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An essay by Stewart Edward White

On Seeing Deer

Title:     On Seeing Deer
Author: Stewart Edward White [More Titles by White]

Once I happened to be sitting out a dance with a tactful young girl of tender disposition who thought she should adapt her conversation to the one with whom she happened to be talking. Therefore she asked questions concerning out-of-doors. She knew nothing whatever about it, but she gave a very good imitation of one interested. For some occult reason people never seem to expect me to own evening clothes, or to know how to dance, or to be able to talk about anything civilized; in fact, most of them appear disappointed that I do not pull off a war-jig in the middle of the drawing-room.

This young girl selected deer as her topic. She mentioned liquid eyes, beautiful form, slender ears; she said "cute," and "darlings," and "perfect dears." Then she shuddered prettily.

"And I don't see how you can ever BEAR to shoot them, Mr. White," she concluded.

"You quarter the onions and slice them very thin," said I dreamily. "Then you take a little bacon fat you had left over from the flap-jacks and put it in the frying-pan. The frying-pan should be very hot. While the onions are frying, you must keep turning them over with a fork. It's rather difficult to get them all browned without burning some. I should broil the meat. A broiler is handy, but two willows, peeled and charred a little so the willow taste won't penetrate the meat, will do. Have the steak fairly thick. Pepper and salt it thoroughly. Sear it well at first in order to keep the juices in; then cook rather slowly. When it is done, put it on a hot plate and pour the browned onions, bacon fat and all, over it."

"What ARE you talking about?" she interrupted.

"I'm telling you why I can bear to shoot deer," said I.

"But I don't see--" said she.

"Don't you?" said I. "Well; suppose you've been climbing a mountain late in the afternoon when the sun is on the other side of it. It is a mountain of big boulders, loose little stones, thorny bushes. The slightest misstep would send pebbles rattling, brush rustling; but you have gone all the way without making that misstep. This is quite a feat. It means that you've known all about every footstep you've taken. That would be business enough for most people, wouldn't it? But in addition you've managed to see EVERYTHING on that side of the mountain--especially patches of brown. You've seen lots of patches of brown, and you've examined each one of them. Besides that, you've heard lots of little rustlings, and you've identified each one of them. To do all these things well keys your nerves to a high tension, doesn't it? And then near the top you look up from your last noiseless step to see in the brush a very dim patch of brown. If you hadn't been looking so hard, you surely wouldn't have made it out. Perhaps, if you're not humble-minded, you may reflect that most people wouldn't have seen it at all. You whistle once sharply. The patch of brown defines itself. Your heart gives one big jump. You know that you have but the briefest moment, the tiniest fraction of time, to hold the white bead of your rifle motionless and to press the trigger. It has to be done VERY steadily, at that distance,--and you out of breath, with your nerves keyed high in the tension of such caution."

"NOW what are you talking about?" she broke in helplessly.

"Oh, didn't I mention it?" I asked, surprised. "I was telling you why I could bear to shoot deer."

"Yes, but--" she began.

"Of course not," I reassured her. "After all, it's very simple. The reason I can bear to kill deer is because, to kill deer, you must accomplish a skillful elimination of the obvious."

My young lady was evidently afraid of being considered stupid; and also convinced of her inability to understand what I was driving at. So she temporized in the manner of society.

"I see," she said, with an air of complete enlightenment.

Now of course she did not see. Nobody could see the force of that last remark without the grace of further explanation, and yet in the elimination of the obvious rests the whole secret of seeing deer in the woods.

In traveling the trail you will notice two things: that a tenderfoot will habitually contemplate the horn of his saddle or the trail a few yards ahead of his horse's nose, with occasionally a look about at the landscape; and the old-timer will be constantly searching the prospect with keen understanding eyes. Now in the occasional glances the tenderfoot takes, his perceptions have room for just so many impressions. When the number is filled out he sees nothing more. Naturally the obvious features of the landscape supply the basis for these impressions. He sees the configuration of the mountains, the nature of their covering, the course of their ravines, first of all. Then if he looks more closely, there catches his eye an odd-shaped rock, a burned black stub, a flowering bush, or some such matter. Anything less striking in its appeal to the attention actually has not room for its recognition. In other words, supposing that a man has the natural ability to receive x visual impressions, the tenderfoot fills out his full capacity with the striking features of his surroundings. To be able to see anything more obscure in form or color, he must naturally put aside from his attention some one or another of these obvious features. He can, for example, look for a particular kind of flower on a side hill only by refusing to see other kinds.

If this is plain, then, go one step further in the logic of that reasoning. Put yourself in the mental attitude of a man looking for deer. His eye sweeps rapidly over a side hill; so rapidly that you cannot understand how he can have gathered the main features of that hill, let alone concentrate and refine his attention to the seeing of an animal under a bush. As a matter of fact he pays no attention to the main features. He has trained his eye, not so much to see things, as to leave things out. The odd-shaped rock, the charred stub, the bright flowering bush do not exist for him. His eye passes over them as unseeing as yours over the patch of brown or gray that represents his quarry. His attention stops on the unusual, just as does yours; only in his case the unusual is not the obvious. He has succeeded by long training in eliminating that. Therefore he sees deer where you do not. As soon as you can forget the naturally obvious and construct an artificially obvious, then you too will see deer.

