Deer Medicine: Learning Trust From the Natural World

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Stephanie Marohn tells the tale of two lost fawns in an excerpt from "What the Animals Taught Me."
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“What the Animals Taught Me” brings together stories about rescued farm animals at a shelter in Sonoma County, Calif., and shows what these animals can teach us. Each story illustrates how animals can help us reconnect with the natural world … and see and embrace others as they truly are. 

There are lessons to be learned from the natural world and its inhabitants. Writer Stephanie Marohn, living on a farm sanctuary, came to learn that from the animals she lived with, including deer. In the following excerpt from What the Animals Taught Me (Red Wheel, 2012), her book about the experience, she writes of her realization that “trust in a relationship provides space for us to be our fullest selves. In trust, we can step out of the headlights, out of our frozen fear, out of our fear of being revealed, and show the full range of our being. Without trust, it is difficult to be who we truly are.” 

You can buy this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: What the Animals Taught Me.

As spring turned into summer, the doe who had been playing tag with Gabriel in the pasture moved closer in. I knew it was the same one because her right ear was tattered.

Sometimes in the company of other deer, she took to napping under the cedar trees next to the house, where Wonder had been born. It was cool there and I put a bucket of water out for her and the turkeys, who also often hung out under the cedars, as well as on the cool cement of the patio and on the deck railing where there was a birdbath. Not wanting to interfere with the natural world, I did not feed the deer or the turkeys, but they came anyway. They seemed to have joined the sanctuary.

One morning, I saw the doe in the memorial garden, a grove of California lilacs and a redwood that had begun as a tribute to a deceased friend and become the burial site for beloved animals. A stream of light from the newly risen sun bathed her in gold and I heard her name as clearly as if someone had spoken it: Angel.

As the foraging grew scant in the dried fields of summer, I took to leaving apples out for Angel. She didn’t seem to be leaving the property as she used to. (Deer could easily jump the fence; I had seen them do it.) I placed the apples under the apple tree when she was not around because I didn’t want her to associate humans with food and possibly expose herself to danger somewhere else.

One June afternoon, I stepped out on the patio and there was Angel under the nearby pear tree. Pegasus, Gabriel, and the sheep visited the tree daily as soon as the blossoms had dropped and the pears began to grow, ever hopeful of finding fruit on the ground. Angel, looking plump and healthy, moved slowly away, unalarmed but appropriately careful. The next day, I looked out the kitchen window to see her at the corner of the house in the shelter of the laurel tree and climbing rose. She looked more than plump; she looked pregnant. I wondered if that was why she had been hanging around the house so much in recent days, sticking close for safety, knowing that she was going to give birth soon and that I could be trusted.

Animals were now regularly visiting my dreams. Sometimes it was one or more of the animals on the sanctuary, but often it was another species–a bear, a sea lion, cats, dogs, rats, an owl, a hawk, sea turtles, rabbits, an opossum, dolphins, even a hippopotamus and a camel. Sometimes in the dream the animals needed my help, sometimes they carried a message, sometimes they seemed just to be stopping by for a visit–maybe checking out this new animal helper they had heard about from other animals. That night, after seeing Angel under the roses, she came into my dreams with two tiny fawns, the youngest I had ever seen.

She seemed to want to show them to me. In the dream, I welcomed the babies, praised their beauty, and thanked Angel for bringing them to visit me. I awoke feeling honored that she had.

I didn’t see Angel all that next day and wondered if she had given birth the night before. Had my dream been in real time?

Deer Medicine

Two days later I was out in the field taking morning pictures of the sheep when vultures rose out of the bushes in the second pasture. With trepidation, I went to investigate, moving slowly along the path made by the animals through the brush. Then I saw what had drawn the vultures– the body of a deer lying in a thicket of bushes.

Part of the hind end was eaten. Oh, sweet Angel. I tried to see the right ear to see if it was tattered, but the deer was lying on her right side. With a heavy heart, I turned away. As I began to walk toward the first pasture, two beautiful fawns sprang out of the brush and bounded by me. They ran into the first pasture and went to the water trough. Tiny little feet, tiny black noses, tiny little beings. The youngest fawns I had ever seen–just like in the dream. Had Angel shown them to me after she died giving birth? To tell me to take care of them?

I ran into the house and called a wildlife care center to find out what I should do. They gave me the phone number of Marjorie Davis, the head of Fawn Rescue. As I made the call, I thought, how wonderful that there is an organization dedicated to rescuing fawns! Marjorie herself answered the phone and, after hearing what had happened, she said she and a helper would come right over to assess the situation. They were there by ten a.m.

