Be Alert! Deer Crossing the Roadway!

Young deer in the Santa Cruz meadow. Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler.

Young deer in the Santa Cruz meadow. Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler.

UC Santa Cruz is a special place; where else would you find a traffic sign flashing bright orange “be alert…deer crossing the roadway.” Cycling into work, I laughed lovingly acknowledging both the practical advice and the deeper meaning of mindfulness. Situated on a mountain overlooking the Pacific, the campus is replete with rolling meadows and coastal forests of tanoak, bay laurel, Pacific madrone and the regal Redwoods. An ecosystem intimately shared by animals, plants and people. After a quiet summer, September signals major events in certain campus populations: the academic cycle migration of homo sapiens and the advent of the breeding season for California mule deer. The traffic signal brings some needed intervention to manage the humans and deer inhabiting this space. All summer the bucks have roamed the meadows as a herd while their antlers grew big and strong preparing to compete for a mate. Next spring, fawns begin the cycle anew. Riding up the bike path through the thirsty meadow, I wonder from where the mountain lion watches these migrations and lifecycles. Will I ever see one?

Right mindfulness, an element of the Buddhist eight-fold path, teaches adherents to be alert, present, building awareness of the moment…the path to enlightenment. Earlier this year, I received a gift from the wife of a landscape painter whose work I greatly admire; she connected me to the work of Peter Matthiessen, Buddhist and writer of fiction and many well-respected books about the environment including the National Book Award winner The Snow Leopard.  Trekking through Nepal with the ancient Buddhist shrine Shey Gompa on Crystal Mountain as their destination, Matthiessen and the field biologist George Schaller were seeking research data on the Blue Sheep and the Snow Leopard.  Truly a book about his spiritual journey, Matthiessen finds the revered Lama of Shey who blesses him with a koan “Have you seen the snow leopard? No. Isn’t that wonderful!”  Matthiessen writes “I feel great gratitude for being here, for being, rather for there is no need to hike oneself to the snow mountains in order to feel free.  I am not here to seek the “crazy wisdom;” if I am, I shall never find it. I am here to be here, like these rocks and sky and snow, like this hail that is falling down out of the sun…the absurdity of a life that may well end before one understands it does not relieve one of the duty (to that self which is inseparable from others) to live it as bravely and generously as possible.”

It is the season when deer are on the minds of many. Last weekend we attended the fundraiser for the journal West Marin Review held by Point Reyes Books. Two great women poets read from their work: Kay Ryan and Jane Hirshfield and ironically among the many poems they read, they both chose to read works about deer. Selecting a poem from her book The Best of It, Ryan read “a buck looks up: the touch of his rack against wet bark whispers a syllable singular to deer; the next one hears and shifts; the next head stops and lifts; deeper and deeper into the park.” Hirschfeld choose a poem from The Lives of the Heart and read “a root seeks water. Tenderness only breaks open the earth. This morning, out the window, the deer stood like a blessing, then vanished.