I think it was a few months before starting my nature and writing project that I read The Doe’s Song by Leath Tonino and it nearly moved me to tears – quite a feat. It stuck with me and remained powerful when reread.
When I started to read Writing About Nature: A Creative Guide, I found suggestions for exercise which included looking at other people’s nature writing. I thought of The Doe’s Song and handily rediscovered my printed copy when I was tidying up. Whilst the guide suggests well known essays by well known authors to turn to for the exercises, I wanted to stick to something which had resonated so strongly. I knew this could only be The Doe’s Song or some of Rachel Carson’s work, and I had already peered intently at the writing of the latter.
I am halfway through the creative guide and so far I have been steered through journals, essays, writing process, openings and closings and word pictures. So it is through the lens of these aspects that I inspect and dissect The Doe’s Song.
The essay opens with a striking image – a deer being hit by a car. From this, we know right away that this is likely to be an article about people, cars and deer. All of this is revealed in the first four words. It is an in media res opening, that is, it starts in the middle of the action.
Like much of the essay, the opening paragraph involves a lot of repetition. The deer is referred to as “the deer” (as opposed to he/she/it) throughout, the phrase totals seven uses in five sentences. In the second paragraph we discover “she was a doe, not sure how old.” Still in the first paragraph, we find “fell back down to the pavement” used twice to end the first two sentences which emphasises this point. Following these two sentences, we start to find more descriptive language with a simile comparing the deer’s broken leg to a scarf. As the author notes, “the whole thing took maybe thirty seconds, a minute tops” and so it’s appropriate that we find here a short first paragraph.
The second paragraph introduces us to the author and in some ways, the structure echoes that of the first paragraph. The first two sentences include a lot of repetition: “when she slammed the brakes we slammed the brakes. We saw the deer try to stand and we saw the deer fall and we saw the deer rise and run.” This architecture is found elsewhere in the essay, both in terms of the repetition and the use of and where one could have chosen to use commas instead.
In contrast to this scene of a car accident and the injured doe, we are it was a “soft evening” when a deer was “struck with the force of rockfall and lightening”, and these phrases repeat as the essay continues. We find this contradicting image repeated and the tension between the suburbia and the wild enhanced because of it. We hear of spots of blood in the same sentence as children laughing and playing. The death of the deer is part of this everyday life where homework and fine houses co-exist with pain and suffering.
The third paragraph is where we see another construct that the author repeats. It, almost ironically, is the repeated use of “I will repeat that” as a way to emphasise key points.
“It was the kind of place where deer are hit every day. I will repeat that: every day… I looked inside the chipmunk. I will repeat that: I looked inside.”
“Do you think it will be okay? Do you think it will live?” are another couple of sentences which are woven throughout the essay. It is a version of these which form the first narrative and go on to form most of the narrative.
Towards the start of the essay, we are introduce to the idea of a song for the deer and it continues to weave it’s way through, from our narrator standing over the injured doe to the American Indians thanking the deer for their gift to the final song.
The author has chosen a non linear timeline which allows him to incorporate memories from different times in his life as well as the anecdotes of others. This adds flesh to the opening incident and allows the author to expand on themes and ideas whilst remaining within the twenty four hours between opening and closing. This keeps the initial incident fresh but provides space for discussion of bigger ideas.
Like in most nature writing, we find specifics which make the words come to life. Instead of a bland list of roadkill, we are told of:
“the early dow in the Adirondacks, the second with her neck snapped back, the skunk whose white stripe was red, the mash of porcupine…”
Part way through, we return to Jennifer on the same day as the accident. We are shown a domestic, everyday scene but, with the words “nobody mentioned the deer”, we are reminded that the doe hangs over these characters, a ghostly presence, unspoken but unforgettable.
For me, the most important diversion from the doe of the title is the recollection of rescue work in the wilderness. The heavy realisation that sometimes you can’t save people, sometimes you can’t help them. This is a difficult concept to accept and one that requires you to process things. The whole essay feels, to me, like the author processing the opening incident. A way of clearing things up for himself, a way of accepting that there was nothing he could do for that deer. Throughout the essay we are offered coping and processing techniques. There is the cataloguing of pain through the list of road kill. Getting on with the everyday such as preparing food and watching TV. Facing things head on: “Often I’ve sat on the ground and forced myself to be still, to inhale, to look hard and long.” With the wilderness anecdote we are shown the importance of discussion in processing things. Another story shows the beauty of ritual and honouring the dead – the Navajos sing to the deer as it is dying and apologise through ritual.
“The most we can do is pause, pray, give thanks, apologize, make ceremonies, make them a part of the very life that kills other lives.”
The detour into dissection provides another way of coming to terms with death. Through careful investigation, “the dead animal [brings] to life what can be so much jargon , so many diagrams on the page.” Here the deer, whilst dead, still has a purpose, still offers something to the world. And by unpicking layer after layer, we get to know a creature. Over time, the dissected animal begins to decompose, in a similar way, over time, to how we hope our own pain will decompose, will become fertile and will give life to something. In this case, the result of the trauma, over time, becomes this essay.
After the detour into dissection, the author circles out the idea of the accidental death, calling it slaughter and summoning up a more brutal version of the incident. Here he asks us to consider “What if the doe is not a deer? What if it doe is an aquifer, an ocean, the night’s very darkness?” In doing so, he is pulling us into bigger world issues, into discussion of how man affects the world and what the consequences of this are. This feels like it could, itself, be the ending. An ending of rhetorical questions and philosophical ponderings.
But instead we return for the final time to Jennifer and her question: “Do you think that deer is going to die?”. This potentially bleak ending transforms as we find our characters are able to laugh and make coffee. The deer is not ok, but they will be. There is hope. The author sings “that gentle tune, the tune for the doe, the song of goodbye, which I still remember today, years later.” And it is with this that we find ourselves left with an image which haunts both reader and writer. There is a finality to the incident here, and a farewell. We are not left with the heartache and pain of the deer, instead we are left with the reminder that life goes on. We cannot help everyone.