Photo by Sam Greenhalgh.
Photo by Sam Greenhalgh.

Every muscle in my body tensed, and a knotted cocktail of fear and nerves pushed my stomach up into my chest. I wasn’t there to make a scene, but I prepared to transition to a sprint at a moment’s notice. I tried vainly to resist making eye contact, but neither of us could resist the strange magnetism of the other’s presence.

“HONK!!” The foul-tempered fowl broke the silence. Its honk was not overtly aggressive, but there was certainly a hint of warning. I can’t say I wasn’t disappointed; I know that geese aren’t renowned for their friendliness, but my intentions were so pure. Part of why I go running is to commune with nature, to revel in its beauty. Anything less than an open-armed welcome stings. But then again, could I blame it? Here I was in man-made shoes and man-made clothing running on a man-made trail along a man-made canal—in what universe does this count as “communing with nature?”

I reflected on my relationship with that goose throughout the remainder of that run, and I collected some of my thoughts in written form once I was back in my room. Some of these ideas I eventually turned into a song (alternately titled “Mother(-duckin’) Goose” or “A Honk, a Honk of Burning Love.”) I saw eight geese total on that run, and while only one even acknowledged me, their collective impact was profound.

I have a complicated relationship with wildlife interaction. In 6th grade I wrote a letter to then-California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger requesting he reintroduce the state’s zoo animals into the wild—but I continued visiting zoos. My poor shivering mother will attest to my childhood fascination with the Splash Zone at Sea World—no one was more excited for Shamu to belly flop than I was. Who would have guessed that in high school that same kid would write a song from the perspective of a captured orca who slowly loses his mind, eventually killing his trainer? (Sample lyric: “Stuck in endless boredom, this toothy smile I flash is just a sham, ooh, / I’m just a sham, ooh”—go on, say that last part out loud and be impressed.)

“Mother(-duckin’) Goose,” instead of fully entering the non-human’s mind, largely takes the form of a conversation. The eponymous bird embraces the role of a hardline conservationist, lecturing me on the importance of eliminating human impact. “You call yourself a flower child, / Yet you don’t understand the wild,” he charges. I try to defend myself: “Yes I’m sorry for intruding, / Sorry my people keep on polluting, / But I’m just a vegan trying to get closer to nature.” The goose turns it into a history lesson, remembering how much nicer things were before the rise of hominids: “Then along came the bipedal monkey, / That’s when things started to get funky.” I am chastened, but not without hope: “We can make our peace and start anew / We can join the same team, me, the geese, and you.” The song ultimately shares my optimism, probably because I wrote it, and it ends with my goose friend visiting me in my dorm room to declare, “Maybe, just maybe it’s not too late for you to adapt; / We both can learn to adapt!”

But I do not think my song will go down in history as the last word on the subject. I really like the wilderness, and I would love to believe that when I am in it something fundamentally good is happening, but I can’t shake the feeling sometimes that everything would be a lot better off if we just fenced ourselves in and left it alone. The debate, in a nutshell: do I let nature be, or do I do my best to work her into my life?

All of these thoughts came to a head this summer in an experience I am not likely to soon forget. What follows is a transcription from an electronic diary I started specifically for the occasion, with only the most minor of edits to increase clarity and adapt to the change in format:

Deer Diary,

It is 12:26am on Sunday June 30th, and I just returned from a magical run. I ran along the towpath, nearly blind in the night, but I was not without light. Right in front of me, and across the stream, the trees sparkled with fireflies, literally thousands of them. I felt like I was in a Disney movie, or on the estate of a wealthy and bored decorations enthusiast at Christmastime. It was breathtaking, and this would have been enough to call the run a success.

Returning to campus, running along Faculty Road, I saw a deer ahead of me on the path. It saw me too. I decided to try a slightly roundabout route—I would still pass very close by the deer, but perhaps my indirect approach would not frighten it off. But I was not the only one who saw him.

Less subtly than I, a car pulled to a stop in the road, windows rolled down. I dimly heard soothing noises, attempts to seduce the deer into coming closer, but he was unimpressed. The car drove off, and I saw that another deer was right across the road. The first crossed the street to join the second, and they began peacefully grazing. I increased the curvature of my walk, moving into a large but shrinking circle, observing the deer the whole time. They were certainly aware of me, periodically pausing their feast to stare at me, but I made sure I was never moving directly toward them, and this appeared to satisfy them. In those few moments when they were focused on me, I did my best to appear non-threatening, trying to exude passiveness and peacefulness from every pore—I do not know if they can sense such things, and perhaps this was rather silly, but it was all I could do.

After one complete revolution my spiral had tightened considerably. I was now observing them head on from only a few feet away. The closer one, a male by his budding antlers (or so I intuited—my deer knowledge is far from complete), was looking at me more often, and we made solid eye contact for several seconds. I feared greatly that they would run away, not only because that would cut our bonding experience short, but because it would mark the complete failure of my mission—what I wanted more than anything was to be accepted, if not understood, and to scare them away, to interrupt their grazing, would simply be one more unwanted human interference in their lives. Had they run, I might have hated myself.

