath. DVCs on screen cast a fierce, traumatic light on the innermost hearts of the characters with the bad luck to experience them. And that is often what they do in reality, too.
All of us know at heart that driving is always challenging fate. We are just very good at pretending it isn’t. A deer in the road is part of the wager we all make and do our best to forget when we drive, as we make our way through life. DVC survivors often maintain that everything changed after the accident, that their life felt recast into something more precious and precarious than before. The deepest ramifications of the DVC are tied intimately to their sense of who they are; they speak of the collision as an event that does not admit the secular, the random, the rational. Often they will not speak of it at all. “The car was destroyed,” they’ll say, or, “The windscreen was smashed,” as if mentioning the other participant in the collision was taboo. And that one line, over and over again: “It came out of nowhere.” Fate comes up out of nowhere in the headlights glowing like a goddamned unicorn, and whatever meaning drivers choose to take from the collision falls upon them as inescapably as any medieval allegory. Look at yourself, says the DVC, cutting through all that is quotidian, cutting it all away. Look at yourself. Here you really are. The old dramatists called that moment of self-understanding anagnorisis.
Most DVCs occur between nightfall and midnight, and again in the small hours before dawn. That’s when deer are moving, but also when we are most prone to oneiric states of mind. Driving in dusk and darkness is a perfect dream of solipsism. Headlights unspool into rises and curves and bulks of fences and passing houses; you call these things into momentary existence, smear them with light and mass before they are gone. And because everything you see is ceaselessly pulled toward and under you, it’s easy to fall prey to the illusion that you are stationary and the world is flowing into you. The fractional somatic forces the terrain exerts, the ghostly burr of the road surface, the small forces of corners and hills are things you feel in your physical frame and the liquids of your ears. And this all means that if a deer appears in front of you, it can feel more than a surprise; it can seem as if some part of you called it into existence, as if it were fashioned by your subconscious mind.
Since returning from the deer forest, my own subconscious mind is full of DVCs. I have tightened my hands on the wheel in anxious anticipation of disaster as I drive through rural woods. At night I’ve dreamed of roads, of mist, of slicks of oil printed with hoofmarks, windscreens crazed by impacts, herds of running deer. I mention this strange new preoccupation to a friend in an email. “Are you OK?” they reply. “Is something bad happening in your life?” I write back and say, “I’m fine; I think I want to write about deer collisions, is all.” They have a suggestion: “Have you checked YouTube? You know there are actual supercuts?” Of course there are. I don’t want to watch them, just as I don’t want to watch videos of other traumatic events that are clickable currency on the internet, things far worse than the accidental coincidence of a deer with an offside fender. But I sit down, find one of the videos, and press play.
The video is made of dashcam footage from many different vehicles edited into a long montage of DVCs. The first thing it makes me think of is first-person-shooter video gameplay, with deer bursting into view so unexpectedly they seem ghostly artifacts on the screen—until they hit metal. It happens again. Another hit. Another cut. Now dusk, the lights of a gas station, the murmur of talk radio. A roe deer colliding with the car, turning over and over in the air before it lands deadweight on the grassy verge. The car slows and halts. A woman gets out. She wears a blue fringed top and a woolen shrug pulled over her shoulders. She walks to where the deer lies, looks down, looks back at the driver, raises both hands, palms up, in a gesture of helplessness. The driver gets out, shoulders set, ignores the deer, and leans down to examine the front of his car. Another vehicle, another overheard conversation, another collision, another dashcam dislodged from the dashboard to point upward at stricken faces. I pause the video, get up, pace about the kitchen. I sit back down, watch some more, stop again. It’s getting harder to continue. Sometimes the deer leaps high over the hood of the car and escapes all harm; most often it does not, and it will fall lengthways onto the bonnet and slide down, or smash the windscreen, or spin balletically away in parabolae of antlers and flesh and bone. I see the puff of fur as a fender makes contact, hear the click of hooves hitting steel. What most surprises me as I watch this repeated, terrible carnage is how high the deer are thrown in the air. Ten, twelve, twenty feet, tumbling end over end, limp and pathetic. Toward the end of the video I start reading the comments beneath it. I expect them to be grim and they are. “Cool ragdoll physics,” says one. Another suggests that deer have very low IQs. Another thinks deer are suicidal. “Am I the only one who thinks it’s funny when they B O U N C E off of the cars?” The answer is no. “Oh man,” writes another, “I haven’t laughed this hard at a compilation in a long time, great job seriously.”
I don’t laugh. I sit very still. It takes me a long while to work out how upset I am. My pet parrot understands what I’m feeling faster than I do; he jumps from his perch on the back of a chair, runs along the tabletop, and snuggles against my forearm, extending his soft feathery neck to nibble gently at the back of my hand.
I’ve witnessed a series of extremely violent deaths, and the bodies of deer are sufficiently large that they can’t help but remind us of our own. But I don’t think that’s the reason for my upset, not entirely. The tone of the comments is perturbing, but pretty much par for the course on the internet. Besides, inappropriate laughter is not an unusual response to emotional difficulty. No, my upset is more about how the commentators view the deer as obstacles to progress like the random antagonists in video games; things that have consequential presence but no meaningful existence in and of themselves. And that’s when I realize that most of my upset is directed at myself.
I’ve valued deer for their capacity to surprise and delight me, which is why I’ve resisted learning more about them. The more you know about something, the less it can surprise you. But it’s hard to feel sympathy with a thing whose reality you have chosen to ignore, which makes my attitude not so very different from those who would write approvingly of the physics of a dying deer, or how the best thing about a deer collision is how funny it can be. Deer–vehicle collisions have gripped me so tightly because they are my own attitude to deer writ large and covered in blood and tattered fur and broken glass: everything about them is made of deer being surprising, deer derailing our expectations of the world. I sit at the table and think of deer that die because they have no conception of the nature of roads. Deer that die because they are creatures with their own lives, their own haunts and paths and thoughts and needs. I don’t think I could ever laugh at the sight of a deer being hit by a car. But I have not been innocent. I close the YouTube window, go to a website that sells secondhand natural history books. I buy a book called Understanding Deer.
Helen Macdonald is a writer, poet, illustrator, and naturalist, and an affiliated research scholar at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge. She is the author of the best-selling H Is for Hawk, as well as a cultural history of falcons, titled Falcon, and three collections of poetry, including Shaler’s Fish. Macdonald was a Research Fellow at Jesus College, Cambridge, has worked as a professional falconer, and has assisted with the management of raptor research and conservation projects across Eurasia. She now writes for The New York Times Magazine.
Vesper Flights © Helen Macdonald, 2020. First published by Grove Press.