The Dark Highway

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Guidance comes when we least expect it.

You get in a rut. You get stuck. You can’t find your way out. It happens.

What are you waiting for? New information, without which, nothing can change.

I was driving on a dark highway on a moonless night, in a dark time of my life. I was on my way home from a job that literally made me wish I had never been born, after a long line of jobs that made me wish I had never been born, after years of unsuccessfully trying to find anything else that would give me a living wage.

I was 49 and alone, with no end in sight.

Everything I had ever worked for, everything I had ever fought for and sacrificed for, had come to nothing.

I used to say that resilience was my middle name. That I kept getting knocked down but I always bounced back. But you might notice that when you yourself get knocked down, a little air bleeds out. Over time, the ball of your resilience goes flat. And then you’re going on grit.

I was going on grit.

It’s March, the beginning of spring. I am driving up Rt. 95N in Massachusetts. I turn off to Rt. 125E, a dark road through a strip of woods the width of a front yard. Beyond these woods, suburban homes. Midcentury split levels. Travel a little farther, and the bleak standing dead trees mark a beaver pond, and on the other side of the beaver pond, a state forest.

The headlights of the car in front of me pick out the ghostly shapes of five whitetail deer — a doe in front, three fawns, a doe in back. They hurry across the highway towards another narrow strip of forest and another split-level subdivision.

The first doe makes it to the other side, then the fawns, and then the car, which hasn’t slowed a bit, plows into the head of the last doe and speeds on. As though nothing had happened. As though the deer had been imagined, vapors, as unreal as the shifting images on a TV.

The doe is flat on the asphalt in the middle of the highway. Her legs kick and she can’t get up. I stop my car so the headlights illuminate her, put on my flashers, and get out.

I’m a city girl. My knowledge of deer comes from photographs and Bambi. At the time I have this crazy idea I’ll just pick up the deer, put her in the back seat, and bring her to a vet.

I come up to the deer and kneel beside her. She stops kicking. Her head is laying in a pool of blood. She raises her head, looks me in the eye and I see that half her face has been smashed, mostly the jaw. She drops her head.

I try to pick her up. I had no idea how big a deer would be. She is the size of a small cow. She probably outweighs me by half my weight. I try to pick her up and can’t budge her at all. She tries to help me, raises her head, starts kicking, can’t move herself. Falls back exhausted. She lets me lay my hand on her flank. I see my ambitions have to be scaled down to giving her all I’m capable of giving her, love and comfort.

I’m crying by now. I’m thinking of all the houses nearby and how this used to be all forest. I’m thinking about what it’s like for a deer to live in the little stretch of woods along the highway because it’s the only woodlands that are left. I’m thinking about the extremis the deer must have been in to make the choice to cross the dangerous highway. They needed to get somewhere and this was the only way to go.

I dig my fingers into her fur and it is so dense I can’t reach skin. I think, this is how they survive the winter. I stroke her, thinking love heals, trying to channel to her atmospheric qi.

A car approaches and I stand up in front of my headlights and wave it away.

I return to the deer, who is lying in a pool of blood. I look at her limbs — no injuries. Only her skull is smashed. Her eyes catch mine in a mute appeal: Help us.

I promise back, also without words, I will see what I can do.

Another car approaches and stops. The woman inside beckons me over. She says, “I’ve called the cops to come out and shoot the deer.” I get really angry, because I think the deer still has a chance. I say, “Don’t you think we’ve done enough harm?” Meaning we humans. We in the suburbs, occupying their land. While we’re arguing, I see the deer haul herself to her feet, totter back to the woods where she had come from, and collapse.

The woman says to me, “I want you to stay here and show the cops where the deer is so they can shoot it.” I say no. I’m really angry. The woman has no intention of staying herself, though. She drives off. Because the deer is out of the highway and I am sure now she won’t be hit by another car, I also drive off.

The whole next week I can think of nothing but that deer. On the weekend, I return to the site where she collapsed in the woods. I’m hoping the coyotes didn’t get her. There’s no body. There are no bones. I comb the site. I see a trail of scat leading to the state park.

And I’m ebullient.

