Celebrating the animal encounter in poetry

There is a long tradition of poets celebrating chance encounters with animals, but such meetings are becoming increasingly rare.

A fallow deer buck rests in the long grass in Richmond Park
A fallow deer buck rests in the long grass in Richmond Park. Photograph: Getty Images

When we drive home from the west of an evening, the children in the back of the car, quietened by fatigue or boredom, we have to pass through a strip of dense woodland just a couple of miles from the open fields where we live. Even as a grown-up, I can see that this is one of those magical woods: the trees arching over the road on either side to form a long, halflit tunnel that could bring us out anywhere, hints and winks of silver in the lit, viridian undergrowth and, not a rare event at this time of day, though always a small miracle when it happens, a hint of other lives, swimming or leaping through the greenery, sometimes shying away at the last second and sometimes streaming across the road, two or three or five of them together, panicky, but not too quick to make out – and always, no matter how suddenly it happens, we are all aware of the eyes, of the fleeting, gorgeous exchange of a look, while we shift from the humdrum of a homeward journey into vivid life again, just for a moment, and the boys call out or whisper, wonderingly: “Deer!”

It seems such a small event, yet this animal encounter is an occasion of quiet, if short-lived joy every time it happens, because, like the grown-up I am now, as opposed to the halfwild boy I was in a different, more populousseeming world, my children very rarely see animals in the wild. Even when they do, it is usually through a car window, as we drive to school in the morning through Kippo woods, or on occasions such as this when, half-asleep, they get home wondering if they dreamed it all – and the worst thing about this is that we very rarely know what we are missing.

It takes a true encounter to realise that real animals, wild animals, have all but passed from our lives. I remember stopping my car one morning in early May and getting out to stretch my legs, somewhere in northern Norway: the thaw had begun a few days earlier but then it had snowed again and the land was frozen for miles, which is probably why I saw the fox, its white winter coat just starting to turn brown. Why it didn’t see or sense me sooner I don’t know, but we came close enough to exchange a look and, for a long moment, I felt that same joy my sons feel when they catch sight of something in the woods: a strange joy that cannot be communicated but is real nevertheless.

After a few breathless seconds, the fox turned and wandered away, seemingly unconcerned, but as my excitement and wonder faded, I began to experience something else. Something like grief; or maybe the sense that I was, in the full sense of the word, bereft.

The human ecologist Paul Shepard has said: “We hear much these days about the loss of species and biological diversity, usually in terms of diminished ecosystems, destabilised environments and the loss of unknown physical resources. I suspect that the greater loss is of another kind – the way a local fauna links the concept of the self and the uniqueness of place in different cultures. The loss of non-human diversity erases nuances in identity. We are coarsened by the loss of the animals.” We are coarsened by the loss of the animals. True, we are intellectually aware that species loss is a catastrophe and some of us still feel that it is the most urgent environmental problem we face, but we have yet to understand that it is not only the presence of an acceptable number of specific creatures that matters. What is essential – the one thing that could stop us being coarsened to other lives – is that we feel a great, living wave of animal life all around us, covering the earth. I may know that there are still a few pandas out there somewhere but that sense of being bereft comes from living day to day with the near absence of wild things.

The few exceptions, in my case, are flocks of pink-footed geese in the winter, a few buzzards and hares, the odd frantic deer skittering across a road, a passing fox or badger, a glimpse of weasel or stoat on the road. None of these creatures is rare or particularly prized – there are even official bodies and quangos empowered to decide how many may be killed per annum by pylons and wind turbines to furnish us townsfolk with automatic garage doors and patio heaters. So what hope is there, in such a world, for someone whose heart lifts at the sight of a family of rabbits, grazing on a verge, after a long day at the theme park?

With this sometimes unrecognised sense of a coarsened life hanging over us, nature poetry has become more urgent than ever. In parallel with the coarsening of the past hundred years or so has come a steady growth in animal encounter poetry. When Robert Frost wrote “Two Look at Two” in the early 1920s, he could make it seem the most natural thing in the world that, as night approached, two human beings could stand by a broken wall, gazing in wonder – and at close quarters – at a doe and then a buck deer and it was even possible for them to feel A great wave from it going over them, As if the earth in one unlooked-for favour Had made them certain earth returned their love.

Yet a few minutes earlier, when the buck first appears, he challenges the human beings with a look that seems to say: . . . “Why don’t you make some motion? Or give some sign of life? Because you can’t. I doubt if you’re as living as you look.”

