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Deer Like Hogs

Sunday, six deer crossed the land behind our house, going west toward the woods along the river. We don’t see deer often. That they took their good-natured time was sweet, as if they knew it was the Sabbath. It looked right neighborly.

Not long after, four of them crossed the field going back east, then up and over the road into the trees on the other side. We see more deer in the winter, when the corn is gone and the world is white with snow.

For us at least, they're always a thrill. They'd be less so, I'm sure, if come summer, they took out our tomatoes, but they rarely, if ever, come that close. In winter, with every new snow, I march out behind our place to see who might have been around and what stories they left behind. But it’s mostly just rabbits.

Deer tracks are easy to spot—two long gashes in the snow, and a couple of spurs behind if the neighbor was a buck. I know they can be pests, but they’re as elegant as they are beautiful. Okay, pests too.

Once long ago, we stayed at a hunting lodge along the Missouri River, just south of Chamberlain. I got up early, in great part because, if you ask me, the Missouri River valley can be--and is, around Chamberlain--among the most beautiful places on the continent. I know, I know--I'll get a fight-a-minute for that claim, but there's no accounting for taste.

One morning I sat up on the top of the river’s big shoulders just to greet the dawn, and found deer, dozens of them in the wide-open, grassy spaces above the river. They put on a show, unaware of my presence. Once or twice a day, our cat decides to do something similar and touch every corner of the house in a fanatic race to assure himself he's not getting as old as he is. Try to imagine deer doing th

But there they were, a dozen deer or more racing up and down those grassy hills as if making sure every muscle in their bodies was fine-tuned. If I’d been closer, I’m thinking I might have seen them smile. I couldn't help humming "Home on the Range" out there, where "the deer and the antelope play." I'd never before seen deer play.

On June 30, 1804, Lewis and Clark and company made ten miles up the river in 96-degree heat, putting ashore finally in the vicinity of what is today Walcott, Kansas. The deer, Clark reported, employing a bit of hyperbole maybe, were thick as hogs on a farm. Forgive him--he’d never been to northwest Iowa.

They took nine deer that day, and everyone ate well.

We don't get numbers like that, even on an exceptional day like last Sunday. Sometimes people say here that the population of white-tailed deer in the entire state of Iowa is vastly greater than it was when the first Euros set foot on the state land. Why? Guess. We are “the tall corn state.”

I don't know that's true, but I like the game-y comparison, and it's somehow almost Garden of Eden-like to think about deer thick as hogs on a farm, and no cars, only hungry men to take no more than they need for a fine dinner on the river’s edge.

Around the campfires that June evening, there had to be a good deal of smiling.

Dr. Jim Schaap doesn’t know what on earth happens to his time these days, even though he should have plenty of it, retired as he is (from teaching literature and writing at Dordt College, Sioux Center, IA). If he’s not at a keyboard, most mornings he’s out on Siouxland’s country roads, running down stories that make him smile or leave him in awe. He is the author of several novels and a host of short stories and essays. His most recent publications include Up the Hill: Folk Tales from the Grave (stories), and Reading Mother Teresa (meditations). He lives with his wife Barbara in Alton, Iowa.
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