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Published on: Nov. 2, 2001

Last revision: Nov. 9, 2010

Even the small racks resemble compact, curving crowns of wood-stained ivory.

While my yard sale set is eerily similar to the antlers lost in the fire, a person never finds perfectly matching racks. That's because each set is a work in progress, and the fast-growing material is easily deformed.

In some deer, nature seems to exercise whimsy, the genetic code creating strange shapes that spring every-which-way from the beams. These racks are called "non-typical." There doesn't seem to be any particular reason for these odd shapes, but I wonder if adding bulk and other intimidating qualities to a rack make it more threatening, like the fright masks used by some African tribes. I can only imagine what it must be like for an inferior buck to be accosted by one adorned with such bristling headgear.

Over the years, I have found single antlers in the woods of such perfection that I walked for hours hoping to find their mates. I guess it's just human nature to do this, even though it's about as likely as finding matching socks in a laundromat. Each side of a deer's antlers sheds on its own schedule and deer don't seem to mind walking out of plumb between drops. The fact that they shed their antlers at all seems most curious to the human sense of purpose, especially since they'll need them again next fall, again illustrating our tendency to assign our own values to things we don't understand.

A feature of antlers that makes us wonder is their shape which, despite their points, appear designed more for intimidation than for inflicting actual damage. If fights to the death were the rule rather than the exception, keenly-pointed brow tines would suffice. The gently curving basket shape of most antlers is wonderfully adapted to engaging with another set of antlers, twisting and pushing, all of which depend more on strength and size than sharpness. Perhaps nature created this imposing armament to prevent fights rather than encourage them.

An old hunter once told me, "Mother Nature don't raise no fools." The beautiful and sometimes puzzling handiwork of antlers reminds us that symmetry, size and purpose may not always be what they appear.

Today, white-tailed deer are a bountiful gift. I grew up when deer were only a memory. Perhaps that's why I became a deer hunter, and why I am so fond of antlers. In a boyhood spent without the joy and beauty of the deer, I found their antlers helped me understand the meaning and purpose of one of nature's most fascinating creatures.

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