LARRY McGEHEE: A Timely Look By the Dawn's Early Light
A few weeks ago, as I was leaving home to drive to my office early one misty morning, a two-point buck emerged from the patch of woods connecting our backyard to that of our neighbors.
We have been accustomed during our 23 years in this house to visits from several squirrels, chipmunks, possums, and occasional raccoons, but the sighting of a deer was totally unanticipated. We live within the city limits, where neither deer nor antelope are thought to play.
The sight of that deer, framed in the dawn's early light, was somehow something spiritual. It brought to mind a passage from William Faulkner's short story, "The Old People" in "Go Down Moses."
The young Isaac McCaslin, probably about 12 years old, is taken deer hunting by his mentor, old Sam Fathers. He sees a stately buck move majestically past him, like a phantom.
Faulkner wrote: "Then, as if it had waited for them to find their positions and become still, the wilderness breathed again. It seemed to lean inward above them, above himself and Sam and Walter and Boon in their separate lurking-places, tremendous, attentive, impartial and omniscient, the buck moving in it somewhere perhaps conscious also of the eye of the ancient immortal Umpire."
Actually, this buck is only an apparition, seen only by Ike alone among all the hunters. What Ike has learned from killing his first deer and then from seeing this vision was twofold: That the slain stag's blood soaking the wilderness soil symbolized the death and suffering that are inherent in living, but that death and suffering can be accepted as harmonious with living in ways that we can be released from fearing them.
What message was this unbidden presence bringing me that morning?
My own backyard buck had appeared like a morning apparition. It seemed to glide or float across the yard and up the hillside. The deer seemed somehow to be at-one with the trees around it and the ground beneath it, and made me feel detached, like an alien from another planet beholding the true natives of this world. I knew in that instant why the Lord God made men stewards of his creation and not owners of it.
The buck came at November's end, and a few days later I dragged our artificial Christmas tree from basement to living room and dusted off the two white-wire-and-lights deer that bedeck our front yard each December. But what a contrast there was between the real trees and real deer I had just seen and the manmade and sterile replicas that we set up afterward.
How much works of men pale beside the natural order of God's creation! Imitate as much as we can, and create as well as we can, nothing manmade compares with the intricate artistry of the real world of Creation.
But another message was that which Ike McCaslin found -- that each of us sometime early in life loses our innocence, but that if we are reverent enough and work hard at learning to read the signs around us, we can be prepared to make our ways beyond inevitable suffering and death to the place where we do not fear them.
So the deer near our door that morning brought a message to me of transitions and a philosophy of time. It appeared near year's end, signaling that fast-away a new year approached, and by its even pace and rapid transit, it reminded me that time stops for no one. It invited me to conjure up that time long ago when I had moved from innocence into manhood, and to look backward over the 70 years of my life while looking forward to the few years remaining. It told me that one way in my waning years to "get right with God" is to get right with God's creation, including his creatures, among which are human beings.
As the year ends and another begins, I adopt that deer-sighting as a special way of making the transition.
"The buck stops here," read the sign on President Harry Truman's desk. My buck kept on moving, but its message did stop here:
Keep moving steadily along, but work hard at being at-one with Creation.
Larry McGehee, professor emeritus at Wofford College, may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
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