Wednesday, January 20, 2010

In the Beginning: April Deer

This is a story I've told at least three or four times. I never get tired of it, but every time I recount this tale, I feel a little sadder in the end.

The night before April 5, 2009, I had a very bizarre dream. I won't describe the entire sequence, as it was quite long, but the dream involved finding the skeleton and hide of a deer, in a very dead-looking forest. It wasn't a good dream. And though that nightmare-forest was as still and as quiet as can be, simultaneously, there was a single track of music playing through my head: The Barn Tapes, from Andrew Bird's (at the time) recently-released album, Useless Creatures.

I took this dream as a sort of sign, something my secular self rarely does. After I'd woken up and thought more about it, I went for a walk through what would later be my home base of operations for much of this project -- Presque Isle Park, in Marquette. The bog there has a trail and boardwalk; in the summer, it's very green and lush, but it being early April, the long grass from the previous year was still very dead and trampled.

An important thing to note is that white-tailed deer thrive at Presque Isle Park. The park, which is within city limits, has an area of 323 acres. A census taken in 2001 counted 100 deer, a number which the island could not support, and it resulted in a cull. Today, the size of the herd stands at around 50. The deer thrive so easily on the island because, with the exception of a coyote or two, there are few predators. The winters in Marquette are notoriously bitter, especially around February, and the subzero windchill and lack of food lead to the deaths of many animals -- except, it seems, for the deer on the island. People roll down their car windows and toss carrots and potatoes for the deer to eat, ignoring the signs that plainly state that feeding the deer is illegal.

In the end, because of over-population on such a small piece of land, the deer die anyway, and in great numbers, as I have found, in just the last year. Though there are still far too many deer inhabiting the island, their numbers seem to be hovering at the same level -- still, at the expense of the rest of the wildlife living there.

Returning to the afternoon of April 5, 2009, I was walking through the bog, off the trail -- because nothing interesting ever ends up on the trail -- when I found April Deer. First, I found her hide, somehow ripped whole from her body. Several feet away was her skeleton. Everything, save for the legs, was picked clean by whatever creatures had found her first.

Growing up as a child of Science, I've always been fascinated by bones and skeletons. Starting from when I was very young, I'd accumulated a large skull collection, treasures I'd found on the beach or in the forest. I've also always admired deer. It'd been a long time since I'd found the full skeleton of much of anything, and I realized I had to take that skull with me. I inexplicably did not have my camera around my neck, but I did have a knife, and I soon left the scene with April Deer's skull in my car, which would quickly be placed in the freezer and left there for the next month. I returned with a camera, ready at last to photograph what I saw.

Other photographs of April Deer can be viewed here.

Now, all of this really got my mind going, mostly because of the link between the dream I had had and the discovery I had just made, but I was astonished by how interesting and, yes, beautiful some of the pictures I had taken were. I was far more excited about the bones than the photography, though, but I decided that I would watch, and photograph, over the next few months as nature attended to the skeleton of April Deer.

Sadly, I never got the chance to see this fascinating process. A few weeks later, I was informed that the local rotary club, which cleans the bog walk on a regular basis, had dragged the skeleton of April Deer out of the bog and left it on top of a nearby dumpster, as trash. Stephanie, my girlfriend, pulled the skeleton off the dumpster and hid it underneath a pine tree, with the hope it wouldn't be re-discovered by any alleged "nature lovers."

A week or so passed, and April Deer's skeleton vanished, this time for good. I'm convinced it was thrown back into the dumpster. Somewhere, her skeleton is in a landfill, unnatural as can be, crushed beneath many tons of trash bags. There was only one part of her left, and that, as it turns out, was her skull I'd so hastily removed, the skull which now sat, wrapped in a plastic bag, in my freezer. It still had a lot of decomposition to go; the brain was still there, as was the lower lip, and as much as I was itching to put it outside for the insects to eat, apartment life doesn't allow for such luxuries. When Stephanie and I drove south to Ann Arbor in May to visit my parents, we took the skull with us.

Upon our arrival, one of the first things we did was put the skull in a live trap, a caged one with openings large enough for insects, but small enough so that gnawing rodents couldn't reach the bone. Almost immediately, flies and burying beetles and ants flocked to the skull of April Deer, and I thought to myself, This is what it would be like had she not been thought of as useless, unsightly trash.

When my parents visited Marquette in November for Thanksgiving, they brought with them the skull of April Deer. It was very clean, and mostly white, with little spots of green where moss and algae had started to grow. And it occurred to me that this skull, though removed prematurely and probably disrespectfully, then stowed in a freezer for a month, had been allowed to go through the natural process of decomposition that the rest of April Deer was denied.

By late November, I'd already flung myself into the Useless Creatures series, but it was April Deer who had inspired me to do it.

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