The reader, a century ago and now, feels the discomfort of being caught out, for we are not as living as we look; we are tamed and we have almost lost the common stamp of creatureliness that other animals, arguably even the most domesticated, have retained. What Frost would have us understand here, even as he invokes the possibility that earth returns our love, is that there is so little of the wild in us, so little sign of life that, as dusk falls, we could be mistaken for inanimate things.

As the century wore on, not only did we become less animate but, as we felled old woodlands and cleared the way for new superhighways, we also set out on the systematic destruction of life itself. There is no question, now, that many of us knew what we were doing but we did it for the good of our species – good seeming to consist of floodlit golf ranges, municipal Christmas lights in October and day-long television (on which documentaries about lost wilderness are a weekly, if not daily, feature). More than anything else, good consisted in speeding across the land in trucks and cars, occasionally glimpsing some living creature out in the grey of it all, very frequently leaving said creature behind as roadkill.

In 1956, William Stafford wrote the laconic and unsettling “Travelling Through the Dark”, about finding a dead doe on his drive home – a not infrequent event. Though the road is narrow, he stops, because It is usually best to roll them into the canyon: that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.

He is only doing his duty when he gets out to push the deer off the edge of the road and into the river. When he touches the animal, however, he realises that she is pregnant and the fawn is, for the moment, still alive inside her. It should be said that there is no sentimentality here: aware that he can do nothing for the unborn fawn, the speaker of the poem wavers only a moment before carrying on with his unwanted task. He hesitates nonetheless and, in one of the most beautifully dramatised moments in modern poetry, creates a scene in which the only live thing seems to be the car engine, and the man, who is in every rational sense guiltless, becomes complicit with some greater, existential sin, a sin against life to which, as he slowly realises, wild nature is always a witness: The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights; under the hood purred the steady engine. I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red; around our group I could hear the wilderness listen. No sense here that earth returns our love. The wilderness watches and listens; the man, having “thought hard for us all”, does what he must before driving on.

The animal encounter poem is now so distinct a genre that it would be possible to create a full-length anthology from deer encounter poems alone and many varieties of experience would emerge from such an exercise. Take Mary Oliver’s “Picking Blueberries, Austerlitz, New York, 1957”, in which the speaker recounts a childhood memory of having fallen asleep while out picking blueberries and then, when she woke, frightening a deer that had stopped to nuzzle her. Here, there is a sense of elegy not just for the deer but for a former self, lost when she somehow lost contact with the creaturely (“Beautiful girl,/ where are you?”).

One of the most troubling items in such an anthology would be Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s astonishing “Dead Doe”, from her 1995 collection, Song. Here, from the first, the speaker seems torn between a Romantic or pastoral impulse and stark realism: The doe lay dead on her back in a field of asters: no. The doe lay dead on her back beside the school bus stop: yes. Where we waited. Her belly white as a cut pear. Where we waited: no: off from where we waited: yes at a distance . . . – and that “at a distance” is crucial, because the speaker is afraid of the dead animal, afraid it might somehow rise from the dead and come near, or that she – and the child she is accom - panying to school – might be touched by this otherness. Throughout the poem, Kelly shifts from poetic convention to hard, often proselike qualification, so that a moment comes when the fear seems to have been dispelled and the dead deer, lying on her back, “with her legs up and frozen”, is transformed by wishful looking into a vision of two swans: . . . we saw two swans and they were fighting or they were coupling or they were stabbing the ground for some prize worth nothing, but fought over, so worth that, worth the fought-over glossiness: the morning’s fragile-tubed glory. And yet, in the end, this vision is not as comforting as it seems, given that the transformed creature still eludes the speaker and her child, and even though they are no longer afraid, they should be, as they . . . watch her soul fly on: paired as the soul always is: with itself: with others.

The poem ends with a wonderful ambiguity – “Child. We are done for/in the most remarkable ways” – and yet, even as we linger on the more obvious meaning of “done for”, it is at this point, in what had seemed the most unpromising of situations, that we see for a moment a flicker of creaturely possibility, and while we may doubt, now, that earth returns our love, we are still capable of the loving care that any animal has for its child. This is not enough, of course. Faced with an inarticulate grief at the loss of the animals, however, coupled with a growing refusal to be coarsened by that loss, we human creatures might yet find ourselves not in Eden (that was always a dream and never a very good one) but alive on earth, living truly among the fellow animals we had lost sight of for too long.

John Burnside’s most recent poetry collection is “Black Cat Bone” (Jonathan Cape, £10) newstatesman.com/writers/john_burnside