A big rack of white-tailed deer antlers on the wall of my living room reminds me of a deer that got away. It is a fine, symmetrical work of art, as brown and polished as if it were sculpted from walnut. It's as beautiful as the woods in fall. On a winter night, the rack catches the light from a holiday candle and throws a giant, flickering antler shadow on the ceiling, like a ghost from deer seasons long past.
The deer that carried this ancient 10-point rack didn't get away from me. I discovered the rack years ago, lying on the grass at a yard sale among a clutter of old books, well-worn shoes and various other odds and ends. I carried the antlers to the man at the card table and plunked down $10 as required by the hastily scrawled writing on the tag. A buck for each of the buck's points.
I asked the man if he had killed the deer. He said he did, but it was so long ago that he had forgotten the details of the hunt and the kill. Anymore, he added, the antlers were just in the way, and his wife was tired of dusting them. It was a shame that the memories had departed from the remains of what had once been a regal and majestic animal, so I decided its memories would just as well begin again with me.
Now, deer antlers are not commodities to be bought or sold, and so I suspected that the forgetful old fellow at the yard sale had neither killed that deer, nor had anything else to do with mounting them on the old oak plaque.
The one thing that becomes plain with age is that memories are not for sale. The reason I brought the antlers home that day was that they were nearly identical to a set I found at Indian Trail Park one afternoon some 40 years before.
On that day, I had wandered into what the locals call the "Solitary Holler," a remote, open cathedral of stately woods where leaves drifted into ages-deep piles. There, in a bowl-shaped arena, lay a huge buck. Dead for at least two days, he sprawled in a battlefield of leaves that looked as if they had been thoroughly scratched by a large flock of wild turkeys. Blood, like burnt umber, was spattered everywhere. In the silence, it was hard to imagine what a noise his dying struggle must have made.
Like an investigator at a crime scene, I memorized every physical detail of the area as I tiptoed around the deer. He had evidently been the victim of a stabbing. He had multiple wounds everywhere I looked, including the undersides of his hams. His ample belly had been punctured a dozen times, as had his neck and shoulders. One eye was gone, and a long gouge along his muzzle ended at the socket.
This deer had plainly lost in a battle of titans. Despite all the blood and wounds, a broken neck was probably the fatal injury. The ground was furrowed 50 feet in every direction, suggesting the victor had continued to charge and gore his fallen foe. As massive as this buck was, the buck that bested him must have really been something.
The buck smelled rank, but I cut the head off carefully at the base of the skull and carried it away, leaving the carcass to the animals who take care of such things. After I explained the situation, my local conservation agent investigated the scene and gave me permission to keep the massive head and rack. I brought them to my own woods, wired them to a tree and let nature scour them with her own time and patience.
In late spring, when every flake of soft tissue had been used up and digested by the custodians for the forest, I brought the skull and rack home and told its story to an old neighbor. He ran his fingers over the bleached sculpture of bone and antlers.
"Well now, that's one big deer," he lamented. "Died to no purpose. What a shame."
Back then, I understood exactly what he meant. Most people tend to reduce things to practical human values, and Ozark folks are appalled by the waste of something useful. My neighbor didn't regret the loss of meat as much as he regretted the loss of thrill and personal satisfaction it would have given one of his kin to bring down a deer as fine as this, as well as the memories of the hunt that would have lasted long after the meat had gone.
In the Ozarks, a big buck is the legendary, story-telling stuff of a family's history. It's one of the elements that anchors an old home place to which wandering kids always return. In that setting, a deer's purpose has always been to serve as a challenge to the hunting skills of people who are, despite these changing times, predators. And so they remain for a whole storehouse of reasons.
I kept that rack of antlers through some 20 years of travels, only to lose it and the rest of my past when my log house in the woods burned to the ground in 1981.
What I remember today, when I glance up at my yard-sale antlers-so closely resembling the rack of that old warrior buck from Solitary Hollow-is that deer have always had a purpose in both living and dying. It's a grander purpose than anyone could ever imagine, reminding us that wildness is not so much a man-made definition as simply a state of being.
One of the many reasons we still hunt deer in this age of alternate choices is that we still need to experience some degree of wildness ourselves. We need it, if only to sit before dawn in the woods, communing with our own senses and considering the wondrous ways of nature, which include mighty measures of life and death. If a deer must have a purpose in our minds, drawing us out from behind our four walls to match wits with him in his world is a pretty good one.
For this reason, I have to admit that I have had a lifelong admiration for antlers. Just seeing them always touches that wild place in my soul, like the way nature's breath on your neck reminds you of another place you'd rather be.
There is constant amazement to be found in a "rack of horns," as we call them back home. There's artistry in the grace and design that nature always seems to give her weapons. The amazement lies in the complex genetic codes that not only control the shape and size of antlers, but allow annual improvements in the form of the formidable points that a buck uses in battle for just one season before discarding them in favor of a bigger and better set.
The artistic pleasure lies in the balanced sweep of the blades that rise from a burly, knurled base and curve into a main beam that sprouts smooth tines that are as satisfying to touch as a fine sculpture. No wonder we fashion knife handles from them. Of all the world's deer, the antlers of our own whitetail seem the most symmetrical. 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.