The first thing Marjorie wanted to do was see the deer’s body. Back at the thicket, I pointed to where the brown deer blended into the brush around her, making her hard to see. Marjorie, then eighty-three years old, ducked under branches and had almost to crawl to reach the body. She sat next to it, poked the belly with a stick, and looked for fetus bones or any sign that the deer had given birth to other babies. I had told her that I had seen Angel three days before and she had looked pregnant, but based on my description of the fawns, Marjorie said they were at least a week old and could be as much as ten days old. She held up the deer’s right ear for me. I had told her, too, about the tattered ear. My heart sank again–yes, there was the tatter. So it was Angel.

Marjorie explained that the pregnant look could have been from bloating from an internal condition, perhaps a complication that set in after birth. This was a fresh carcass, she said–no maggots and the brain hadn’t been eaten. She explained that vultures eat the brain early on. I was impressed by her matter-of-fact relationship with nature.

At that point in my country education, I was still made a bit queasy by the thought of maggots and of brains being eaten. Then we tried to catch the fawns. Marjorie has a setup to care for motherless fawns until they are viable and can be returned to their natural habitat. Her approach keeps the fawns wild and thus not compromised for later survival.

The fawns had gotten through the gate by the barn–I couldn’t believe they had fit through the small openings in the metal grid of the gate. They were standing together by the honeysuckle on the fence, seeming at a loss as to what to do.

Moving slowly without speaking so as to avoid stressing the fawns, Marjorie, her assistant, and I managed to herd one into the first pasture, while his sister ran along the outside of the fence toward the second pasture. We heard her crying in the blackberries–she sounded like a cross between a kitten and a rabbit. It soon became clear that we were not going to be able to catch either of them. We finally got them back together in the first pasture and left it at that.

Marjorie said she would give me supplies to bottle-feed them. “When they are hungry enough, they will walk right up to you and suck on your finger,” she said.

Marjorie concluded that these were indeed Angel’s fawns because they kept trying to head back to her body.

Marjorie also felt that something had been wrong with Angel to make her stay on the property because it was not good deer habitat–not enough to eat and no oak trees; oak leaves are one of their preferred foods. Deer are not grazers, she said, adding that when deer look like they are grazing, they are actually eating the little plants amidst the grass, not the grass itself.

After Marjorie left, I tried numerous times the rest of that day to get the fawns to come for a bottle, without success. Though they wouldn’t let me get too close, they looked at me unperturbed. I worried that they were getting dehydrated, until I saw them drink from the water trough.

But, too young to digest leaves and other plants, they were getting no sustenance and Marjorie said they couldn’t survive long. She decided they would be better off in her setup and came back to try again to catch them. Again, the fawns eluded us. Marjorie shook her head in amazement at their continued strength.

On the third try, we managed to barricade the female in the barn. Marjorie sent me in to get her. The little one was running here and there, seeking a way out, sliding on the wood floor with her tiny hooves. I took hold of her and she let out a blood-curdling scream. I imagined such a sound might shock a predator into dropping a fawn–a good defense mechanism. Marjorie had told me to put my body across the baby. I dropped into the sleeping child yoga position with her between my legs, my chest over her, but putting no weight on her. She screamed some more and I silently sent her messages: I’m your mother’s friend and am here to help you; now you will get some food; don’t worry, we’ll bring your twin to you.

Marjorie came in with a dog carrier and I put the fawn in on the soft blanket lining the bottom. Marjorie draped the carrier with another blanket, saying that the fawn would stop kicking if she couldn’t see a way out. We carried her out to Marjorie’s truck and made plans to try to catch the brother the next day.

That afternoon, I went out repeatedly hoping for a glimpse of the brother to reassure myself that he was all right. He didn’t show himself until dusk. When he finally appeared, he seemed unfazed by his experiences, calmly foraging (or at least, seeming to) until I tried to herd him back into the first pasture. With one bound, he disappeared into the brush.

The next morning, I asked Sparrow, my highly attuned tabby cat, to guide me to the fawn. I called upon Angel, too, to lead me to her baby. I had only gone a few steps on the path in the second pasture when I saw him ahead of me, walking along the path–behind a doe! Was it Angel? Before I could see her ear, they were gone.

I rushed back to the house to call Marjorie. “Bring the fawn back!” I told her. “The mother isn’t dead.”

