When I lived in the North Country of New Hampshire, every winter I would go out into the woods in hopes of finding deer antlers. The accumulation of snow is always lighter among the trees and the January weather usually provides a warmer spell with plenty of sunshine, so I would head out into the woods behind the house and hike up to the knoll where the deer and moose would yard up in the winter. The pine woods were thick, and previous winter’s downed trees made the passage difficult, but if I followed along the edge of the fields and then along the overgrown stone walls I could work my way through the pines to the higher ground where the maple and beech trees thrived. I followed the footprints in the snow that the deer left, leading me along the easiest path to navigate.
From year to year I noticed that the deer followed the same pathways, not just through the woods where it was matter of navigating through the trees, but in the open fields as well, where there was nothing to constrict their movement. I followed their pathways and their crescent moon shaped imprints formed into a runic message that said “This way is safe,” and “I have traveled here before you, all is well.” Their hoof prints pressed into the snow spoke a language of reassurance read by the deepest part of the brain, where the instinct for survival constantly burns with the need for its message: “I was here, my mother walked here before me, you are wise to follow our path.”
I made these solitary trips into the woods with the thought of finding antlers, shed every winter, but I never actually found any. Some creature, a porcupine perhaps, or a family of mice, discovered them before me and gnawed them away, finding enough nutrients in them to survive the winter: the deer’s excess their salvation. It was better then that I never found them. What I did find was the nourishment of the crisp clean winter air, the sunshine on my face and the resulting restful sleep at night that came from my winter outings.
I also learned the language of those paths and benefited from their comfort. Following them through the woods was instructive, a physical pattern of what well-formed instinct can manifest. I was spending too much time and mental energy in my life building false pathways – confusing intuitive instinct with the fear-driven wanderings of the anxious mind. The former leads one clearly along the way, among friends. The latter is a pathway easily predicted by predators, and if you follow it long enough you may miss the footprints shape-shifting into those of coyotes, leading you to their dens.
I live in the city now, but every year at this time the shift in the weather and the angle of the sunlight reminds me of those trips into the forest. The symbolism I found following the path of the deer has been a faithful talisman, and I remind myself of its lesson often, when I feel myself being led off the trail. I see it before me in my mind, a clear path leading steadily through the thick forest up to the top of the knoll, to an opening in the trees – south-facing and embracing the thin winter sunshine. The spaces between the beech trees are dotted with the bowl-shaped imprints in the snow left by sleeping deer. It is a place where we find the peace of mind to rest, and to sleep soundly through the gradually shortening winter nights.
About the illustration: Hand painted on Strathmore 500 Mixed Media paper with watercolors and gouache, 5 1/2″ wide by 3 3/4″ high.