These animals are strangely invisible to the untrained eye even when they are standing "in plain sight." You can look straight at them, and not see them at all. Then some old woodsman lets you sight over his finger exactly to the spot. At once the figure of the deer fairly leaps into vision. I know of no more perfect example of the instantaneous than this. You are filled with astonishment that you could for a moment have avoided seeing it. And yet next time you will in all probability repeat just this "puzzle picture" experience.

The Tenderfoot tried for six weeks before he caught sight of one. He wanted to very much. Time and again one or the other of us would hiss back, "See the deer! over there by the yellow bush!" but before he could bring the deliberation of his scrutiny to the point of identification, the deer would be gone. Once a fawn jumped fairly within ten feet of the pack-horses and went bounding away through the bushes, and that fawn he could not help seeing. We tried conscientiously enough to get him a shot; but the Tenderfoot was unable to move through the brush less majestically than a Pullman car, so we had ended by becoming apathetic on the subject.

Finally, while descending a very abrupt mountain-side I made out a buck lying down perhaps three hundred feet directly below us. The buck was not looking our way, so I had time to call the Tenderfoot. He came. With difficulty and by using my rifle-barrel as a pointer I managed to show him the animal. Immediately he began to pant as though at the finish of a mile race, and his rifle, when he leveled it, covered a good half acre of ground. This would never do.

"Hold on!" I interrupted sharply.

He lowered his weapon to stare at me wild-eyed.

"What is it?" he gasped.

"Stop a minute!" I commanded. "Now take three deep breaths."

He did so.

"Now shoot," I advised, "and aim at his knees."

The deer was now on his feet and facing us, so the Tenderfoot had the entire length of the animal to allow for lineal variation. He fired. The deer dropped. The Tenderfoot thrust his hat over one eye, rested hand on hip in a manner cocky to behold.

"Simply slaughter!" he proffered with lofty scorn.

We descended. The bullet had broken the deer's back--about six inches from the tail. The Tenderfoot had overshot by at least three feet.

You will see many deer thus from the trail,--in fact, we kept up our meat supply from the saddle, as one might say,--but to enjoy the finer savor of seeing deer, you should start out definitely with that object in view. Thus you have opportunity for the display of a certain finer woodcraft. You must know where the objects of your search are likely to be found, and that depends on the time of year, the time of days their age, their sex, a hundred little things. When the bucks carry antlers in the velvet, they frequent the inaccessibilities of the highest rocky peaks, so their tender horns may not be torn in the brush, but nevertheless so that the advantage of a lofty viewpoint may compensate for the loss of cover. Later you will find them in the open slopes of a lower altitude, fully exposed to the sun, that there the heat may harden the antlers. Later still, the heads in fine condition and tough to withstand scratches, they plunge into the dense thickets. But in the mean time the fertile does have sought a lower country with patches of small brush interspersed with open passages. There they can feed with their fawns, completely concealed, but able, by merely raising the head, to survey the entire landscape for the threatening of danger. The barren does, on the other hand, you will find through the timber and brush, for they are careless of all responsibilities either to offspring or headgear. These are but a few of the considerations you will take into account, a very few of the many which lend the deer countries strange thrills of delight over new knowledge gained, over crafty expedients invented or well utilized, over the satisfactory matching of your reason, your instinct, your subtlety and skill against the reason, instinct, subtlety, and skill of one of the wariest of large wild animals.

Perversely enough the times when you did NOT see deer are more apt to remain vivid in your memory than the times when you did. I can still see distinctly sundry wide jump-marks where the animal I was tracking had evidently caught sight of me and lit out before I came up to him. Equally, sundry little thin disappearing clouds of dust; cracklings of brush, growing ever more distant; the tops of bushes waving to the steady passage of something remaining persistently concealed,--these are the chief ingredients often repeated which make up deer-stalking memory. When I think of seeing deer, these things automatically rise.

A few of the deer actually seen do, however, stand out clearly from the many. When I was a very small boy possessed of a 32-20 rifle and large ambitions, I followed the advantage my father's footsteps made me in the deep snow of an unused logging-road. His attention was focused on some very interesting fresh tracks. I, being a small boy, cared not at all for tracks, and so saw a big doe emerge from the bushes not ten yards away, lope leisurely across the road, and disappear, wagging earnestly her tail. When I had recovered my breath I vehemently demanded the sense of fooling with tracks when there were real live deer to be had. My father examined me.

"Well, why didn't you shoot her?" he inquired dryly.

I hadn't thought of that.

In the spring of 1900 I was at the head of the Piant River waiting for the log-drive to start. One morning, happening to walk over a slashing of many years before in which had grown a strong thicket of white popples, I jumped a band of nine deer. I shall never forget the bewildering impression made by the glancing, dodging, bouncing white of those nine snowy tails and rumps.

But most wonderful of all was a great buck, of I should be afraid to say how many points, that stood silhouetted on the extreme end of a ridge high above our camp. The time was just after twilight, and as we watched, the sky lightened behind him in prophecy of the moon.

[The end]
Stewart Edward White's essay: On Seeing Deer