Animal Mirrors

Erika Howsare's newly published The Age of Deer: Trouble and Kinship with our Wild Neighbors is an unflinching look at the wild and mysterious creature that has run through our physical lives and imaginations since the Palaeolithic era, and now faces us with the complexity and violence of the Anthropocene. Here, for our Kinship with Beasts series, Erika introduces an extract from her four-year journey where she visits the Korean-American 'deer artist' Meesha Goldberg.
is the author of The Age of Deer: Trouble and Kinship With Our Wild Neighbors, out now from Icon Books. She is also the host of the podcast 'If You See a Deer' and has published two books of poetry. She lives in Virginia, USA.
I watched my niece play a game a few days ago in a noisy arcade, the object being to lasso cows on a video screen, watched by a chorus of cowboys. If you missed, the cows would laugh at you. But if you got your rope around the animal’s neck, the onlookers would cheer and wave their hats while the cow herself evidenced pain: bulging tongue, crossed eyes. I found myself rooting for the cows and thinking about all the millions of little ways this culture puts itself at arm’s length, or rope’s length, from the animals with whom we share the Earth. Agriculture is part of it, yes, but so is representation. Someone had to programme that game. Someone decided they’d done a good job when the cow’s limbs went akimbo, just so.

For the last four years or so, as I immersed myself in research about deer for my book, The Age of Deer, I found them to be objects of prolific representation. In art history, they all go back to the caves at Lascaux. How had we programmed the deer, so to speak? How were we training ourselves to see them and think of them? I noted a peculiar throughline in these images: most of the deer, whether noble stags, bucolic ornaments, or fleeing quarry, were not looking back. 

Inoted a peculiar throughline in these images: most of the deer, whether noble stags, bucolic ornaments, or fleeing quarry, were not looking back.

Some had been shown in the act of being hunted: too busy running for their lives to notice anyone but their pursuer. Some were already dead, like the buck being scavenged by Audubon’s black vultures. Others were shown in moments of rest – like Edwin Landseer’s Monarch of the Glen, who calmly surveys his masculine domain – but still not meeting the eye of the viewer. Many simply served as icons: vessels to hold human meaning, stamped onto consumer products or positioned between trees in stylised illustrations.

It seemed we’d collectively forgotten that deer have eyes of their own, a reality of their own. Art historians have often noted the significance of female subjects – like Manet’s Olympia – who possess a direct gaze, their eyes boring into the eyes of the viewer, creating a relationship between the person on the canvas and the person in the gallery that is akin to the relationship between two live humans. It’s a power move; Olympia rejects the role of object or outline, there to be visually consumed; she gives as good as she gets. You could say she insists on being a mirror instead of a window. 

A species like deer shares with us a deep evolutionary affinity, much more similar to us than different. They are our cousins, and our mirrors.

If humans refuse to grant deer in art the capacity to look back, what does that say about the power we claim over a species that is as large as us, mammalian like us, and far older than we are? What would it be like if deer in art possessed the ability not only to be seen, but to see?

In the deep past, we all knew deer and other animals as fellow actors in the play – beings to be considered, honoured, and addressed. Many Indigenous groups have maintained that connection even as Western culture has turned animals into objects. But there are pockets of the modern world in which people nurture practices – certain kinds of hunting, tracking, the use of deer parts, and artmaking – that bring them into kinship with deer: something more like a dance between equal partners. 

 


Kinfolk

(extract from The Age of Deer)

 

Korean American Root Work by Meesha Goldberg. Oil on board

One day in Charlottesville, near where I live, I noticed a mural by the artist Meesha Goldberg. Sprawling across a long, low wall, it showed a herd of running deer flanked by two limbs of a single word: KIN/FOLK

Some months after I saw Meesha’s mural, a friend sent me a photo of another of her pieces: an assemblage made of a long white dress, with two real deer legs where a woman’s feet would be.

Intrigued, I wrote to Meesha, and she invited me to the farm outside town where she lives, to see her pieces and the landscape from which they grow. It was a home that felt, when I visited, as quietly intense as Meesha herself: a sprawling place of open pastures, swishing horses’ tails, and sheltering woods. From a block of stone set into the ground, I stepped up into her spare wooden house, and she poured cups of tea. She was barefoot, with her black hair wound into coils.

She told me she’d grown up in about as different an atmosphere as one could find from the farm – Queens, New York – and had come to Virginia in 2017 after meeting her partner at the Standing Rock protests in North Dakota. Here she’d dived into a new life more dependent on her own labor than the supermarket: growing vegetables, tending a milk cow, raising chickens for meat and eggs. And there was a porousness between these domestic foods and the world of beings beyond the house and barns. Crossing that ragged border, she would gather other foods, like mushrooms and berries.

