Or horns? Which is it?
The bovids — the cows, the buffalo, and kin, have permanent horns.
The cervids — deer and the like, have antlers, which are shed each year.
About fifteen or twenty years ago I was walking a section of the upper Tiasquam River.
Anywhere else on the planet the Tiasquam would be called a creek or a stream or a brook or something else diminutive, but not here. Well, as I came around a little bend I looked down, and there, almost glowing, bright white against black muck, was a deer antler. I was really happy with that find. In all my decades of wandering in the woods and along this particular stream, I’d never had such a find before.
That was a good day.
Another time, while in the middle of a large woods nearby, I encountered a shrine assembly — I don’t know what else you’d call it. In a neatly swept circle, there was a small concrete dog statue surrounded by a large circle of antlers. Or was it deer skulls? I can’t for sure remember. I’ve a photo somewhere, but can’t find it. (It was so long ago it might even be a film photograph.) That was a special moment. I left the shrine alone, though I did return to it a few years later, to find the circle still neatly swept and tended. Maybe I’ll go look for it again sometime. Maybe I won’t.
Maybe the memory is all I need.
My friend Albert, who knows deer better than I ever will, recently mentioned finding a pair of shed antlers. He said it was in a place where the deer had probably bedded down for the night, and it looked to him as if in the morning, the animal had simply engaged its antlers with a strong nearby bush and dislodged the antlers with quick motion of his head. What a story. That story has stayed in the back of my head since I first heard it a month or two ago. Maybe I’d find antlers some day.
One of my current enthusiasms is to explore the streams of my home, Martha’s Vineyard. My focus of late is the Mill Brook and its valley, which I know far less well than the Tiasquam. A great deal of the area I go to is swampy. Deer love the swamps. People seldom intrude. Who nowadays wants to crawl through bushes and briars and fallen branches? Who wants to get tangled in or impaled by thorns? Who wants to even get their feet wet? Not many.
In the last month I’ve encountered four deer skeletons.
I don’t know how they all died. Some die of starvation or of old age. We had a really hard winter a couple of years ago. Others get wounded in the hunt, and escape, only to die later. If I would look carefully enough, maybe I could sleuth out the cause of death. For now, I can only admire the bones. They can be beautiful.
Each time I found a skeleton, I’d think “antlers?” “Might there be antlers here?” Each time the answer was “No.” There was a very fine skull, which after some thought, I decided to take and present to my drawing teacher. The choice to take the skull was correct, for Julie had no deer skull. She had turtle skulls, raccoon skulls, even monkey skulls, but no deer skull. Now she does, and her students will be able to draw and learn from that skull.
An hour or so into the most recent swamp walk, I had come to the edge of the low ground.
An old cranberry bog ditch marked the border between the swamp and dryer earth beyond.
And I suddenly saw white.
My breath drew in, and I thought “Yes?”…
And I went closer, and saw that it was “Yes”.
It was antler.
It was antlers!
There they were.
Waiting, in the winter woods.
There they were, arrayed on the moss.
Skunk cabbage spathes had emerged close by one of the antlers.
And in between the two antlers was a nice big deer turd.
Could anything be more perfect?