Saturday, January 30, 2010

Fragility and Futility

Yesterday while meandering through the winding country roads (blanketed in a treacherous layer of slick snow, as I had found out earlier that morning in an enlightening incident involving a tight curve, a barbed wire fence, and a punctured tire), I passed another vehicle which was stopped blocking the lane. The motorist was not experiencing mechanical difficulty, however; he had his digital camera out and was delightedly snapping pictures of something. I looked to the field ahead and saw the object of his focus: six light-footed agile deer bounding through the sparsely wooded creek bed, then out into open grass, sailing effortlessly over the barbed cattle fence, loping across the road ahead, clearing the fence on the other side, flying off, gone like snowy specters. The fluidity of their movement and apparent nonchalance was enviable—a real visual treat.

But several nights ago this picturesque scene turned a little more sinister. My father had been walking the dogs shortly after dark when I received a panicky call from him: “There’s a deer caught in the neighbor’s fence and the dogs are attacking it and biting it and would you please come help me get it out now.” So I assembled a flashlight and beach towel and wire cutters and after securing the dogs we both drove down to the deer’s location. It was a small, young buck—the buds of tiny antlers were just starting to appear on its head. When he saw us approaching, he started bellowing and bouncing, but I quickly covered his eyes with the towel and he stopped all movement. He was caught from the left hind leg—apparently he had cleared the top of the fence with trademark cervid grace, but had kicked back after the vertex of the leap in a freak accident that caught his hoof between the top two wires of the Red Brand fence. And the hoof was neatly caught, squeezed tightly at the very base with bright red blood pooling around the wire. The deer hung vertically down, front legs swinging, head pointing at the ground. As he was rather small, I was able to support the majority of his weight, and I lifted his body up to ease the strain on the injured leg. He struggled slightly; not knowing what else to do, I rhythmically stroked his sides and spoke calmly. The legs were slender as twigs, the cloven obsidian hooves were sharply pointed. The fur, I noticed, was not a uniform tan at all but rather a gradient of gray and brown and black going down each hair shaft—the color that in mice is called agouti. I ran by gloved hands through it, caressed the heaving sides, felt the ridges of the ribs, the tight muscling—and the echoed pulsing of the beating heart.

I insisted, at this point, that my dad call the neighbor to inform him of the situation. After assessing the severity of the deer’s plight, I wanted someone on hand with a gun lest the leg be badly broken and the animal attempt to hobble off into the night mortally crippled. He acquiesced reluctantly, and soon the neighbor arrived. I supported the deer’s weight while the two men worked at the wire and freed the foot. It only took a minute, and then we were lowering the animal down to the ground. I half expected him to jump up and charge me in an irrational wild terror, but he stayed lying prostrate. My heart sank a little. The neighbor gave him a gentle boot. He attempted an awkward crawl, all four legs splayed spider-like until he slid haphazardly into a shallow freezing rivulet in the ditch. The men pulled him back out and checked his legs for any obvious signs of injury. There were no apparent broken bones, and the wire cut on the injured hind, while deep, was by no means life-threatening. The back didn’t seem to be broken, either, as the deer could move his hind feet somewhat, although dragging seemed the preferred means of locomotion. And now he drug himself off a few more yards and stopped to look at us, only the head upright and alert, trademark soft liquid black eyes staring, ears pricked, nervously licking his lips.

We debated the best course of action and decided that, since the deer had probably been hanging there in a most awkward and unnatural position for quite some time, and was undoubtedly in shock, that perhaps a wait-and-see approach was the best course of action. Half an hour, the neighbor said, and he’d come back. If the deer was still incapacitated, he’d put it out of its misery.

That evening, I hoped the coyotes wouldn’t come and I listened for the gunshot. I pretended that it’d be all right; but I found out the next day that it wasn’t—the deer had been shot after all. Better than the alternative, still, and at least we gave the little buck a chance.

It was a sad event, but I wasn’t affected nearly as much as I thought I’d be. Just a humdrum “oh well, that’s a pity” when I heard the news before I turned back to devouring my sandwich. Emotional detachment, surprisingly, wasn’t all that hard, even as I held the wild animal in my hands and felt his frightened heartbeat through my glove and knew he would probably die.

And that emotional detachment will certainly serve me well in my chosen future profession. I read a touching essay on this very subject last week, and the other day a favorite professor accosted me in the hallway for a chat. In our conversation, she brought up how she had originally been a nursing student, but she had gladly given up on it when she discovered how easily affected she was by the misfortune of others. She’s not the kind of person, she said, who can shrug that kind of thing off lightly. She doesn’t know how doctors can deal with it, then come home and eat dinner with their families and talk and laugh about trivial matters. No, for her, plants are much safer and far less personal—and so now she teaches botany and is writing the first-ever field guide to Romanian plants.

Something odd: Thursday night, while taking a shower, I suddenly had a rather vivid flashback to the day when we noticed, out of the blue and icy-cold day, that Shorty was sick and thus started on our tragic six month journey with the cancer-stricken horse. It’s not that I don’t think about him often, because I do—that little charcoal-colored pony meant a hell of a lot to me. But it was strange how a perfect image of that fateful day suddenly tumbled across my consciousness. Curious, I turned to my blog archives to look it up. And sure enough—thanks to coincidence or subconscious memory or divine interference—it was exactly one year from the discovery. But I still have to say that, one month in, 2010 is looking a whole lot better than 2009.


secret agent woman said...

It's funny to me how people can have necessary detachment for one field and not another. I originally wanted to be a child psychologist, but quickly discovered that I could not bear to send them back into their terrible situations at home. With my adult patients I can feel a great deal of empathy without letting it get in the way of my work or follow me home.

Mozart said...

What's odder--that we can turn it on and off, or that we ever have compassion/ emotional attachment/ empathy at all?