by Marie Gaglione
- Into the Woods
Most college students would readily submit that there are any number of external forces that inhibit their ability to perform or engage meaningfully with their academic endeavors, even when there is a genuine motivation and desire to do so, although such drives are often compromised by more compelling opportunities (see: survivor hour and other fun! college! activities!). There’s life outside of the university to contend with; relationships end, grandparents die, dads go to jail (the last one is particularly case-specific, but statistics on students with parents in prison would be an interesting metric to have). The necessary reaction to all of these things, for those students who have the means to carry on, is to carry on. These events can be managed, more or less, with the passage of time and the support of the community, in whatever sense of the word. There are Things One Can Do to move on from Hard Times.
I am no stranger to these external forces. Since I’ve been an undergrad, I’ve had partners become exes, I’ve lost my grandmas, I’ve been told over text of far too serious things. It’s an eerie dimension of the modern era that one can read of a friend’s suicide or a father’s prison time via instant message. We bounce from one screen to another in our waking hours and we pretend like Alexa isn’t recording our every word. Every day we let Google know our thoughts, our questions, our hopes, our fears; every day we feed into the ultimate hive mind, an unlimited data collective. We’re living in Bradbury’s fever dream with a heightened dose of Orwellian anxiety. And it’s the world today (in conjunction with certain childhood traumas and genetic predispositions) that contributes to what I’ve found far more difficult to overcome than the Hard Times: the internal forces.
The two ages I oscillate between when considering how long I’ve been depressed are seven and fifteen. At 22, that just means I’ve been depressed for either amount of time. I think about what qualifies as the true beginning – was it the cookie-cutter childhood I missed? Or the chemical dependency that’s kept me prisoner since high school? Was it when I first contemplated the unsustainable and toxic nature of capitalism, and does it get worse the more I study the climate patterns? Whatever the answer may be, the fact remains that a lot of the time I am sad (or worse – sad and panicked). And this isn’t said in an attempt to garner pity or gain sympathy because I’m being vulnerable – it’s the reality of my experience. And it’s relevant here, in a nature essay, because it’s what brought me to the white deer; it’s what made me abandon my car and belongings and head, without intention or explanation, into the woods.
- Mutations in Nature
It may be (and probably is) that a communion with wildlife and flowers and trees and dirt is nature’s SSRI. An unknown destination and tree-direct oxygen have always comforted me in ways that chemical happiness hasn’t, most likely due to my awareness of its non-construction. Certainly there have been many walks I’ve taken with the explicit purpose of breathing deeper breaths. My time with the deer was not a result of one such walk. There was no premeditation, no immediate purpose discernible beyond curiosity (is that an albino deer or an unhealthy and out-of-place goat?), yet I spent the better half of my Sunday taking small, quiet steps and mimicking the head movements of uncooked venison (a tasteless joke for a nature essay and another hardly necessary parenthetical clarification).
I have only a loose grasp on my thoughts pre-deer encounter, because the UVA medical system is a slow moving machine, and because I never try to get my medicine refilled until I’ve run out of it. While many people I have little in common with spent the day making superbowl snacks, I had paced, rather manically, up and down the downtown mall, pausing only to cry in corners and pop into toy stores to buy Thinking Putty. It’s not my natural state – if we take natural to mean without chemical interference – to be so fragile, but it is the consequence of a sudden withdrawal from the highest prescribable dose of a mood stabilizer. I’ve been there before, and it always manifests in frenzy. I feel disassociated; I do things for too long; I cry and laugh more than makes anyone comfortable. It’s frightening to be so exposed and fidgety. This is the most I can say for my headspace as I parked my car in an empty construction site and climbed a dirt mound in pursuit of the bleached oddity.
When I exited my car, the deer were still by the roadside. There was the white deer and two other standard-looking deer, which were more difficult to notice once we entered their domain of natural camouflage. Before they retreated into the trees, while they were grazing in the open, I sat on the earth and watched beside a gentle older woman who pulled over to satisfy some urge of her own. I didn’t ask her if she too had run out of medicine so I don’t know why she came and sat, but our silent communion eased my mind, I felt, and prepared me for my time with the deer. She went back to her car after a few minutes because probably she had Things To Do. I imagined she was a mystic, some kind of nature spirit guide who drove a Honda Pilot and came to sit with me until I was ready to follow the deer past the meadow. They entered the woods when she drove away.
