Listening Like Deer


I sit in a stand of trees, screened by filbert leaves, on the edge of a field in the woods. The earth is damp and the air stirs restlessly. It’s that time of year when buck black-tailed deer, normally nocturnal, move recklessly, their necks swollen and their antlers crusted with the bark of saplings. I have come to watch them.

To get here I crept through sword ferns on a back route, pausing whenever I brushed something. Deer feel comfortable in this field –– no roads border it –– and often feed in broad daylight. But for all my care, the field was empty when I arrived. It is empty still. And it is taking me longer than I expected to shrink into place against the rotting log in the blind, to convince my legs to stop shifting and let me pay attention. Everywhere around me the forest whispers with a lean energy.

Is there anything so strange to us as stillness? As the hours pass, it’s like I’m rubbed raw. Though I have a good view of the field, it’s the sounds that get me. Rustling across the way. Creaks. Moans. Sighs. The sudden staccato call of a Pacific wren on my left. This is no momentary pause on a hike to admire a view. The world no longer acts as a backdrop to my exploits. The world acts.

And I cannot see the sources of the sounds. Hence the rawness. My imagination is the grit that scours me; it goes to work on every breeze, priming me for something big. At one point, the wren appears on a patch of moss a few feet away, small as a shrew. It nearly hops onto my boot.

Acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton has said, “Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything.”

Earlier this spring, at the height of the COVID-19 lockdown, it was common to read that birds seemed to be singing more loudly than usual. Researchers in the Bay Area took the opportunity to study sparrows. They first determined that vehicle traffic noise had dropped to 1950s levels. Then they found that the sparrows were in fact singing more quietly in response, and that their songs were more complex.

To me the most startling part of the paper is in its title, which calls the COVID-19 lockdown a “silent spring.” I wonder what Rachel Carson would think. To her, silence meant a spring where birds are no longer alive to sing. Today silence apparently means enough of a reduction in car noise that we can actually hear the birds. What are my own standards of silence, that I feel so humbled by normal forest noises?

The wren pays me no mind and soon is gone. “That they are there!” exclaimed George Oppen in a poem he called “Psalm.” He was speaking of deer, but in the simple words of his poem ––small teeth, dangling roots, scattered earth –– he might be speaking of any life in the woods. Oppen liked to claim that he wasn’t like most poets –– he did not want to rush over the subjects of his poems so that he might comment on them. He cared about the subjects themselves, the literal things and their presence. “Psalm” ends with the lines: “The small nouns / Crying faith / In this in which the wild deer / Startle, and stare out.”

In my state of readiness, questions mount. What do the many calls of robins mean? What signals am I missing? In this forest dozens of deer are leading rich, full lives. Several are probably within 100 yards of me now. Must I content myself with the random encounters when we startle each other and stare out?

From just beyond a thicket to my right comes the sound of bushes being pushed apart. Leaves stir as if with strides. At last. But I catch a movement above. It is a giant maple leaf falling through layers of branches.

By dusk it has happened several more times. Fall maple leaves sound precisely –– to my ears –– like animals moving through the underbrush. It feels raw to sit in stillness not because anything supernatural or eerie awaits us, but because in our own silence we must confront how little we understand of all that is real around us.

As the light fades the deer enter the field silently, a few steps at a time, their ears swiveling. They begin to feed. A buck emerges and puts his head low. The does don’t pay him much attention. Sometimes their heads go up in unison at noises I would not have given a second thought. Other noises, surprising to me, they ignore.

I came here to watch deer. Instead, I am attempting to perceive the forest like them. Deer can rotate their ears independently, allowing them to pinpoint the direction and distance of noises in a nearly complete sphere around them. But it’s not any physical ability that gives them such an advantage over me in the forest soundscape. It’s the fact that this is their constant environment. They know from experience which sounds matter and which don’t. Scientists call it sensory gating, comparing it with our own ability, in a crowded room, to filter out most of the conversation yet hear our name when it is mentioned.

In stillness I find the faith of which Oppen wrote, faith that wrens and deer are out here with pathways sufficient unto them. And it is stillness, too, that is my best tool as a naturalist when I go beyond faith to seek a knowledge of the deer’s world. In my own silence I begin to hear.