The Past Trips, The Present, 1992, Oil on Canvas, 24" x 24"

Deer Deer

Gilah Yelin Hirsch
Calm Pond

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Ten years later, a second animal presented himself to me. I was spending two months in a magnificent studio in the woods, a walk through the forest away from the Banff Center for the Arts in Alberta, Canada.

Alone in my studio on the first day, I thought I heard a man crashing through the forest. I turned and looked out the porch door. A large elk with ball-tipped horns lumbered through the brush and vanished.

On the second day the deer appeared, initiating, what were to become his two-month daily visits, at precisely 5 PM.

He was honey-colored then, except for a small grayish tail over a white, rump, his head equal in height to mine, his towering rack, unusual in its verticality, erect. He approached me easily, calmly, assuredly. He was distinguished by an odd sign — a star above a crescent in the middle of his forehead. He never wavered his penetrating gaze as he ventured consistently closer to me, while I, delighted, talked gently to him, that first fragile meeting, outside the studio. It was clear that he had come expressly to see me. We were immediately comfortable together, our contact whole, deep and secure.

I never fed him.

We became friends. I was grateful. I was keenly aware that I was usurping his territory. I, a city person, was luxuriously ensconced in the dominion of the forest creature. After all, in this context, who presented themselves to whom?

I looked forward to his daily visits. It was not long before I became attached to the deer. Much as I tried I could not name the deer. He remained simply “Deer”. He was unnameable, archetypal. I, intrepid seeker of signs, persistently engaged in recognizing patterns of connection, interpreted the deer’s appearance as magical. Here was my totem animal. My names Yelin and Hirsch both mean deer in Polish and German respectively. For years I had identified with the deer as the animal most linked to my predilection for the forest. I, in wilderness, am most comfortable in zones inhabited by deer. I tend to rest in thickets.

My butterscotch-colored furry friend would arrive punctually. We would rendezvous amongst the trees. Occasionally he would munch on a branch or indulge in some tender leaves as we communed. Sometimes, as he attempted to chew on some particularly delectable morsels close to the trunk, his majestic rack became ensnared in a whorl of branches and grasses. He would silently wince, glance at me with a hint of frustration in his large soft effulgent eyes, and begin the tedious job of disengaging from that original complicated architecture.

He smiled often as I talked with him, and soundlessly came near. Sometimes he stood backlit, peach colored light drenching the contours of his silhouetted rack. It was not long before the first slight threat of my camera lifted and I photographed him daily. Alone in my studio in the woods, I soon relied on my friend’s visits.

I had already spent great spates of time in solitude in Southern California. In that realm wood stoves and Aladdin lamps warmed the cold and illuminated the night. There, my companions were mice, lizards, owls, spiders and toads. There, away from human reference, I had spent quiet productive time feeling universally embraced as my soul bloomed. There, I had become involved with a pond which became my focus, my work, my teacher. There, is where the alphabet first revealed itself to me in nature. And it was there, that I dreamed that I awoke in shock lying on my left side facing east, a large rattlesnake curled, sleeping peacefully on my shoulder, its head nestling in my neck, as my cat did. In the waking of my sleeping, my horror ebbed. Instead, I was infused with the spirit of protection, and full acceptance into the natural world.

But at Banff I sometimes felt loneliness when now and then I moved through the hundreds of exceptionally gifted artists who had been selectively gathered to practice and perform their art within a glorious and stimulating environment. There, I found myself in a fulminating percolating culture at its high water mark. There, I knew immediately that I had to choose a hermetic life despite the enticement of culture within this arts metropolis situated in a national park.

I barely spoke with anyone.

I immersed myself deeply into the ferociously dramatic landscape. Alone I hiked into the wilderness, onto the glaciers, into the forests and mountains miles and miles away from any human contact. Fearlessly, I inundated myself with the depth and immensity of natural phenomena as I explored the often dangerous trails alone. Scale had to be redefined. My normal understanding of concepts such as vast, huge, immense, no longer rang true. I had to reshape the compartments of my mind to accommodate a new world view.

I walked with porcupine, wolves, marmots, elk, deer, moose and bear. I hiked in rainstorms, in which tough rain sheeted horizontally breaking trees down as it chased through. I ached, and pushed ahead in hailstorms searching shelter from that deadly wind sped arsenal. I climbed mountains in August snow blizzards, my entire frozen body hugging the granite shale of the mountainside, as the wind tried hard to unpluck me from that face, my outermost garment careening about me like demonic wings, charged, to lift me from the earth’s surface forever.

And I roamed in fecund mountain meadows in breathtakingly clear canteloup light, my fertile vision sharpened to the point of ecstasy. Often I crossed the Boundary…

I felt my controlled personality disassociate into myriad components of archetypal voices. In that primal soup of nature, far far from human contact, I recognized my physical parts, my intimate feelings in anthropomorphic pools, stumps, rocks, mountains and trees.