A couple of weeks later, I’m on a dating site. They have a question, what do you think about a lot? I tell this story. And then I get email out of the blue, from a man in Norway, Olav, who was moved by the story. I like him right off. I have this strict rule about no long distance relationships, but I figure, I like him, we can be pen pals.

Three days later he calls me from Norway. We talk for five hours. By the end of the week he asks me to dinner in New York City. We hit it off and he spends the next several months pretty much commuting between Norway and my apartment. I visit Norway twice. For work, he has an internet phone line that allows him to talk for indefinite periods of time. When we’re not together, we’re on the phone.

Surfing the internet together, from across the ocean. We’re separately and together looking at black steampunk gowns. I send him a URL. Isn’t it gorgeous? He says, “Get it.” I say, “But it’s a wedding gown.” He says, “Get it.” That’s how he proposed.

On our second trip back from Norway, he gets detained by Homeland Security. We have two weeks to marry or he gets deported. So we elope.

I paint a series of paintings about the animals on the fringe between wilderness and civilization, because I am still thinking about that deer. And then I have things to say that I can’t say with a painting because the ideas are too complicated, so I start a novel.

deerWhen you paint something, in order to get the anatomy and the expression right, you have to go into your subject. You have to become them. You paint a deer, you go in through the bones, coincidentally at the place the Indians call the “third eye”, and you inhabit their body, you stretch out into their limbs, take on their scents and their teeth and hooves. So much time I spent inhabiting deer and lynx and ravens, I had to write from the standpoint of something that was half animal, half human.

I wrote a novel about a sasquatch’s search for meaning. Its premise, with its Weekly World News tabloid edge, tickled my sense of the absurd but gave me a launching point. But as a city girl, I had a lot of research to do, if I were to set a story in the woods and make it come alive.

I had a character, Clare, who was going to leave the city and live off the land, and this character would meet a child sasquatch. So how would she live? Where would she live? Originally I decided on the Cascade range in Oregon.

I started studying rewilding. A biologist friend pointed me to the books of Bernd Heinrich, about living in a cabin in the mountains of Maine. I read about foraging. Hunting and trapping. Building cabins and underground shelters. Root cellars. Winter ecology. Passive solar heating. Wells. All manner of farming and season extension techniques. Over the next three years I read enough to give myself a Ph.D. on living off the land and I was just getting started.

We visited the Cascades and there had been a drought for seven years. I looked around and it was obvious, Clare could not survive here. There wasn’t enough food to forage. There wasn’t enough water with which to farm. Oregon would not do.

So then I started searching in concentric circles around Boston. If Clare were an engineer like me, then she would have savings like mine, so I know what she would be able to afford. How far would she have to go from Boston to be able to afford a piece of arable land on which to live, big enough to feed her, and inexpensive enough so she could pay cash and not have to deal with a mortgage? And then I found a place in Maine, perfect, nestled in the mountains, a modest but beautiful new house, situated perfectly for passive solar gain, on 15 acres of woodland, with 900 feet of brook frontage. For 1/3 the price of a 2-BR condo in Boston. Wow. Clare could afford this.

We could afford this.

And so we bought our homestead, in the town that coincidentally turned out to be the same where Bernd Heinrich lives. My husband has met him. I haven’t.

The neighbors welcomed us literally with open arms. I never felt a sense of community before. I had never had a real home before. Now I have both.

When I drove on that dark highway, I was in a trap with no end in sight. That deer showed me the way.

On our 15 acres, hunting is forbidden. We plant food for ourselves, of course, enclosed within deer fences. But we also plant for the deer. New England used to have an entire ecosystem around chestnut trees, but we lost almost all of them in the first decade of the 20th century due to a blight. Now blight resistant hybrids exist, and last year we planted 40 chestnut seedlings. We planted the native species of black raspberries. This year I’ll be planting kinnikinnick (bearberry). Little by little we will be filling the woods with wild foods. We are creating a sanctuary.

I am sure that the deer I met on the road has died. But I made a promise to her. From her I have a loving husband and a home and friends far better than I ever dreamed I would have. The deer has become my benefactor and my guide.

As the Chinese say, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”

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