Winter Deer

November 9, 2020 at 9:14 pm (Uncategorized)

Winter came early to Montana this year.  A foot and a half of snow fell before Halloween. 

Cold and snow make it harder for me to spend time with Jay and Andrew, now that I’m living separately from them because of Covid.  Our days of family dinners outside on the deck or hiking together during long twilights are over.  I still show up to cook or eat dinner with them, but we eat in separate rooms.  We can see each other, and mostly hear each other if we raise our voices over the air filters. 

Driving home after 9 PM on the night after the snow storm, I was feeling sorry for myself.  Wasn’t it just my luck to lose access to the outdoors during a pandemic?  Of all the years for a hard winter, it had to be in 2020, during a separation I do not want.  I was also angry.  Angry at the weather gods, angry at many people’s eagerness to behave as though nothing has changed.  If we could all just wear our damn masks inside and stop pretending a cataclysm isn’t happening, I would be able to move back home sooner. 

There was hardly anyone else driving out on Helena’s icy streets.  I inched my way down a steep hill that intersects our downtown.  The stark light of the nearly full moon reflecting off the snow forced me out of my head.  It was bright enough that trees cast shadows in the dark. Their bare branches swayed like they were in prayer at the synagogue. 

Suddenly, as if the brittle air had exhaled them into being, eighteen deer appeared in my headlights.  They were mothers and fawns.  Typically, our urban deer lurk in yards and dart into the street to cross.  Not that night.  This was a herd.  They loped, but did not bolt, down the empty road for well over a mile ahead of me.  They brought me home, to my not-home, and then carried on their way. 

I sat in the parked, dark car in my driveway, feeling the air grow colder.  I watched the moonlight.  I breathed.  The writer in me, always on the lookout for a metaphor, wanted to see these deer as a sign of goodness.  They had been fearless, these mothers and children.  They were beautiful and strange.  If not for the early winter and the pandemic, I would not have been out in the snow and the moonlight to encounter them.  I would have been at home with my family, warm and sealed off from winter’s wildness.

But these deer were living beings, not constructs for me comfort myself with.  They were huddled together in the middle of a city street because they were cold and tired.  The deep snow made it hard for them move, so they were forced from the shadows onto the center line.  I don’t know if they noticed the moon, and the sacred feel to the shadows.  Probably not. More likely, they were stressed and hungry because the grass they feed on was lost beneath the snow’s carapace. 

The deer have stayed with me.  When I remember them, tears well in my eyes.  I am sad for their hardship, for the cold they will live with for months now.  I am also grateful for the grace they brought me in bitterness.  I look for them now every night, slowing down on the same stretch of road.  I have not seen them again. 


  1. Miriam said,

    What an image. Even for a non-writer like me, it’s impossible not to try to make it into a metaphor for something. But I like that you left me with an array of things it could mean — goodness, hardship, grace, the importance of slowing down.

    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      I’ve been thinking a lot about metaphors lately for another, longer essay I’m writing. I’ve re-read Susan Sontag’s Illness as a Metaphor, in which she argues that (in the case of thinking about illness) we must strip away old metaphors and simply exist with illness and treatment. I’ve been experimenting with trying not to think metaphorically, to try and process what I see and feel in each moment. It’s hard. For this other piece, I’ve been dipping my toe in some linguistic theory that metaphors serve an important cognitive function for humans, that they enable us to think abstractly by linking back to concrete things. I think many of the metaphors we use, especially for illness, are damaging. But it feels like we need some type of scaffolding on which to layer our experiences. Anyway, trying to get my middle-aged tired brain to engage with theory is keeping me busy at least. Thanks so much for reading so thoughtfully.

  2. Sarah Elkins said,

    It’s so easy for us to seek meaning in random things when we’re in a place of transition, fear, uncertainty. I love that you understood that in your moment alone with the deer, and that instead you focused your attention on the present moment, the things you could observe and sense, rather than putting a value on them through analogy or metaphor.

    I felt like I was right there with you, Rebecca, in the bluish light of the moon and its reflection on the snow. Silent. Still. Maybe that’s the meaning for you in that moment, stillness.

    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      I’ve been thinking a lot about metaphors for another, longer piece I’m working on. There’s a school of linguistic theory that metaphors are more than ornamentation, that they serve a cognitive function and help us think abstractly by connecting to tangible objects. But so many of the metaphors we use—a scaffolding for understanding the world—feel problematic to me. I think there is value in trying to move beyond familiar guide ropes and exist in what is. Thanks for reading!

  3. Yahoo Warning said,

    Loved your post.  Wish you could have your kitty with you.  Our 2 girls are such a delight & Eve is my cuddle bug.  We have deer on our property most days.  Stay safe and well.  Marianne

    Sent from Yahoo Mail for iPhone

    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      Yes, many days I think I should kidnap Greta. But she also is good for Andrew, and then there’s the problem that my landlord won’t allow any pets. I do get some cuddle time with her when I’m home, which is good.

  4. Katherine Norane Appling-Freistadt said,

    Beautiful essay on the winter deer! I love the realism you injected with knowing that they were just cold, tired and hungry, not negating that we still have the capacity to see them as a reminder and sign of our connection to the natural world. Thanks Rebecca! We will all get through this, but what a time it is.

    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      Thanks Norane! We will all get through this and for me, finding connections to the natural world is part of my survival. I’m loving a book of essays called Vesper Flights that look at aspects of the natural world—but without sentimentality or anthropomorphizing them. I highly recommend it (same author as H is for Hawk). Looking forward to seeing you again sometime, hopefully soon!

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