That explained what had happened when Marjorie had tried to feed the fawn she had taken. The little one had stamped her tiny hoof in defiance and fought not to eat. Marjorie was amazed at her strength–how could this be?

The baby also had her back molars, which meant that she was at least two weeks old. Fawns lie low for two weeks, wherever their mother places them, and only start following the doe after that.

So the fawns were not motherless, after all. Marjorie always cautions people not to move fawns from where they are found because their mother may just be out foraging.

In our case, all the facts had seemed to point to the fawns being motherless, Marjorie assured me. She brought the fawn back and we watched happily as the little sister bounded from the carrier into the brush. That afternoon, I saw the two fawns together, nibbling in the grass. No doe in sight, but I assumed she was somewhere nearby.

I felt bad at what we had put the babies through, but how were we to know, when they kept going back to the doe’s body? And I had learned so much from this event that had, after all, ended well.

But it wasn’t over yet. Three days later, I was at my writing desk when the doe and the two fawns walked by in the field below my windows. I ran for the binoculars and focused in on the doe’s right ear. Angel!

So they were her children. The other deer must have come to die on the sanctuary–a good safe place to let go into death. Were the matching tattered ears some kind of cosmic joke? The divine trickster at work? I didn’t mind being the source of entertainment, especially since the trickster had seen fit to send Angel back.

She wasn’t sick. She had chosen to live here, adapting to the perhaps less-than-optimal deer habitat. She could jump over the fence when she craved oak leaves, but for the rest of the time, she could roam the eight acres in perfect safety.

Something shifted with the arrival of the fawns. After that, Angel and her children were a constant presence and they behaved like the other animals, lifting their heads in greeting or curiosity when I passed by, but then returning unperturbedly to what they had been doing: eating, or in the case of the fawns, playing.

During the day, the fawns seemed to be everywhere; I would see them on one part of the property and then when I had crossed into another pasture, there they’d be, appearing as if by magic, like little fairies. When I called the other animals in at night, the deer were often by the dense blackberry thicket, munching on leaves. One night, the two fawns visited my dreams. We were walking together across a college campus, a fawn on either side of me. I had a hand resting on one of their backs and they were calm and self-possessed, knowing I would keep them safe. Upon waking, I saw that the sanctuary was the campus and I was the student.

One day in early August, about two months after the fawns were born, I came upon a startling sight. There in the golden field was Angel, with four fawns! They were happily foraging, all together. The four babies were the same size, clearly having been born around the same time.

After marveling at this turn of events in our deer odyssey, I called Marjorie to share the news. She, too, was amazed, and concluded that the dead doe must have been a mother, after all. She couldn’t understand how her two babies had survived. When I asked whether Angel might have fed them, she said it was unlikely. She explained that one doe will not nurse another’s fawns because she has only the amount of milk needed for the number of fawns she birthed. Cervine nursing is not a system of supply rising to meet demand.

But Angel was a remarkable deer. I was sure that she had taken care of all four fawns. Now that the deer were old enough to eat, I would help her by providing branches of grape, apple, and oak leaves for her biological and adopted offspring until they got big enough to jump the fence and forage for themselves. Daily, I was blessed with the vision of Angel and her four spotted fawns resting peacefully in the shade of the cedar trees next to the house or of the four fawns running around the stands of bushes in the golden field, chasing each other and pronging in youthful exuberance, while Angel grazed serenely nearby.

At the end of the summer, long after the vultures and the sun had finished their work, I crawled into the brush to visit the doe who had died there. Her bones were scattered, but her perfectly intact skull lay on the ground as if it had been placed there in reverent offering. I took it back to the house and let it bleach in the sun before placing it on my animal altar.

In the years that followed, I began attending monthly sweat lodges in a nearby town held by a medicine woman of the Lakota Sioux tradition. A sweat lodge is a ceremony of prayer, akin to going to church. Raised as a Quaker and being part of a Gaia circle (Earth-based spirituality that shares much with indigenous spiritual traditions), I responded immediately to the meditation of the lodge and soon was part of the lodge community. A few years after the adventure with the deer, I was packing for a women’s retreat with another Lakota Sioux medicine woman. Pondering what to take for the giveaway at the end, I realized I was ready to pass on the deer skull. I wrapped it in red cloth, as is the custom for gifts or offerings in this tradition. For a giveaway, each person brings a gift to place on the giveaway blanket on the ground or floor in the center of the ceremonial circle. The first person chooses a gift and the one who brought it then comes forward to choose one, and so on until all the gifts are given.

