On an evening bike ride outside of Vermilion,
Ohio, near Interstate 80, I see a house on a backroad with 2 not-quite-life-size
plastic deer in the front lawn, a buck with small antlers and, behind him,
a doe. They are posed with their heads and ears raised, alert, slightly
facing toward parked cars in the driveway. (The family is at home this evening
but now indoors, unaware of me pausing in front of their house by the roadside.)
What does it mean to put two deer in the front of your yard? I've seen this
many times in the suburbs and in mysterious places like Vermilion that are
really 'burbs created not by cities but by highway interchanges. As you
move through them, one acre will still be plowed and the next suburban lawn-sod
laid down in strips.
The deer seem to be "home" spirits, geni loci, guardians, doubles
for the human parents who live inside. They also seem to guard the home
space, or to bless it as a beautiful and natural place of union and procreation.
The deer seem clearly a couple and face toward the outside world very alertly,
a little warily. It is as if Nature (represented by the deer) faced the
invading world beyond the home and protected this family from it.
Yet Nature and deer were of course themselves displaced by the family and
their possessions that now claim this site as home--the fields and woods
in which a deer would be at home are long gone, replaced not just by a highway
but by a lawn and the house, driveway, plantings, a propane gas tank listing
to one side like a beached baby submarine, tricycles, blacktop, and the
other paraphernalia of the lives that these plastic deer now guard.
When we want an image of our deepest selves, we turn
to what we have most displaced and lost.
We call home what we have lost, but by calling it home and making it into
an image of "home," we convince ourselves that it is present and
enfolding us, not good and gone and gone because of us. Thus the pet deer.
Some suburbs (in Pennsylvania, Colorado, and elsewhere) are now overrun
with deer, who multiply in protected places like state parks and national
forests and then overrun nearby areas. They nibble many of the nice plantings
that people put in their yards and can leap most suburban fences with ease.
Some homeowners call them rats with hooves. Places have instituted regular
hunting of deer again at certain times of the year, causing the hunters
to be picketed by those opposing killing animals when they arrive early
in the morning of the hunt. Those in opposition don't necessarily want the
deer left alone either--their shrubs are chewed too and they drive the back
roads at dusk in fear of a deer suddenly leaping in front of their car--but
they favor modern drugs, contraceptives, rather than bullets. How many plastic
deer are put in lawns where deer are thought of as pests rather than as
exotic lost spirits?
If you live with plastic deer statues, as this family does, can they ever
pause in front of it the way I am doing and really look at and wonder what
the statues mean? Do they now ignore the deer, or speak of them only as
Or do they treat the deer as a kind of sacred subject never talked about,
a subject they'd be embarrassed to discuss with neighbors, something whose
meaning is meant to be obvious, meant to "go without saying"?
The highway drones softly from behind the house. The
deer stand in the front yard under a cherry tree and hold their heads up,
as if listening. Their dark eyes seem focused on a far distance.
The future comes toward us. . . . But we can't tell from which direction.
. . .