What could I do when the full-size, five-point buck — recently hanging out and snacking on ivy and my bird feeder at the top of the narrow Park Hill property where I live — came thundering at top speed down the steep slope toward his only exit (also the only entrance), right where I was standing?
Deer always need to know how to escape the sudden arrival of humans, and when they sense they are boxed in, they panic. This big guy knew he couldn’t jump the 25-foot, ivy-covered wooden walls surrounding the back and side of the house. So he was on an urgent mission to flee, and I was the bull’s-eye on his route.
The day was deep into dusk — darkness was minutes away. I had startled him — bags of groceries in both hands — as I began the trek up the near-vertical railroad-tie steps to my apartment, and now he was hurtling at warp speed from 30 yards away toward his only way out.
The devastating drought that has a chokehold on the citizens of Cambria when it comes to supplies of fresh water is also taking a toll on wildlife. While the birds and squirrels seem to have plenty of food and water, the blacktail/mule deer living in and around this community are struggling with insufficient nourishment.
When precipitation is plentiful, the deer fatten up, grazing on the abundant grasses that the soft supple hills and coastal stretches provide. But in the throes of this water emergency, many deer are lethargic, and I see desperation in those big brown and sad eyes.
A common sight around Cambria is a group of two or three scrawny young does, standing near homes, eating plants they normally ignore. Some are emaciated and appear nearly ready to collapse. Normally skittish when cars approach, Cambria’s young deer are so drained of energy they don’t even glance up to see what’s passing by.
When I was a kid growing up in Wisconsin, the annual autumn deer hunt was as big a part of the culture as cheese, fishing and the Green Bay Packers. White-tailed deer were part of the landscape, but normally — unless they bounded across the road in front of cars — you had to go into the forest or out into the marshes to see them. (For the majority of hunters, it wasn’t just sport; it was a matter of stashing venison into family freezers.)
Here in Cambria, deer come into our yards and our gardens. They even climb up back porches to feed on flowers and potted plants. With few predators, the deer population has grown exponentially, and without a plentiful supply of food, they suffer in quiet desperation.
It is a pathetic sight, and yet few residents are shedding tears over emaciated deer when we’re learning that our town may run completely out of water. Moreover, many Monterey pines — those rare, unique trees Cambria is known for — are turning brittle brown from a dearth of rainfall. To wit, there is, of course, greater concern for our iconic forest than for the unfortunate deer.
My first close encounter with a buck happened during my freshman year in high school in Milton, Wis. My minister father was a bow hunter and took his two sons into the deep north woods during deer season. He put me on a secluded “stand” near a deer trail; after an hour of quiet patience, an eight-point buck passed within 15 yards of me.
I was instantly mesmerized by the beauty and splendor of the huge rack on that impressive animal. I forgot why I was there. They call it “buck fever” — but in that moment I realized killing these lovely creatures would never be on my agenda. Being killed by one of them was the furthest thing from my mind, as well.
But back to that early evening in the first week of September on the east side of Park Hill. A rush of dread ran through my body as the buck hurtled down the slope toward me. I managed to clumsily step to my left, attempting to get out of the path of the onrushing spooked buck.
Suddenly, he veered slightly to the left of an ancient oak tree (away from me) through a narrow opening between the tree and a fence, and in a stunning, artistically magnificent move, he launched his tawny torso into the air.
It was a thing of beauty — I was in total awe — as he propelled himself over a stack of old plastic chairs (lying on their side), on a breathtaking flight path. His momentum carried him more than 10 feet from the chairs over a
5-foot-high wooden fence he cleared with plenty to spare.
He landed gracefully on the west shoulder of Plymouth Street, stopped, and looked back at me. I’m the human he had been aware of (and apparently comfortable with) because on several of his ivy-munching visits to the top of the property he made eye contact with me through the window as I worked in my small corner office.
I would give 50 bucks to have a video of that splendid soaring leap as darkness was at hand. But I’d give more than that to have some serious rainfall arrive — for the citizens, the trees and the deer.
Freelance journalist and Cambria resident John FitzRandolph’s monthly column is special to The Cambrian. Email him at john firstname.lastname@example.org.