The person who received the deer skull told me afterward that she knew before she even walked up to the blanket which red-wrapped gift was meant for her, though she couldn’t see what it was. When she drew back the red cloth, she saw why. She is a medicine woman of the Potawatomi Thunder Clan and her name, Wawashkeshikwe, means White-tailed Deer Woman. Looking at her sitting across the circle from me, cradling the skull in her lap–she had laid it reverently on the red cloth and already adorned it with sage, which is sacred–I could see her strong connection with the spirit of the deer and her treasuring of this precious gift of Deer Medicine. My heart soared at the knowledge that the doe would from then on be part of Wawashkeshikwe’s sacred ceremonies.

Learning Unconditional Love: Lessons on Trust

I was privileged to learn the Way of the Deer. Because they trusted me, I got to see who they really are, beyond the gentle doe, the fairy fawn, and the frightened “deer in the headlights.” I learned that deer are spiritual warriors.

They have as much fierce determination as they do gentleness, but they know when to use each, when to stay still, and when to act. Like martial artists, one with qi, their energy expenditure is perfectly balanced. Deer move away from other beings only when they need to, and they know their capabilities so well that, even at the tender age of two weeks, they bound away at just the right moment, not a moment too soon or too late. They remain calm until the very moment when action is needed, at which point they leap bravely but still exert no more energy than is required.

The Way of the Deer teaches that all is not necessarily as it seems: the gentle deer is also a spiritual warrior.

Trust in a relationship provides space for us to be our fullest selves. In trust, we can step out of the headlights, out of our frozen fear, out of our fear of being revealed, and show the full range of our being. Without trust, it is difficult to be who we truly are. The people we trust the most are the people with whom we can be most fully ourselves.

There is another kind of trust, one that increases our ability to be trustworthy for others: trust in our own intuition, higher guidance, or whatever else you want to call that universal knowing. With Angel, I reached a new level of trusting the guidance that comes to me from other sources than the mind. I had already taken many steps on this path, but walking with her moved me further into the Mysteries. When I walked the land, looking around in wonder at the horse, donkey, sheep, and family of deer with whom I now shared a home, I began to trust that in our journey together I would be led where I needed to go.

As the other animals did, the fawns gave me a lesson in walking the mystical path with practical feet. I wasn’t allowed to dwell only in mystical communion with them.

When the fawns were full-grown, big enough to jump the fence, they rarely left, though Angel came and went. That was fine during the winter when greenery was plentiful, but in the dry summer months, they got hungry, roaming restlessly through the corrals looking for food, though when I had fed them, it was out in the field. This was a lesson in why it’s not a good idea to feed wildlife. They had gotten used to the food I had provided when they were too young to fend for themselves. I hadn’t had a choice then (letting them starve was not an option for me), but I didn’t want to encourage this dependence. If the property hadn’t been fenced, when I stopped supplying food, they might have simply wandered off while foraging. Instead, they stayed.

I called Marjorie to ask what I should do. She cautioned me that it’s illegal to keep wild animals fenced in. “But I’m not,” I protested. “They can easily jump the fence.”

She told me I had to make them leave, that I needed to get them outside the fence and then close the gate. Heartsore, I shut Pegasus, Gabriel, and the sheep in the first pasture, then opened the gate at the end of the drive and left it open overnight. The now-grown fawns didn’t leave. Finally, I had to put apples outside the gate to get them to walk out.

Feeling like I was betraying their trust, I closed the gate behind them. I hated to turn them out into the dangers of the world, but the eight acres couldn’t sustain them. They stayed by the gate for two days. Perhaps they left occasionally and came back, but every time I looked, there they were. I talked to them telepathically, telling them that I didn’t want to say good-bye, but we had to because there wasn’t enough food for them here, how very very sad I was to be parted from them, and how I wished we could have a sanctuary large enough to provide everything they needed for as long and whenever they wanted to be there. Finally, they gave up and moved on. I felt even sadder when I looked and they were gone.

All they had to do was jump the fence to get back to the sanctuary, and maybe they did when the green returned with the winter rains, but that was the end of the family as we had known it. Angel still passed through, sometimes with other does and stags, perhaps her fawns among them, but my job now was to keep my distance and help them stay wild.

In trust, we act for the other’s highest good, even when it is painful to us.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from What the Animals Taught Me by Stephanie Marohn and published by Red Wheel, 2012. Buy this book from our store: What the Animals Taught Me.