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24 August 2022

In drought-struck England, I have a moment of connection with another living creature

At first, I didn't see the deer – but then I saw it was looking straight at me.

By John Burnside

It was an unusually quiet spell on the train from Scotland to the English south coast – quieter still for me as, having drifted asleep at Dunbar, I awoke, rather gently, to a near empty carriage. I looked out: where were we? I had no idea how long I had slept, but the train now stood quite still, as if suspended, on a plot of no-man’s-land dotted with clots of buddleia and a few tall plumes of pampas grass, with no obvious clue as to our location.

I shuffled up in my seat. Ten yards away, behind a ruined fence, an overgrown paddock revealed all the effects of this summer’s drought. There were only a few pale tips of willow herb for colour amid the blanched, dry grasses, and barely a hint of green anywhere – and though I knew that England had been recording its hottest days on record, this parched landscape still came as a surprise. It had been dry at home, but this was true drought, dusty and sere and drained of sap.

So, at first, I didn’t see the deer; which was odd, since it was right out in the open, between the train and the field, just 15 feet away. It was surprising that it was there, of all places, quietly staring at this metal box in its path, curious and unafraid – and, in spite of the season and the time of day, it brought back a poem I had learned in childhood, the first I ever got by heart, beguiled by the tenderness and fellow-feeling that I read in the opening lines:

“Out in the dark over the snow
The fallow fawns invisible go
With the fallow doe…”

It is a poem of wartime, written in 1917 by Edward Thomas, before he was killed at Arras; one of those works that, by invoking a live, decidedly vulnerable presence, in a spirit of momentary wonder, can evoke more of the poignancy of conflict than any catalogue of shock and gore. Those opening lines give way to something darker as the poem progresses but, for one still moment, we see life, tenderness, grace.

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To begin with, my deer (not fallow, but roe) had appeared to be curious about the train – a dusty alien craft suddenly blocking its way – but after a moment I saw that it was looking directly at me, and that curious look seemed tinged with puzzlement. Whatever it made of my casing, it could tell that I was a living creature and, as fanciful as this may sound, it seemed to know me. Or rather, it knew something about me that I didn’t know myself. Or maybe it was something I had known, once, and had now forgotten. But whatever the secret, I found myself entangled in its inquisitive gaze and there was something about the exchange, something hopeful, that touched me.

I would have been happy to stay there forever, in that still moment – or if not forever, then for as long as it took to work out what the secret was. What I had missed. What might still be recoverable. But then the train shunted slightly, just enough to make my companion shrink back in recoil, as if waking from its own dream.

The spell broken, I watched as it havered for a second and then, forgetting me, bounded away towards the dry field from which it had presumably come. But I did not see it hop the fence, and I cannot say where it went next, for the train had stuttered forwards and was now pressing on. What I can say is that, for miles afterwards, I had a distinct feeling that was surprisingly akin to loss: surprising and, because it was only a deer, not to be lingered upon – though it felt like loss, nonetheless.

[See also: Summer reflection: the silence of the seabirds]

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This article appears in the 24 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Inflation Wars