words by Willow Defebaugh
Deer have an artful elegance with which they attempt to avoid their attackers. What lessons can they impart on us about grace?
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
I spend a lot of time reflecting on the concept of grace. What is it? Is it human or divine? A way to live? Something we find or that we give? Its meaning is at the least elusive, myriad at most. According to Merriam-Webster, it is all of the following: divine intervention, kindness and mercy, a reprieve, ease of movement or presence, consideration or thoughtfulness, a title of respect, and a right. At various points this week, I found myself seeking each of these aspects of grace. And so I turned my attention to a creature that has always embodied this word to me: deer.
I have passed many midwestern summers watching herds of deer meander past my family’s home. Few encounters feel quite as magical as happening across them in a forest: their serene movements, whether peacefully grazing or galloping through the trees. Made up of 43 species of hoofed mammals that fall under the family Cervidae, deer are native to every continent except Australia and Antarctica. From the beloved white-tailed deer of North America to the majestic caribou of the Arctic tundra, these animals have found means to flourish across the Earth.
Deer are incredibly selective feeders, seeking food that is low in fiber but high in protein—young grasses, herbs, leaves, lichens, aquatic plants, woody shoots, and fruits—which they are able to digest in their four chambered stomachs. The reason they are so specific about what they choose to nourish themselves with is that another of their defining attributes requires a diet rich in minerals and protein: their antlers. All manner of deer save one grow antlers; in most, males alone have them, though in some species—like reindeer—females grow them too.
The reason that antlers require so much energy is that they are shed and grown anew each year after the mating season. The growing bone horn is covered in “velvet,” a thin layer of highly sensitive, blood-rich skin that is warm to the touch. Remarkably, antlers are the fastest growing living tissue in the world, taking 150 days to develop at most. After they are done, the velvet dies and the deer rub their antlers against trees to forcibly remove it. This ability to rapidly regenerate serves them well, their new antlers are used to attract mates and brandished for battle.
When we think of deer, it is hard not to think of hunting; they are considered cherished “game” in many parts of the world. And yet, they have a number of tools for evading harm. With eyes on the sides of their heads, they have 310 degree vision for spotting danger, and are able to see well in the dark—handy, since they are most active at dawn and dusk. In addition to their light brown fur helping them to blend in, most fawns are born with white spots that aid in their ability to camouflage. They also carry no scent, making them nearly invisible to predators. And not only are they fast runners and strong swimmers, they are able to leap to heights of ten feet.
I envy deer, the artful elegance with which they attempt to avoid their attackers. By now, you are likely aware of the onslaught of legislation targeting queer and trans people sweeping the U.S. What is the right way to process or respond to a viral video of a politician being met with applause after calling for the “eradication” of your identity? How do we protect our peace— exercise keen vision and discernment about what we feed ourselves—and fight for our rights at the same time? How do we navigate hostility with grace?
I don’t know that I will ever be able to handle life’s obstacles with perfect poise, an untouchable equilibrium. For now, I am embracing grace as an invitation to meet every moment with integrity, honesty, and heart: grace as a way not of being, but moving through the world. As Annie Dillard put it, how we spend our days is how we spend our lives. And so I don’t need to wish ill on anyone who chooses to spend theirs hunting others; it is comfort enough that their life will be spent in hatred while mine will be spent in love.