Last January, on one of our winter walks, my daughter's boyfriend reached down and fished two pairs of immense antlers out of a pile of matted leaves. The racks were interlocked and told a stark, eloquent and - to human reckoning - tragic tale: Two bucks fighting, probably over some comely doe, had become inextricably bound and eventually had starved to death. Shakespeare's Rosalind says, "No man ever died of love," but these deer did. The antlers were a testimony to the sometimes disastrous power of the mating instinct.
Kansas is known for its trophy bucks and these specimens were the kind hunters pay thousands of dollars to shoot. The antlers proved that such giants roam our neighborhood, though we never see them. Survival to this size calls for a wariness that's abandoned only for a few short weeks during the rut.
A more cheerful sight greeted us early in April. A Canadian goose built a nest in our pond. Once she began sitting on it, she rarely budged, enduring gale force winds, hail and cold, pelting rain. Coyotes and feral cats prowled around the pond. Hawks passed overhead. Nothing moved her from the nest.
One morning, mother goose was sitting unusually high on her edifice and we guessed that the rising level of the pond was swamping it. The next day, she and her mate were paddling serenely around the pond. It looked as if the nest had been abandoned and that the much-anticipated project had failed. I was disappointed. I had looked forward to watching the new family grow. I'd thought of them as "my" geese, "my" goslings. In short, I'd counted my geese before they were hatched.
But the next day, my wife looked through the binoculars and announced, "I know why she was off the nest yesterday. She has four babies." And there they were, four little balls of fluff following their parents straight into the pond. No need for swimming lessons in this crowd.
Later, the adults appeared on the pond dam looking frantically in all directions like typical parents: "Where the devil are they? I thought you were watching them." But all was well. The little ones had been exploring among the cattails. Soon the family was reunited, feeding on the tender grass emerging from the spring burn.
Alas, this story doesn't have a happy ending either. The next day, I discovered my geese on the gravel road, wandering away from the pond like refugees. There were only three youngsters now and one seemed to be having trouble keeping up. The parents left him behind, turned from the road with the other two and crossed a field. After they'd disappeared I found the orphan in a roadside ditch. I picked him up in my cap, took him home and deposited him in a box with food and water. He quacked gamely and seemed lively enough, but after a few hours I found him toppled over like a wooden toy.
My sense of parental responsibility was outraged by the mother's and father's abandonment of this cute little fellow, but they must have known he was doomed. In the hard economy of nature, they couldn't waste their time on him. They had to concentrate on the three that still had a chance. Life and death in the wilds don't always conform to our anthropomorphic sentiments. On a pond by an Overland Park shopping center, where resident Canadian geese are regarded as nuisances, the propagation of the species has been alarmingly successful and goslings cover the park like so many pigeons.
Out in the country, the high-pitched voices of newborns have joined the local coyote pack. Crane flies have hatched in droves as they dependably do every May. One day I surprised a baby owl who'd left the nest but hadn't yet learned to fly and watched him hobble off to a plum thicket like an old man on a crutch. Across the road, a tom turkey is out from dawn to dusk in the field fanning out his feathers to awe a bunch of hens. At night, a billion frogs serenade the moon with their croaking love songs.
The church I took my 95-year-old mother to on Mother's Day was crowded with babies lined up to be baptized. The choir sang a poignant anthem in which the creator promised, "Non vos relinquam orphanos" - I will not leave you as orphans. I wondered: Is this the same spirit that watches over geese in ways we can't understand? Life is driven on. There may no answers to our questions, but we can't help asking: What is our place in this world? What does it all mean?