Last year’s doe…

John called down, “There’s a deer right below my window,” and looking out, I saw her, arching her body to pee on the soft moss. I’m pretty sure it was last year’s doe, the one who came most mornings with her fawn,


pausing to nibble grass, the tips of roses, the clumps of daylilies (which, sure enough, were eaten in the early hours). And looking again, I saw that fawn, now a yearling, reaching up to eat the new leaves, just buds really, on the Japanese maple. I went out the back door and chased them off. I love to see them but I haven’t quite finished lifting all sorts of plants — iris, daylilies, and other things these visitors feast on — to replant inside the deer-proof fence that surrounds the vegetable garden. More and more, the garden has to be contained or else elevated to save it from the deer. We used to have dogs. They lived outside — there’s a cedar-sided insulated house John built for Lily, with its own sign — Cave Canem (Forrest was studying Latin…) — and she loved it but Tiger was claustrophobic and would only sleep in the open or, in cold weather, on little nests of dry grass under the house (ours is built on footings, on rock…). If we tried to make things more comfortable for her by putting blankets under the house, on boards to keep them — and her — up off the ground, she’d wait until we went away and then she’d drag them out. She wanted a bed of her own making. Like Lily, Tiger slept with one ear open for animals and we’d hear her barking at dawn, as the deer came near, or else in the night when the bears inevitably came for crabapples.

So no dogs means deer in abundance, or at least in the years when they are abundant. (When they’re not, it’s one sign that cougars are around.) And a bear, last year, grazing on sweet grass and, later, the crabapples. One night this winter, I went out on the deck to look at stars and surprised two deer at the foot of the grapevine growing up over the trellis. Not far from here, as the crow flies, the poet Tim McNulty has written beautifully of deer:

And the nights I sat at my desk unknowing,
and the lamplight
found its way through the frost-lit trees,
what, if anything, did it mean to her
–nipping at her winter coat
to make a bed for the fawns,
sharing our water for a time.

— from ‘Three Poems for Deer”

I’ve just come in from the vegetable garden where I mulched the garlic bed with compost


and saw a tiny tree-frog nestled among some dead leaves and straw, almost exactly the same colour as the straw:

tree frog

It’s the time of year when things happen so quickly. A few days ago, I noticed some clumps of primroses in bud. Today they’re in bloom.


I don’t know what kind these are — I bought them years ago at a community plant sale where (mostly) elderly gardeners brought divisions of irises and old roses and rhubarb and to them I am grateful for my old-fashioned and unnamed moss roses and vigorous horseradish roots — but they remind me of the wild primroses growing in the fields in Ireland when I lived there nearly 40 years ago. There was so much folklore associated with them and I remember various stories about their magical properties, as well as their medicinal ones.

Guard the house with a string of primroses on the first three days of May.  The fairies are said not to be able to pass over or under this string.’

–From the National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin. NFC S.455:237. From Co Kerry.

There are lots of myths associated with deer too. Long associated with Artemis (we all know what happened to Actaeon), they were also credited with nursing abandoned babies and would-be saints, had powers of divination, were spiritual guides, and were considered emblems of decorum and kindness.

Though, until this morning, I’d never seen one pee.


“What did the thrushes know?” (for Anna)

I’m writing this while snow falls. Again. Snow is not unheard of in our part of the world but it’s late this year, and abundant. Usually by now we are seeing salmonberry blossoms in the woods near us  — single blooms as early as February 17, I see in my notes, and often many by the end of February — and am I completely wrong or do we also hear the long whistles of varied thrushes when we walk down Sakinaw Lake Road in March? That may be pushing it — memory is not always reliable when it comes to hope.

The varied thrushes are around right now but this is because it’s cold and they’re drawn to the seeds that fall from the bird feeder strung on the clothes line. The clouds of chickadees and the animated Steller’s jays always spill some seed while eating and the thrushes wait quietly on the ground for an opportunity to forage a bit. They’re shy. This is the only time of year we can reliably see them. But that whistle — a long note on one pitch, then rising to another, ringing out of the dense woods: it’s one of my favourite bird songs. It’s both sweet and mysterious, somehow. Some mornings I hear it when I first wake, the rising notes pulling me to consciousness, and I lie in my bed listening with something close to pure joy.

Friend Anna in England sent me a link to an Edward Thomas poem this morning. “March” is a poem about spring, about thrushes, primroses, and snow. About faith too. These lines spoke to me so clearly:

What did the thrushes know? Rain, snow, sleet, hail,
Had kept them quiet as the primroses.

I had them in mind when I went out to fill the feeder just now, though the thrushes were not in sight. And the only primroses are in memory, the drifts of them in the hedgerows near the island where I lived for a time in Ireland and used to pass on my way to the nearest town for groceries. I wrote about those hedgerows in an essay, “Well”, in my book Phantom Limb: “…a dense hedge, with fuchia among it, on either side of the narrow road and the raised banks white with wild garlic, yellow with primroses. Birds sang unseen within its depths.” The only time in my life I’ve seen a badger was then. I watched it amble across the road and disappear into a tunnel or sett in the hedgerow. The rich growth above the ground was all the more remarkable for the thought of the tunnels below with their sleeping clans.

Edward Thomas’s poem has a special poignancy when I think of his life. He suffered from depressions and physical and psychological breakdowns. He wrote all his poems during a two-year period before his death, at the Battle of Arras, on April 9, 1917. His great solace was the natural world. His poems are filled with birds, with the sights and sounds of the countryside.

Something they knew–I also, while they sang
And after. Not till night had half its stars
And never a cloud, was I aware of silence
Stained with all that hour’s songs, a silence
Saying that Spring returns, perhaps to-morrow.

It’s still snowing — even harder now. I couldn’t resist taking a photograph of the tray of  primula from the supermarket, arranged by our front door. I always buy the creamy ones, the closest thing to the Irish beauties I still dream of and which Edward Thomas quietly memorialised more than a hundred years ago.