Monday, August 6, 2007

Seeing A Wounded Deer While Kayaking

This past weekend I had a kayaking lesson with my son and sister-in-law on the Little Tennessee River in western North Carolina. A kayak is such a snug fit, floats so low in the water and is so maneuverable that the relationship that I experienced with the river became dramatically more intimate than I had previously known. We began the long process of learning how to "read" the river, and to negotiate the wavering line between current and eddies in order to navigate the various and ever-changing textures of water.

Earlier in the day we explored basic kayaking rudiments at a peaceful lake. Along all sides of us scores of other beginners were being similarly taught by various instructors. After a quick lunch we went to a portion of the river that none of the other groups used, and for a couple of hours it felt like we had an entire river all to ourselves. Nobody disturbed our tranquility or observed our novice attempts to stay afloat and learn how to get from point A to point B without "counting fish" or "taking a geology lesson", both aphorisms for flipping upside-down.

About half an hour downstream we saw a remarkable sight: a young deer standing in the water near the shore. The fawn didn't bolt away from us as common sense seemed to dictate, and after only a few seconds it became readily apparent that the poor thing was suffering from a significant wound or injury. It was limping badly and as we focused our attention it became easy to see a fairly large gash at the top of its right front leg just below the shoulder. Hanging muscle was evident. I couldn't tell if it had been caused by a gunshot, arrow, or accident.

The deer hobbled out of the river and limped tentatively along the shore. It was obviously unable to run. It gained a little ground and came to a small clearing where it briefly lay down before getting up to try to move a little further away from us. There was a road to its left and us to its right, neither of which represented safety.

Since we were inexorably continuing downstream, the pitiable drama began to slowly fade from our view. I found myself observing my almost-adolescent son, who was obviously moved by the sight of this trembling animal. He knows that horrors and injustices occur around the world every day, of course. He also surely has observed that I don't do much to redress that sad fact. Sure, we'll go to a peace march or read a periodic letter from our Christian Relief Fund sponsor child, but my essential messages are probably variations of "be a good guy, don't cause harm," and he's taken that to heart. He's proud to be Quaker, to be vegetarian, to not bully others. But the truth is he doesn't see his father actually do much to address suffering and cruelty in its many forms. Pain and despair permeates the world, and for the most part I float downstream.

So maybe that's why the image of the wounded deer has stayed with me for several days. I was keenly aware of how helpless I was to do anything for or about it, and the encounter reminded me of how I have grown accustomed to that feeling. In my imagination we beach our kayaks, gather up the fawn in our loving arms, gently place it in our kayak instructor's rickety jeep, comfort it with kind lamentations while we race to a wise old country vet who applies stitch and poultice to the wound and who teaches us how to administer milk and root tonics from a nippled bottle, and our unctions restore it to such health that we are able to release it back into the woods so that the balance of nature is restored as it bounds away, and a year later as we again traverse the river we will catch a brief inspirational glimpse of its majestic outline on a faraway crag.

Instead, this deer was going to die, painfully and slowly, from blood loss or infection or predator, and nothing anybody could do would prevent that. So now my fantasy changes and I rise up and shoot it cleanly to end its suffering as quickly as possible, then I quarter and dress its carcass, eat its flesh, make a warm covering from its fur and laces from its sinews. I bravely and even placidly demonstrate sufficient strength of character and resolve to transform suffering into a result that is noble and useful and spiritually upright.

Instead, I returned my focus on trying to keep my little vessel upright in the calm waters of a shallow river.

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