An old, dusty-eyed buck crosses a footbridge in the city under the roar of traffic. Wandering patriarch, he has six points to his antlers, his gait slow, almost decorous. His coat shows a bit of mange, one season left in him, maybe two. He is looking for something, an exit perhaps, a place for a great grandfather to spend his final season. Halfway across the footbridge beneath a DC overpass, he ponders the other side - parking lots, sidewalks, onramps. Then, he turns and walks back the way he had come.
I stand on the other side watching him return to his hallway of fences and placid, sewage-fed streams. Great trees stand over him, their leaves twirling down. Old white-tail, he would know every turn of the creeks around here. I don't know this city, or its secret places, but suddenly I am aware that they are here. I didn't even know there were deer in this congested city. There are times I think I've seen enough deer in my life; tracked them, stalked them, eaten them, and dragged their night-dead carcasses off the road. I've smiled knowingly at tourists who perk their heads and stare at deer in the woods. Now I am that tourist. Slowly, keeping my distance, I follow the buck.
I have been in DC for two weeks and it feels like I've been moving on a two-dimensional plane: sidewalks, escalator steps, subway platforms. I have been stepping on manhole covers and cracks in the pavement desperately searching for topography. This morning I vowed to leave the city center and find drainages, creeks, groves, boulders, anything not built for the human gait. I looked on the map for blank places, streetless corridors, and took the Metro. Now I am being shown along short, burbling waterfalls where tree roots are exposed and gnarled.
Staying back, I lose the buck in his court of branches and falling leaves. Ten minutes later I find him again, but we are separated by a tall chain link fence meant to keep him out of traffic. He watches me from autumn foliage the color cardboard. Gray around his eyes, he looks tired but fully willing to make it to the next day. I hug the chain link. Climbing over would seem desperate, inappropriate. The buck does not want to be followed. He flashes his white tail and I let him go.
All I needed to know is that there is a space between things. The buck showed me the opening. I dash off, following the tributaries of Rock Creek, and spend my day clambering among mushrooms and rotten logs, my body conforming to boulders while the city stands silent and invisible all around. I see hardly another person. Trails vanish into fallen leaves, my feet deciding which way to go. I peel out of this shell of streets and sidewalks, becoming another animal. Who do I thank for this? The buck who had little interest in me? Friends of Rock Creek's Environment for their care and manual preservation of this place?
Ultimately, I believe that this is why we invent gods. We need someone to thank.
So, Old White-tail, thank you.