After sustaining mild scrapes and pricks from the overgrown entrance to the wooded area, I found the white deer chomping his grass-dinner with the two brown deer. I use the masculine pronoun only because I felt that was the case, plus I saw him mount one of the other deer. He seemed minimally aware of any personal distinction, and the others didn’t treat him differently other than what I perceived to be a special awareness of his vulnerability. It was as though they knew his unique mutation left him exposed amidst the muted wood colors that so perfectly cloaked them in anonymity. Whenever I made a movement towards the three of them – however slight – it was their heads that lifted and him they moved towards. I imagined they were his friends, watching him only with love, a more appealing narrative than if they’d been his parents and probably disappointed in how he turned out.
Beyond a flimsy backstory for the deers’ relationship, I don’t remember having many thoughts during my time in the woods. I wasn’t reflecting on my decisions, I was just making decisions. Simple ones, like where to step, how to move. It was almost entirely instinct and usually mirrored the actions of the deer. The only time I was forced to produce normal human neural firings was when my phone rang. This displeased me so greatly I left it in a tree hole for the remainder of my time.
- Life Imitates Life
My hours with the deer were silent but for the crunching of sticks and my occasional attempt to engage him in some light banter. Though I was met with only silence on his part, I never felt neglected. When he tilted his head left, I tilted right; when he bent to eat, I crouched and made non-threatening gestures towards the ground. He would move deeper into the woods, and the brown deer would follow him, and I would take up the rear. We spent hours this way, a comfortable ritual that gradually but firmly reversed until he began mirroring my movements and stepping at me when I stepped back.
We spent hours that way, but I didn’t know that until the white fur was all I could see against the darkening landscape. A side effect of withdrawal I always feel particularly afflicted by is time loss. I once sat in a library booth for three hours with nine baby pinecones laid out on the table in front of me, so lost was I in contemplation of them. I was in a daze, but a productive one, and I wrote many mediocre and melodramatic poems musing on the fragility of baby pinecones and imagining them participating in a beauty pageant. The crumbliest pinecone was the most respected by all and won the pageant with a unanimous vote. The poems were followed by a manifesto declaring the end of my dependence on the little yellow pills, citing the outpouring of creativity and alleged clarity of mind. I resumed taking the medicine the next day after sobbing over a roadkilled squirrel.
So the white deer and I went, in perfect harmony, deeper into the woods. At times I advanced too quickly and they, startled at best, threatened at worst, picked up their clumsy-elegant walk to a hurried and anxious hop-trot. If there exists the right vocabulary to describe the movements of a panicked deer, I am lacking in it. When they flee, their front and back sets of legs operate like those on a rocking chair, propelling them forward and alternating in touching the ground. The transition from four legs moving almost independently to the front and back legs operating as one is visually stimulating, and at times I was tempted to startle them on purpose just to see it. I never did, despite there being an abundance of stones to throw. I only had to remember a few hours prior to my time on the mall and consider my reaction if someone had thrown a stone at me.
I feel as though I need not enumerate the many ways I saw myself staring out of those big eyes set in the shockingly white head of my companion. Many times to explain a metaphor is to kill its resonance, and it’s always a tragedy to say too much. I never felt pressured to tell the white deer I knew him, so I feel no pressure now to describe the parallels between a hyper-aware and serotonin-deficient individual crying on the mall and the position of the permanently vulnerable mutated deer other than to say that we can find similarities in our differences. There are parts of my brain that don’t protect me, that are by their very nature threatening to my existence and yet a fundamental and immutable facet of my being. We are here and our brains should allow that; the deer is brown and tan to blend in. But had I seen three brown deer, I likely wouldn’t have pulled over. I wouldn’t have entered the woods, and I wouldn’t have exited them with whatever ineffable sentiment I brought back with me. For those few hours, I was the white deer, and him me, and us there in the woods walking around as the sun set.
I’ve since gotten my prescription filled and returned to some degree of stability. It can be tempting to glamorize or glorify these times I sit closer to the ledge of my sanity. I make different decisions, I feel distinctly attuned to some kind of kinship with the natural world, and by the end of it I have something to write about. I dislike needing a supplement and it is difficult to feel fragile. But I am far more capable receiving the chemical boosts I do, now that my brain’s rewired this way, and you can’t write essays if you don’t leave the woods. If I take the medicine, my head does better, and it still isn’t the best at doing what it should, but I know how to feel sad, and I know how to talk about it. I get to craft the chaos and disorder into art; I get to tell my friends that they are not alone. The white deer will forever be at risk due to the mutation of some pigments, but there are few to no hunters in Charlottesville and I’d hate to know the man who’d shoot a white deer.