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6 May 2020updated 29 Jul 2021 7:05am

Watching the deer from my window, I realised there is a lesson to learn from the lockdown

I want to issue a warning: “drive slowly, because the deer, who were here before us, returned to their home while we were away”.

By John Burnside

It was first light, a few days ago, when I saw the deer, dotted up and down the road outside my bedroom window. There were five of them, which is not uncommon in these parts (in fact, Scottish Natural Heritage just issued a seasonal warning to motorists to “slow down and watch for deer crossing” and to “be aware that deer can suddenly appear before you have time to brake”). What did seem new, however, was the sheer insouciance that this particular group displayed – and it struck me that, under normal circumstances, the country road that runs past my house, while remote and not much used in the middle of the day, would be a mortal hazard to the soft machinery of deer flesh at this time of the morning, when boy racers hurtle through on their way to work in Cupar or St Andrews. Now, under the shutdown, those boys are at home, the beloved Saxo VTS standing mercifully idle in the driveway, while nitrogen dioxide levels continue to fall by anything from 40-75 per cent all across the Central Belt. 

But was it the clean air, or the new quiet over this stretch of land that had emboldened my cervine neighbours? The room from which I witnessed their idyll is not where I normally sleep. Earlier this year, for specific reasons, our family entered a standard social distancing regime; then, when I showed distinct signs of infection, I flitted to the far end of our longhouse-style cottage and set up a strict quarantine – which is why I currently have a room facing out towards the road, rather than the more secluded garden at the back. 

The virus itself has proven a mixed bag: with my pre-existing heart condition, the frequent spells of difficulty in breathing are somewhat unnerving and I have been experiencing a strangely disconcerting phenomenon when I get out of bed, a kind of sub-vertigo in which my vision frames part of the scene before me, then distances the rest, so that it resembles the inner workings of a child’s kaleidoscope, everything oddly jewelled and sufficiently out of kilter to send me spiralling into confusion. On the other hand, during the sleepless nights and eerily quiet mornings, there is an odd peace to be had – and a final, incontrovertible sense of perishability that comes, stripped of all melodrama and self-pity, to remind me, as it must so many hundreds of thousands of others at this very moment, that I am just one of a vast statistical entity – or, as the old Butch Hancock song has it: “just a wave… not the water.”

Seeing these deer, though, I also feel, concurrently, and without contradiction, a different kind of belonging, and I want to write to some kind of authority, somewhere, to ask for another warning to be issued the moment this lockdown ends. The precise wording escapes me, but it would say something like “drive slowly, because the deer, who were here long before us, returned to their home place while we were away, and we need to give them another chance to recognise that it’s not theirs any more”. Better still, it would tell those boy racers, and their elders and betters, that the presence of these deer in our paths is a reminder of a truly precious lesson that we might learn from the shutdown, a lesson about what we have been doing to our world for so long, and about how very much such shutdowns are about to become the new normal, unless we start acting on behalf of all life, and not just 1 per cent of just one of the estimated 8.7 million species on this Earth.

Next week: Stefan Buczacki on gardening

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This article appears in the 06 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Remaking Britain