Afternoon of a Fawn

Sunday, June 25, 1995

This spring was so long and glorious it seemed eternal. But the solstice arrived a few days ago and kicked off a true summer heat wave that quickly sent the temperatures well over a hundred. I finished the annual weed-whacking of my yard this morning before it got too hot, then we escaped to the beach for the day. When we got home the house was blistering and I went out on the deck with a cool drink. As I stood there admiring my new-shorn estate, I saw two young fawns looking up at me. They're only a few weeks old, still dappled with white. Like their mother, we think they were born in our lower yard, for we first discovered them when they could barely stand. Perhaps because she feels safe in our fenced and dogless yard, she leaves them here during the day while she goes off grazing in greener fields. They normally chase and gambol about happily in the high weeds. Now with the weeds gone and the sun blazing down, they have found two minute patches of greener grass and are lying panting in the heat.

I get out the hose and water the wilting plants in the planters around the deck. The fawns follow my every move, and I wonder if they are attracted to the sound and smell of water. If they've been getting their moisture by eating my weeds, they're probably hot and dry by now. On an impulse, I send the lightest spray down over them.

For a minute they just lie there, looking about in surprise as the water patters down around them. I think they must be enjoying it, but then one suddenly scrambles to his feet with a soft bleat and bounds away out of the range of my spray. The other quickly follows and they both look up at me in alarm. Feeling a bit guilty for disturbing them on such a sweltering day, I turn off the hose. They do not lie down again, but remain nervous and spooked.

Why should they react so strongly to a gentle spray? I know they're familiar with rain, much colder and harder than my fine mist. The deer never seem to mind getting wet, and it must feel good today. If nothing else, they could at least lie down in the wet grass and get some relief that way. But they circle wide around the deck and retreat to the farthest corner of the yard.

Clearly, fawns are designed to avoid the unusual. They haven't been around long enough to know much of the world, but they know what they've experienced before and what they haven't. Grass and trees and houses and sunshine have never harmed them before, so they trust them. But rain is something that happens when it's cool and grey, not hot and sunny. No matter how good it feels then, they know that something unusual is happening, and through nature and nurture, they've learned to fear it.

It's no doubt a sound evolutionary strategy. They can't recognize every potential danger that might appear, but if they avoid what they haven't seen before they'll be more likely to survive. They reject anything new or different. Deer are basically ultraconservative.

The thought occurs: if it's a good survival trait to be conservative, why am I a radical? To enlarge the question, why do so many people enjoy the novel and unusual? We actively seek out new experiences. Even the most hidebound conservatives among us do not read the same book over and over, eat the same food every day, say the same things - except perhaps for monks, who intentionally refuse to gratify their normal desires. But they're not really a natural occurrence. Celibacy is hardly a formula for evolutionary success.

So except for a handful of exceptions, it seems to be a human trait to behave exactly the opposite of the deer. We rush in where antlers fear to tread. Why should this be? Surely new and unknown experiences are inherently more dangerous than the old and known. And yet our strategy can hardly be too flawed - we're a wildly successful species so far and are quite likely to squeeze most other species off the planet in the near future.

It's even easy to argue that we've been so successful precisely because of this trait. Our desire to see new places spread our seed across the planet. Because we want to do things in new ways, we're always tinkering and experimenting and inventing. It's the driving force behind technology, art, science, even economics - the rarer it is, the more valuable and desirable.

Why should two opposite strategies both work? Why are we so different from the deer? One possible explanation is that we are carnivores. To a herbivore, grass is good - something unknown moving in the grass is bad. Deer heaven must be endless lawns and no predators. A deer on the lawn is standing on everything he needs to survive, as long as nothing new shows up. Anything that changes is bad news, or at the least potentially bad news.

To a carnivore, grass is useless. If all he ever sees is grass, he's a goner. So he prowls around looking for something different, something that's not grass. If he can find some new trick of tracking or attack or cooperation, or even something new to eat, that's good. So you end up with right-wing deer, busily maintaining the good old status quo, sniffing in suspicion at any new scent in the air. And left-wing mountain lions trying to stir things up, always on the prowl for anything new. It's a new interpretation of we are what we eat.

So perhaps when our ancestors first started to eat meat, they were changing more than their diet and their teeth. They were actually setting in motion a change in the basic behavioral patterns of their species, a change that led eventually to putting a primate on the moon.

As I return to the house, it occurs to me that of course we're really ownivores, with an evolutionary background in both camps. Can this be the real reason why we have a two-party system?

copyright 1996 by Brian K. Crawford