by John LoSasso
July 12, 2018
Van Cortlandt Park is a treasure. No matter the season, Nature lets us know this park is her domain. I am only a visitor here.
Whether it be the ever-present chipmunks and geese or even the occasional red-tailed hawk clutching a freshly-slaughtered squirrel in its talons, Van Cortlandt alerts you that we share this space with its woodland creatures. “Tread respectfully,” She warns.
It should have come as no surprise then, that I chanced upon a buck during an early Sunday run. I had started up a hill to do “my hill-work workout” and upon my slow descent, there he stood, grayish brown with a placid look on his face. His young antlers sat softly on his head, more like antennae than a crown. He was about twenty yards in front of me standing directly in the path. As I approached, he turned slightly, gently, and unhurriedly loped up the hill onto an overlooking rock. I have encountered deer before in these woods, twice before in fact, but each previous time the deer disappeared into the brush not to be seen again. This buck was different.
When I reached the bottom, another early morning exerciser was leaning against his bicycle looking up in the direction the buck had clambered.
“Do you see them,” he asked. “Look, there’s two of them.”
We stared at them in hypnotic silence. Unlike other times encountering Van Cortlandt wildlife, I was struck by the difference one experiences being face to face and on even footing with one of them. In this instance, one of the larger animals that inhabit this space. I have read and heard accounts of hikers encountering bears or mountain lions, mostly in the Far West at high elevations or inside Yosemite National Park. And deer are not ferocious, yet when there is no fence and no barrier between you and two young bucks, how could one know their intent?
I looked up to the outcropping of rocks and there they were, twins it seemed, their eyes unblinking, their bodies calm and still. They were staring back at us. But they were going nowhere.
Being a born and bred city boy, these encounters with country life excite me. One would think that a sixty-one-year old man would not get such a rise from seeing two bucks standing on a hill, but I admit I felt like a child exposed for the first time to a magician’s illusions. I stared in wonder at these two creatures who were much more at home than was I. Growing up in the confines of the “concrete jungle” of my youth, trees were for hiding behind or picking up their prickly seeds in the fall, “itchy balls” we called them, and throwing them at each other. Even upon visits to Prospect Park, my childhood exposure to “nature,” wildlife was confined to squirrels and the pathetic animals in the old zoo. The only other wildlife of my youth were the feral packs of dogs who wandered throughout the neighborhood and the ever-present pigeons who cooed relentlessly and littered the sidewalks with their droppings.
But now, here in the northern outpost of this metropolis, I meet two young bucks on an early Sunday run. They are alert and aware of my presence and watch me as I repetitively run up and down the hill. They do not seem to move the entire time, simply following me with their eyes. I keep wondering if these young bucks are aggressive? Are they contemplating when they will charge at me and roughly remove me from their home? What if they should come down and block my path, I thought, what would I do?
They don’t charge. They don’t attempt to forestall my workout. What was I thinking? Why do I attribute such hostile thoughts to them? Their peaceful acceptance of our co-existence invokes in me an unpleasant memory. I think of a particular incident from my childhood, when my older cousin Tony for whatever reason, with me as his accomplice, maybe to show off his power, maybe to demonstrate how anger sparks hateful acts, and so unlike these bucks, evicted a group of Hasidic boys from the baseball field they were playing on. This was a city park in a Brooklyn neighborhood of apartment buildings, low brick homes, and wood-framed houses occupied by working class European descended people, mostly all Catholic or Jewish.
The park was an oasis between the cement schoolyard and the shoulder to shoulder residences. The Hasidim, their strange look and their seeming reclusiveness and secrecy, were tolerated by their American Jewish neighbors and scoffed at by their Catholic ones.
When my cousin strode onto that dirt field and picked up a bat they had been using and told the boy with a ball to give it to me, I felt nothing but the safety of my strong-armed cousin. When my cousin told me to throw a pitch and he hit the ball high and far over the fence into the street, I felt a delirious glee. When he told those boys to take their gloves and bats and don’t come back here if they knew what was good for them, I felt sinisterly powerful. They did as they were told. I am ashamed of my participation in this incident and now, after seeing these young bucks, this reminiscence haunts me.
Unlike my cousin and me, the bucks wait and share space patiently. On my final repetition, I turn to go down the hill that leads out to the open field, stealthily looking back to see what the bucks will do. There is only one buck there now. The other must have decided watching a man run up and down a hill to be quite boring and absconded. I stop to see what this one will do. He waits and slightly tilts his head to the left, keeping a watchful eye on me. I return his look from a safe enough distance, giving him at least a thirty-yard buffer. Then, in two quick steps he is down the outcropping and on the path that heads north through the woods. He hesitates and takes a final look at me, a lone, motionless figure on the road. His nose drips as he shakes his head and he seems to say,” so long,” and then he bounds away in that deer running style, more hopping than running, and noiselessly disappears. Why am I relieved in some way that our rendezvous is over and that now we can both go our separate ways? In peace.
As I exit the woods and find my way onto the main path those bucks are on my mind. Where were they going, I wonder? What made them stop on that path this quiet morning? Will I see them again? I feel as if my life has been enriched. Somehow, I have been afforded a private audience with nature on this late November Sundaymorning. I know I will return to these woods and be surprised anew should I meet with them again.
I return to my car and look at my mobile device immediately. No longer natural, I immerse myself in a Google search and discover these bucks are probably between 1 and 1.5 years old. Their antlers, not fully formed, are approximately 14” apart and will continue to grow. Their bodies will fill out in the coming years becoming more heavily muscled and taking on the appearance of a thoroughbred. Hunters will take pride in taking down a fully-formed, 4.5–7 year- old buck.
Will that be the fate of my morning bucks? Will some pre-dawn hunter in years hence find one of them in his scope and pierce his life with a deafening bullet? Or will they continue to inhabit the gentle woods of Van Cortlandt and only emerge on early Sunday mornings in late fall when the brush is a threadbare blanket? Will the park be their preserve? I can only wonder. Do deer die naturally? Where do they go? Where do all the animals go when they are overcome by death? Do they simply lie down and await the final heartbeat?
Why can’t we all be like these deer, I wonder. I am somewhat embarrassed to think how, unlike these polite young bucks, I had neither their grace nor temperament when I was young and allowed my uncivil cousin to lead me across a field of hate.
My sixty-one-year old self begs forgiveness, young bucks. You shared your space with poise and dignity. If I could stand next to you on that outcropping, I would. If I could return in time and stand with those Hasidic boys, I would, as well. You clearly have much to teach and I have, still, much to learn.
John LoSasso is a semi-retired high school teacher and coach from Brooklyn who now resides in the Bronx with his wife and cat.