Deer don’t usually impress me. When I see a doe lingering just off trail, I stare into the brush, willing a hungry mountain lion to teach a predator-prey lesson. Maybe it’s cynicism born from incomplete ecosystems or the fact that deer seem to frequent suburban cul-de-sacs as regularly as UPS trucks. But perhaps, like many instances of indifference, it is simply a lack of understanding. So it came as a surprise that the deer – this banal, over-populated, docile mammal – became my teacher.
In her poem, Spring, Mary Oliver states: “There is only one question: how to love this world.” In the wake of a break-up, I found myself struggling to figure out how I wanted to love and be loved. In the poem, Oliver describes the awakening of a bear “coming/down the mountain,/breathing and tasting”. The bear and her world provide exactly what the other needs because they are deeply, inextricably, connected. This is the kind of loving collaboration I realized I was seeking – first with myself, then the natural world, and, maybe someday, with a sweetheart.
I have always looked towards a rise in topography when searching for inspiration. Panoramic vistas, dramatic terrain and physical exertion are tools for appraising my place in the world. Now I needed something deeper – I needed to be rooted in the world outside of myself. Rather than finding my place in the world, I wanted to merge into it, to become part of things in a way that cannot be compartmentalized.
I wanted to create something with my own hands, explore a process rather than a result, learn a skill that would lend itself to an independence that surpasses the fact that I have my own bank account. But most importantly, I wanted to develop a relationship with the natural world more akin to a partnership. I signed up for a brain-tanning class.
Eating the flesh of an animal, let alone wearing their skin, is unbearable to some, but to me it feels like the beginning of an answer. What better way to love the world than to put it into our own bodies? Unlike the interdependence of the lynx and the snowshoe hare, or the black footed ferret and the prairie dog, we have ceded from the collective. By most accounts, we are quickly losing touch with the world and with each other.
For all the passion I have for high mountains, the familiarity of plants I know by name, or the affinity for the sound of cascading water, there is an intimacy with the natural world that I had not known until I took a deer hide into my hands.
On a warm April Monday, I fleshed a deer hide, remnant fat and muscle dropping to my feet. By Saturday, I was sewing two hides together with buckskin thongs into a self-designed tunic. Though it was my own hands that scraped the hair and epidermis off, softened the brain-soaked hide and sewed holes with sinew, the metamorphosis was astounding.
So when I spotted two deer in the aspen forest the evening after my brain-tanning course ended, I froze, entranced by my new found insight into the body of this animal. Watching the doe and the yearling nibble grasses, I recalled the silkiness of the deer brains and bear fat solution on my hands, the difficulty of softening the rump and neck, the delicate resiliency of the belly.
My fascination wasn’t predatory, it didn’t feel morbid or unemotional. I had a new admiration for deer, a recognition that this process felt familiar, and simple gratitude for the fact that I would wear two hides on my own body, barbed wire fence scars down my spine, clothed by fresh shoots and creek water. It is a closeness that feels like being held by a lover. Wearing buckskin was the culmination of a cycle of yearning, creation and fulfillment, in both the deer’s life, and my own.
In all relationships, each partner gives and receives love differently. It is our job as sisters, lovers, or parents to make sure the message is understood. This is also true in the way we interact with our world. Just as every so often, we pause in our lives to “have a talk” with our beloved, we need to take time to evaluate our interactions with the world. Many of us are still in the early stages of relationship: recycling, biking to work, hiking on weekends. These are ways to become familiar with what we find engaging – like the first few dates with a new romantic interest. But to progress, we must learn to love in a way that goes beyond enjoying each other and touches the kind of interconnection between the bear and her world. Learning to tan a deer hide felt like my first serious engagement with an animal, and I anticipate going to great lengths to keep this love alive.
Based anywhere her van will take her, Abigail Sussman tends towards high latitudes and remote locations. Her interest in integrating the natural world more fully into her daily life has so far resulted in a buckskin tunic, a spoon carved from alder and a beautiful snowshoe hare pelt. Read more stories on her blog, Sparrow & Twig, found at abigailsussman.com.