It was too dark to see. All we could hear was the sound of thundering hooves and a long endless scream passing from one end of the meadow behind our home to the other, then crashing down a ravine. There the sound suddenly stopped, as if a knife had sliced its throat.
Something running for its life had ended abruptly.
There various hunters confirmed that deer do indeed scream—not always, not often, but when they do, the sound is so terrifyingly awful it has haunted them ever since. One property owner who had always welcomed hunters would not allow them on his land after hearing that scream.
So much of what I write here is about nature’s beauty, how it inspires, uplifts, and nourishes us. But there’s another inescapable side to nature, darker and more brutal–nature “red of tooth and claw,” as Tennyson wrote.
I’ve seen that kind too in my own backyard–in the screaming deer running for its life, the mountain lion crouched in the tall grass devouring something unidentifiable, the rattlesnake that rose hissing and bared its fangs when I was weeding, the two coyotes taking turns digging at the gopher hole then swallowing it whole in two gulps.
Then there was the rattlesnake we slaughtered when it made its home in our backyard where our little dog plays. The whole thing was a bloody nightmare, my husband going after it with a long pruning spear. The snake lunging and hissing and retreating. Finally catching it up, cutting it in two, the headless body writhing, whipping its tail.
There’s also the traps we set to keep the rats out of our garage, the gophers out of our garden. We kill to preserve life–the life of our dog, our flowers, our lawn–to protect our home. I can’t ever imagine killing a deer or rabbit or quail for food. Yet our freezer is full of meat others bred and killed.
When we were sailing we joyously lived off the bounty of the sea, hunting, capturing, killing, and eating tuna and swordfish, scallops and lobsters.
How many silent screams went unheard in those halcyon days filled with great beauty and joy and thanksgiving.
As a boy my husband spent his days happily roaming through the hills of old Orcutt with his dog Scratch and his shotgun hunting rabbits and quail.
Never had he known such beauty as he did then tramping through those wild tropical jungles and lush valleys, he once told me.
He trudged through streams with his 30-lb backpack and machine gun strapped to his back, spellbound by the tropical flowers draping the banks, the brilliant birds darting overhead.
It was surreal—such beauty and brutality all rolled into one. Like the fields behind our home where beautiful creatures die every day to feed other beautiful creatures.
Perhaps just to bear witness to the beauty and brutality rolled into one all around us everywhere. We can’t separate it out. We have to swallow it whole. There’s no other way.
For a long time after my husband returned from Vietnam he carried in his wallet a faded photo, a heap of dead bodies. When he showed his uncle, he shied away from him, horrified that he would take and keep such a thing.
But he had to he told me. He couldn’t turn away.
He had to bear witness to the brutality of war. Taking that photo was his refusal to turn away. To swallow it whole.
[NOTE: Part Two of this post can be found here: A Deer's Scream, My Mother's Eyes, and a Ripe Strawberry.]