The fields have been empty for weeks. The roe deer have slipped away to their secret places, so I will have to summon them to a page instead.
We British live, essentially, in padded rooms, though most of the time we can’t see the soft blind walls around us. We are insulated from the wild. The biggest undomesticated animal we’re likely to encounter in our daily lives is a fox; a low shape caught for a moment in the sodium street light, or a loud rustle in the bushes along the road.
Now, a deer.
A deer is a gift. A big bright shape that never fails to make me suck a breath in, as sweetly searing to the eyes as chocolate is on the tongue.
The roe deer is one of the British Isles’ two native deer species, the other being the red deer; the fallow, the sitka, the muntjac and the Chinese water deer are all introduced (though that last one is probably obvious). Roe deer may be a fair bit smaller than red deer, but they’re still far bigger than a fox. Arresting.
Deer are shy, though like many animals crushed into the margins by human development, they can learn to be more tolerant. Here near Chichester, the roe deer have a pretty short flight distance for their kind—as in, they won’t necessarily run until you’re about twenty-five metres away. Little woods dot the land around here like knots along a thread, but the great open fields offer food, and running away at the first sight of every walker means spending a lot of energy and losing out on a lot of calories.
In the summer, the roe deer are at their most glorious. Their fur is russet, and when they run beneath the sun they gleam. Once, two males—only the males have antlers, dainty as these are—burst out of the undergrowth in front of me to sprint away across the field. The light illuminated their musculature. They were sculpted out of perfection. Vital beating undying life.
Roe deer don’t live in great herds like red deer. They’re solitary, until winter draws in and they begin to gather in small groups. Three, four, five are common to see. Their fur has dulled to brown-grey now, making them even harder to spot. For even in the huge hedge-less fields, until they move, they can be invisible. Flight gives them away. If only they could realise.
On the rarer occasions when I notice a deer standing still, I take on the role of an actor. I don’t slow my pace. I pretend indifference, like a lion ambling past a herd of zebra to drink at the waterhole. But I watch the deer, feasting on the sight of them for as long as I can. Weaving joy out of simply being in their presence.
The last time I saw a group of deer was over a month ago now. Most likely, the recent ploughing-up of their usual fields has sent them in search of food elsewhere. I clutch the memory instead: walking along the path when one deer broke into being and ran away, towards three other deer I had of course not noticed, even though they were surprisingly close. About twenty metres away. And then: while one kept watch on me, another bent its head to the ground, snuffling away, while the last two touched noses with each other.
They did not mind me.