I saw enacted in those ancient woody forms the human struggle of life: attraction and heartbreak of relationship, the poignancy and inevitability of aging, our terror before the gods, the magic of hoped-for flight. I caught light in the forest and spirits in the trees.

Then I would return to the studio in the forest, to keep my appointment with Deer. Sometimes I reported my adventures. He seemed eager to hear.

I began to feel myself an embodiment of nature. I lived in an altered state. I was essentially schizophrenic as my psyche shrank and then swelled when I trespassed from nature to culture and back from culture to nature. I learned the difference between profound lasting nourishment provided by nature and temporary entertainment transmitted through culture. I straddled the world of art and knowledge and that of instinct and time.

I began to understand how reality changes as it is portrayed and known through legend, custom, myth and fact. I became aware of the serendipity of life — when and where and what in history one happens to be born. I was conscious of the trail one creates and the wake one leaves behind as one forges ahead from action to consequence. My wish for freedom and my appreciation of restraint fluctuated as I frequently decided not to take that one step off the mountain, be done with the wheel and fly.

Throughout this whirl, Deer was my link, my daily connection into the wildness of wilderness. I anticipated his visits. I do not know what I hoped for, yet as we grew physically and psychically closer, I felt elation. I painted him, the spirit of natural wonder, riding the two-mooned July skies of Banff.

We grew so comfortable with each other that soon we stood only inches away. I yearned to hug my friend of the soft amber-colored down. I felt he wanted to nuzzle me. I wanted to feel that mysterious velvet wrapping of his unordinary antlers. I wanted to touch the moistness of that unusually reflective muzzle. My fingers wished to trace the star and crescent so magically etched onto his forehead. I wanted him to lick my hands, face, and ears as the wild Rocky Mountain sheep had done on Sulphur Mountain. I desired to be privy to his wildness, his full knowledge of the forest, his most private secret thickets. On several occasions I followed him into the forest, knowing well that I would never find him.

Yet, I knew I must not touch him, nor encourage him to touch me. If we touched, his scent would have changed — we would both have memories of close contact with another species. He might abandon his natural survival gear, appropriate fear. That risk was too great.

The summer wore on. My studio grew thickly crowded with paintings, photographs, photomurals, sticks and rocks of elemental forms, the key to alphabetic morphology. The alphabets of the world revealed themselves to me in natural structure as I tromped untrammeled territory. I learned the patterns of congruency between shape and form and feeling. I read the landscape, and walked and talked with wild animals in the wilderness. My inner being had flipped inside out. I had become an early human animal as I walked and worked alone.

Deer and I continued our sweet and odd intimacy. I watched the barely perceptible change occur in Deer’s fur as he readied himself for the early winter. Summer-shimmer ochre coat became muted grey.

Towards the end of August, my anxiety over leaving set in. Deer still visited faithfully at 5 each day. I resisted his physical closeness and did not touch him. I knew I would miss him and the connection he provided into wildness. It was painful to contemplate flattening my many emerging selves back into that controlled city person, the one who is bonded into human things, the one who is in culture, the one who helps to culture.

On the last day of work and solitude, Deer inexplicably came at noon, entirely out of pattern. Somehow he must have known that my extraordinary immersion into his world was ending at 5, when the airport bus would bring my human mate, my human bridge into the tribulations and exaltation of humanity. Deer and I stood as usual amongst the trees, he very close to me, his tangy moist forest breath clearly discernable. As was his wont, he smiled. Sadly, I told him that I was leaving his world. We searched each other’s eyes one last time. He turned, and returned to the forest, taking the mystery and richness with him.

In the last few hours between his going and the coming of my manfriend, I felt torn, askew, illogically jolted. I felt as if a series of membranes were beginning to capture that so recently, totally liberated soul. The nets, the constructs, the webs of civilization were tightening once again.

I had voluntarily denied myself the pleasure of physical closeness with Deer. I, Deer Deer, Yelin Hirsch, knew the pain of consequence. I had often thought of Jocomo’s transformation from free spirited, light hearted animal to beaten heap because of my intervention. Then I was naive about the dilemma between nature and civilization, between freedom and limitation. It was through Jocomo that I learned the ramification of domestication. One may perceive Jocomo as having benefitted from our friendship, but I had sensed the hopelessness of his soul.

Deer remains free to continue his life in the forest. Perhaps he still comes to the studio in the woods anticipating a friendly chat as he browses amongst the madrones and pines. I tend to doubt it. We had communicated intensively over a long period of time. He, too, must have understood the consequences.

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Gilah Yelin Hirsch
Calm Pond

Gilah Yelin Hirsch is a painter, writer, filmmaker, and professor emerita of art at California State University, Dominguez Hill, Los Angeles: www.gilah.com