But they did not—in fact, it seemed they grew bored of me; the grass was much more interesting. I contemplated standing there all night, but it had already been several minutes, and I didn’t have an end game.

Did I want to ride off on the deer? Run and frolic with them? I decided I was content enough to let them be. I continued my spiral path forward, and passed even closer to their flank, I just barely in the street, they just barely out of it. I became conscious of a third deer across the street, watching me intently. It struck me that I was quite lucky that deer are not aggressive—they had me outnumbered and surrounded.

I took a last glance at the deer to my left, wondering if we were at all connected through some transcendental or biological fiber, and if so, if they cared. I was suddenly overwhelmed by the gulf between us. Here I was on a paved road, lit up by a streetlamp. How could I hope for them to see me as part of their world? Overcome by an urge to appear less alien, I peeled off my shirt—no small task considering all the sticky sweat the humid night had coaxed out of me. Were I not standing in the middle of a street, I undoubtedly would have shed my shorts as well—as it was, the idea still tempted me.

I do not entirely understand what I hoped to accomplish, motivated only by the vague but incontrovertible idea that wild animals do not, generally speaking, wear clothing. But I seem to have been onto something. As my head finally emerged from the damp cloth and I balled it up into my right hand, I noticed the deer closest to me watching with great interest. I slowly lowered my right hand, and sure enough, the deer’s gaze followed my t-shirt obsessively, as if it were dangerous, or edible, or both. He took a tentative step toward me, shortening an already trivial gap. Unsure what he wanted, I dropped my shirt onto the street and backed slowly away from it. This seemed to satisfy the deer, and he returned to his meal. He did not even look up when I returned to retrieve my shirt.

Then I walked home, reflecting on what had happened. I had a thought I have had many times before about many different animals, namely: if one could somehow explain to the deer just how cool and fascinating and beautiful and majestic I find it, it would be baffled and think I was crazy. And it might be right.

While I can be a preachy environmentalist on occasion (ask me about my goose song sometime), that isn’t the point of this anecdote. Humans have put forth a lot of effort to separate themselves from nature—we spend most of our time indoors, we use artificial light while leaving the sun largely untapped as an energy source, and we have essentially removed ourselves from the food chain. But isn’t it, in a sense, weird that when I go backpacking, when I go for a run, even when I eat lunch sitting against a tree trunk, I am so awed by my surroundings?

That I, by and large a godless man, find such spiritual fulfillment in simply pretending to belong to that larger ecosystem? That I should come so close to stripping naked on a public street simply because I felt out of place interacting with the biosphere that, whether we like it or not, we are technically a part of?

I wish that my deer encounter were unremarkable (and, to be fair, deer are far from a rare sight in many populated areas—it probably was unremarkable until I decided to remark). I wish that it were normal to accept a role within this planet, thriving as a member instead of constantly trying to tame it. But it’s not, so a part of me is left incomplete, only filled in those moments when I stand before a forest of fireflies, go hiking with my dog, stop to watch (and photograph) squirrels around campus, or give a striptease to a couple of innocent deer.

It’s been over three months, and I remain convinced that, while perhaps unorthodox, my actions were wholly justified.

I am Oedipal for Mother Earth, and maybe that’s kind of weird but I might as well embrace it. I don’t mean to say I wish I were wandering around naked and alone in a forest somewhere—I do love my family, my science, my novels, my friends, my piano, and I would be speaking falsely to say I could easily give such things up, or even that I want to. But I also can’t believe that it’s too late, that civilization is completely incompatible with the outdoors. I have seen signs that, as the mother-duckin’ goose suggested, we can in fact learn to adapt.

Leading an Outdoor Action trip this fall, I was fascinated by the “moldering privies” located at each of our campsites in the Berkshires of Massachusetts. Generally on OA I prefer to dig my own hole, but these outhouses were the ideal fusion of human and organic that I’d been searching for.

They boasted a single-spaced eight-and-a-half by eleven page of information on their scientific and philosophical motivations—perfect reading material while you dump. Inside of each privy is a bucket of “duff,” a mix of leaves, dirt, and other natural bounties raked up from the nearby brush. Upon completion of your business, you simply sprinkle a light blanket of duff over your dung, and voila!—the aerobic bacteria of the soil get to work in a (relatively) quick and (not quite) odorless conversion of your waste into something productive. Despite my firm commitment to the program’s “Leave No Trace” ethos, I felt this was one trace I could be proud of.

I couldn’t help but think of my dog back home, instinctively burying his feces without anyone having to tell him to. What a champ. And so was I: every time after I pooped, artfully layering my duff, I couldn’t help but smile and feel warm. Our species might not be the most effective at giving back to this world, but hey, we’re catching up.