Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Ghost Deer and Other Miracles of the Northwest Branch

We went out to the Rachel Carson Trail on the Northwest Branch (just upstream of Colesville Road) this weekend to get one last look at the mountain laurels before their flowers fade. We went in the evening, hoping to see more critters around sunset. But we never expected this.

First, the cool stuff we did expect: We checked on the wood thrush nest we discovered a week and a half ago, and one of the eggs had hatched, with one of the scrawniest, ugliest, most miraculous little baby birds I have ever seen. We didn't see the piliated woodpeckers at the nest we spotted last time, but further down the trail, we saw downy woodpeckers flying to and from their nest repeatedly, and we could hear the babies inside squawking. The tadpoles in the frog pond are getting their legs -- and we found some crawdads in there too. We stopped to watch the sunset on a hillside of mountain laurels. And after the sun was down, we walked back to a beaver dam to see if we could spot a beaver before the light completely faded.

There was no beaver. But on the way to the dam, we saw several groups of deer browsing. And, when we reached the dam, standing only a few feet from the trail, was an all white deer. In the fading light, the four deer it was with were harder and harder to see, but the ghost deer stood on the hillside, glowing, and looked at us for quite a while before it walked up and over the hill.

I'm reminded of the legend of White Buffalo Woman, who is supposed to return four times in the guise of a white buffalo and usher in an era of peace and understanding, if we're ready for it. Apparently there are also legends about white deer: for the Housatonic Indians, the killing of a white deer by a French military officer led to an era of wars, blights, and displacement. (I'm not sure the deer was really the problem, but the symbolism is potent).

A Chickasaw story follows the classic storyline of a father asking an impossible price (a white deer) before a suitor can wed his daughter. The suitor never returns, but the daughter never marries, because she sees a white deer every full moon in the smoke of her campfire.

But this was no campfire. It was right there in front of us. Right on the Northwest Branch of the Anacostia.