I was clambering my way up a briar-clad creek bank, grabbing at bushes and bare dirt, when something caught my eye. I’ve learned to pay attention to these anomalies. Something
I was clambering my way up a briar-clad creek bank, grabbing at bushes and bare dirt, when something caught my eye. I’ve learned to pay attention to these anomalies. Something snags a piece of your peripheral vision like a beggar’s-lice latched to your pants, and you either ignore it or explore it. I tend toward the latter, especially in the woods. Whatever it is, it could be interesting. Could be trash. Could be an old enamelware pot moldering in the leaves. Could be a chupacabra about to pounce and suck my blood. That’s a long shot, but I’m just saying: I pay attention.
What it was, was a little slash of cream against the winter-brown forest floor. I got down on my hands and knees and wormed my arm through old blackberry vines to reach it. It was a shed deer antler, with four points to the side. And while I stood there, running my finger over the places where mice or squirrels had gnawed on the antler for its minerals, the peripheral vision of the other eye fired off a message to my brain, and I turned my head. There was the other antler. A matched set of sheds. A rarity.
It’s an intimate moment, a moment of vulnerability, and I often wonder what a buck thinks when all of a sudden its headgear goes missing.
At some point in time — a few years ago, judging by how bleached and worn the antlers appeared — an eight-point white-tailed buck had stood in this very spot and shed its antlers. It happens to buck deer every winter: After the breeding season, a drop in testosterone weakens the connective structures that hold antler to skull. Something jars the antler just so — perhaps the deer jumps a fence or sticks its head in a briar patch — and it drops off. It’s an intimate moment, a moment of vulnerability, and I often wonder what a buck thinks when all of a sudden its headgear goes missing.
Over the past few years, shed hunting has become a popular hobby. Folks hit the woods in late January and February to search for dropped antlers. You can even train a dog to do your hunting and retrieve sheds on command. But I’m a fan of simplicity and serendipity. I’d rather wander into a deer shed by accident than track it down like an Easter egg. There’s something wondrous and affecting about stumbling across tactile evidence of the hidden lives of wild animals. Hidden, of course, until you happen to be belly-crawling up a creek bank.
Holding those old sheds, I knew that, at some point in time, I shared with a wild creature this exact piece of terra firma. This precise little dot on our spinning planet whirling through the cosmos. I’m not saying that it was a life-changing moment. But it did elicit a sense of gratefulness. I stood there feeling thankful that places like this still exist.
• • •
In some respects, the fact that I found a shed antler in that specific briar bramble seems fitting. This little piece of North Carolina is just about as wild as it comes, and it’s not all that little. This stretch of the Neuse River, between Smithfield and Goldsboro, is one of the most remote, least-known regions in the Piedmont and Coastal Plain. The river runs for more than 20 miles without a bridge. A relatively undeveloped and nearly roadless floodplain sprawls across more than 70 square miles. It’s a place of family farms and untouched forests, an hour from downtown Raleigh, packed with giant cypress trees, wild hogs, fox squirrels, flocks of ducks, the occasional bear, and incredible numbers of birds.
It goes by a few nicknames. The “Lowgrounds,” for its swampy environs that embrace the river. The “Cowbones” is another: Over the ages, the Neuse River has overrun its banks, like how a garden hose whips around on the ground when you leave the water running. Several of those old, abandoned river channels are now oxbow lakes, cut off from the main stem of the Neuse. Viewed on an old topographic map or satellite photo, they look like cow bones strewn across the landscape.
But my favorite nickname for this area — the “Let’Lones” — springs from more intriguing circumstances. The region has plenty of copperheads and water moccasins, rumored quicksands, and ponds so deep that what falls in might never be found. Some people say it’s best to just let that place alone. It was also farmed and settled and moonshined by country folk who didn’t care much for outsiders poking around. So maybe it was best just to let those people alone, too.
I’ve kicked around down there for years, and whether it gets its moniker from venomous serpents or cantankerous locals, I can’t say for sure. But if I were an eight-point buck, I’d like to call the Let’Lones home. We all need a place where we can be let alone. We all have our moments of vulnerability, when we sense great change coming and we need to take stock of how to face the future.
It’s impossible to say whether that buck is still out there, roaming the Let’Lones. If he is, he’s about to shed his most recent set of antlers, if he hasn’t already. They’ll lie on the forest floor, ignored by all but the occasional rodent, unless someone like me wanders by. Someone always on the lookout for clues that we share this planet with a host of other beings — unseen, perhaps, but always out there, just beyond the corners of our eyes.print it