‘There’s something special about wild food,’ she said. Her voice was low, unhurried; her gaze direct. ‘We get to participate in the generosity of the wild. ‘There were many deer on the farm, too, and sometimes her partner would kill one for food, and Meesha would help with gutting and processing. That work, she said, ‘feels basic to being a human being. It reminds you of what life is.’

Like many people who harvest their own food, she’d come to deeply ponder the nature of eating, and how interwoven it was with the ecological crisis. ‘Whatever you eat is becoming who you are,’ she said. ‘Especially coming from the city, I’m now realizing the life of our food. I feel like these experiences are really seeping into my art.’

Several years earlier, she’d made a painting of two deer along with moon and sun images, thinking of them as ‘ancestral deer…part of the forest, an intrinsic energy.’ They were connected to a realm beneath – down under the soil, where traces of animals mingle with those of people. She was thinking about the earlier inhabitants of her land, the Monacans, who also ate venison. ‘For deer to be a primary food source in this area for millennia makes it an obvious relationship to be inspired by,’ she said. ‘They’re kin animals.’ The word kinfolk on her mural nodded to that. It was a term she’d heard her rural neighbors use.

She continued, ‘One way they exist symbolically for me is that a deer could be right here, eating, and then they see you and snort and run off. They’re just on the periphery of our lived world, and then they disappear. They’re an ambassador from the wild.’

As if on cue, she spotted two whitetails through the big kitchen window, melting in and out of the fence line at the edge of a field. An embassy. We got up and kept talking, leaning on the sink, watching for them to reappear.

She mused about how even as she consumed deer, living here had made her more aware of the seasons when they matured, grew antlers, raised young. We knelt on the floor and looked at a different piece, made of brown paper she’d drawn on with white pastel, cut patterned holes into, and sewn with white thread. A large central deer figure was surrounded by other running deer and their silhouettes and tracks: a delicate map of land, body, and material connections. 

 ‘These are tree rings,’ she said, pointing to a concentric pattern on the large deer’s flank. ‘They’re eating bushes and trees, so they are part tree; they’re like a four-legged extension of trees.’ On the left was a map of the farm creek, interlacing with deer trails. 

The mural project in Charlottesville included an acknowledgment of Monacan land and a donation of funds to the tribe. ‘Kinfolk, as a guiding principle, applied across groups of people as well as species. And it seemed to take on even greater dimension as Meesha unwrapped two other pieces – oil paintings – from a newer body of work called Daughterland, one that reckons with her own identity through intricately symbolic images of ceremonial Korean dresses. ‘My mother was born in Korea,’ she said,’and I realized I did have access to my own indigeneity. I can make a claim on my own ancestral culture, even though I’m displaced from it. I still come from an agrarian, shamanic culture with strong observances of the cycles of time, and sacred ways of interacting.’ 

I thought of all the deer I’d found, in art, literature, commerce; deer who functioned as ‘a sight,’ something to view or to spot – ornaments or tokens. Meesha’s white deer – ‘a messenger,’ she said, tapping into an ancient notion – gazed directly at the viewer from the dress’s skirt. Here was a deer who looked back.

In these pieces, strong female hands, some of them clutching weapons, expressed resistance. But they played against the permeability of the faceless figures, with their skirts harboring animals like forests do, and their arms and wombs holding babies. 

‘I like exploring that boundary of the wild and the domestic,’ she told me, ‘because that quality of being at home in nature is what’s getting lost in humanity.’

She took me out to an open-air kitchen in one end of a horse barn and fed me custard made from her cows’ milk and her chickens’ eggs, dotted with tiny sweet blueberries from her bushes. The day was warm and green, and I thought of those deer we’d watched, somewhere nearby, enclosed in these environs of which they were made, and which they helped to make. 

 

Once hunted to the point of extinction in some parts of the world, deer numbers have exploded in recent years, causing tension between scientists and conservationists. And yet, this is our own story, as the fortune of deer is inextricably bound up with the actions that humans take on the world around us. The Age of Deer is a compelling inquiry that asks as many questions as it provides insights: about control, about desire, about what it means to be alive, and whether it is possible to re-forge an ancestral kinship with the more-than-human world in a time of ecological collapse.

The Age of Deer: Trouble and Kinship with our Wild Neighbors is published by Icon Books

 

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