Thursday, July 5, 2012

Deerly Departed

This morning I woke up to rolling thunder, lightning, and darkness that spread like a funeral pall over the city. Perfect day for some cemetery photography? Possibly, yes, though certainly challenging under such conditions. 

However, as I went out to my car about an hour later, I saw the blue sky and felt the heat. The day quickly turned into one of those white-hot summer days where birds, caught in the intensely magnified rays of sunlight reflected off plate-glass office buildings, burst into flame in mid-air.  As Buddy Holly sang in Raining in My Heart, “The sun is out - the sky is blue there’s not a cloud to spoil the view.” 

You can photograph the most typical cemeteries in the rain and everything looks new. But on a sunny, scorching day, I needed something new. Even with scores of cemeteries to photograph in and around Philadelphia, you would think I’d have hit them all. Not so. Mount Hope Cemetery in Lambertville, New Jersey, was in my sights. This is a little rural tourist town across the Delaware River from New Hope, Pennsylvania, about ten miles north of Trenton, New Jersey.

I found the cemetery down a side road, off the main street running through town. Cleverly hidden, as some of them are, from non-residents. I drove up the small hill road for a couple blocks until a grassy embankment appeared on my left. Quaint houses, bungalows, really, populated the right. As I slowed down expecting to find the entrance, I noticed quite a strange sight.

A young deer, a fawn, was struggling up the weedy embankment. This was right out my car widow, about twelve feet away. I made this photo there. I watched the fawn struggle to the top, where its siblings waited - two more fawns of the same size. At this point I had gotten out of my car and was snapping pictures. They were obviously aware of my presence and had the sense to move away. I could see from here that the cemetery entrance was blocked by a downed tree. From this vantage point I could also take in the breadth and width of this lovely hillside cemetery. It was small enough to see that there were driveway entrances around the other side of the grounds. I mounted my steed and drove around Mount Hope back to the center of the cemetery, returning to the area where I had left the fawns. 

I’m not a wildlife nut, and am a pretty bad nature photographer, so why am I so intrigued by deer? Well, for one thing, you don’t see them often in South Philly, where I live. So it’s a novelty, for sure, almost like being in a petting zoo when you can get this close to the animals. Also, I grew up in northeast Pennsylvania, where deer abound and everyone gets a hunting license – even me.

My dearly departed daddy, a Great White Hunter, forced me into it when I was thirteen. He dragged me along for about four years running, until I almost accidentally blew off my uncle’s head. Though no words were ever spoken, Dad and I both took this to be a sign and I was no longer invited  to participate in this manliest of man-sport. Happy to say I never shot a deer. Shot AT them, else I would have incurred the wrath of the Great White Hunter. No one knows this but you, dear reader, that I always aimed a little high. 

It amazed me early on that you only needed to be TWELVE years old to be licensed in the state of Pennsylvania to carry with a high-powered rifle. This was maybe 1971. At the same time, you needed to be SIXTEEN to legally drive and EIGHTEEN to legally drink! My parents had a farm out in the boonies where my cousins and I could do all these things, even before we became of legal rage. We lived in the town, but the farm was sixteen miles away, in some direction of which I am still unsure. Anyway, back to the deer.

My best friend George, with whom I grew up, used to laugh about my family’s fixation with deer. My father would be driving us to the farm in our Ford Country Squire station wagon some Saturday morning, through some godforsaken Bumfukville, when he would slam on the brakes, point out the window into a field and yell “DEER!” We would watch them off in the distance, my parents marveling at their beauty, grace, and gamey flavor, while us kids would be sneaking peeks at our much more interesting Spiderman comic books. George committed the ultimate sacrilege once by rhetorically asking me why my parents are so into deer. “They’re just deer,” he said. And so they are. 

Three fawns, with adult deer in background.
So maybe its because of my bizarre upbringing that a deer standing in a field still gets my attention. This mini-herd of three fawns sure had me intrigued. I found a shady tree under which to park my car (otherwise, this 100-degree heat would have melted my black leather seats), got out with my cameras and approached the fawns. They were now grazing among a cluster of headstones about twenty feet away. They were wary and would stop and look at me if I got closer. I was satisfied to remain at this distance and tried several times to get all three in the shot, classically posed. This I never succeeded in doing. 

If you look in the background of the photo directly above, you’ll see the brown blurred shape of a larger deer (top center, between the house and the large monument). I did not see this through my camera lens. After about ten minutes, I was taken aback by a thumping and snorting!

Doe to the left, buck (in velvet antlers) to the right.
The mama and papa deer, doe and buck, were staring me down! I suppose one or both would’ve charged had I stepped closer to their brood, but I backed away. The mother was more aggressive, the father just standing by (having just been roused from his easychair by the doe, probably). I had no intention of messing with them. The parents trotted toward their fawns and veered off toward the road. The three fawns trotted after them, as best they could on their awkward new legs. To my surprise, they deerly departed down the embankment, through the weeds, into the road, and across the lawn of a nearby house! Living here must be like living in a nature preserve.  

Although Mount Hope Cemetery has woods bordering just one side, it’s all quite rural here. The road surrounding the cemetery turned out to be a dead end, so there really isn’t much traffic to speak of. A lovely place to raise a family, it would seem. Glad I was able to witness it all without my father around.