Essence

by David Krohne

July 27, 2010

I watched a deer die this morning.

My arrow pierced both lungs. The deer didn’t even flinch, just walked a few steps up a slight rise, paused, and fell over. It kicked a few times then lay still. Then slowly it lifted its head, nose skyward, straining to rise, but fell back unable to gather its legs under it. Twice more it did this, then fell back motionless. Could there be a more poignant final act than that last upward thrust, the struggle to be a deer again? The whole sequence, from release of the arrow to the last breath took no more than 30 seconds.

I watched a deer die this morning.
 
I think there is no more intimate connection to another being than witnessing its death. We shun the moment. And I think that has less to do with the horror of death than the intimacy of witness. It’s too personal. I want to look away, but I must not. I live with killing my food. That’s a question I settled long ago. But I force myself to watch that decisive moment. It is my one true act of contrition, the one way I fully take responsibility.
 
There is no movement as graceful as a duck in flight. A mallard, banking hard into the wind with wings cupped, is as graceful, powerful, and free as any creature ever is. After a lifetime of thrilling to this sight, I see it each time as though it’s the first. A dead duck on the water is utterly transformed. It is no longer game; it is meat. 
 
I count it now as sustenance, a possession for which I am grateful.
 
But the moment of death haunts me.
 
At the killing shot there is a transient exhilaration but then the endless, slow motion fall from the sky. In those moments of transformation, as it falls limp and tumbling, it is neither duck nor meat. It is ugly, awkward, helpless. But I watch as penance. Of course my penance does nothing for the duck, nor will the haunting dreams I’ll have the next few nights do anything for the deer. But I am forced to acknowledge the naked reality of death. And especially this: Death is the single most significant fact of life.
 
I don’t want to fall asleep. My dreams tonight will be vivid, confused, exhausting. I know them well—I’ve killed many deer.
 
On a bright moonlit night I struggle to drag a heavy deer toward the warm light of our house. Steam rises from the body cavity in the cool night. As I near the house, the body turns to steam and drifts away. A duck falls limp and tumbling from the sky. Falling, falling but never reaching the water. My mother lies in a hospital bed, struggling desperately for shallow, rasping breaths. Her head rolls on the pillow, little murmurs escape with her shallow exhalations, her hands twitch—manifestations of the most frightening sensation we know—the struggle for air. She rises, straining upward, only to fall back to the pillow.
 
I watched a deer die this morning.
 
This reads as though I am consumed with death. In fact, I am obsessed with essence which, I suppose, is the existential question. It was no longer a deer that lay still on the ground this morning. That side of the equation is easy. But I’ve always thought essence is defined by life and I thought I understood the essence of deer: the magicians of my woods, appearing as though newly created at the moment, then floating effortlessly away, beings defined by speed and grace. Tonight I’m not so sure. For if the essence of life is the certainty of death, it was precisely at that nexus, in that brief hopeless moment as the deer strained to rise again, to gather its unwilling legs beneath it, that it was most profoundly alive.
 
I watched a deer die this morning.
 
David Krohne is Professor of Biology and retired from Wabash this spring after 31 years of teaching, learning, and service.
 
Contact him at krohned@wabash.edu

 


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