Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Bambi's Cousin

For Americans of my generation the Walt Disney film Bambi (1942!) was a significant life experience.  It was one of the earliest of the fabulously successful artificial animation films (following Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1937, and Pinocchio, 1940) of the genre that made Disney famous and that has continued to go from strength to strength for the better part of a century into the age of Pixar.  A pictorially magnificent tear-jerker, Bildungsroman, and an early tract of eco-propaganda, Bambi made a huge impression on my young mind in, probably, 1944.  At that time I was entirely unaware that the movie was based on a book published by the Austrian writer Felix Salten in 1923. 

            Salten entered my consciousness, via a circuitous route, about sixty years later, when I was writing a book on anti-Communist literature.  I discovered that Whittaker Chambers—the antagonist of Alger Hiss and super-patriot or super-snitch depending upon your political metabolism—had for a certain period in the Twenties supplemented a meager income by translating German language books.  His one huge success was Bambi (1928), which became a Book-of-the-Month selection.  Until very late in the twentieth century few American academics and intellectuals could face up to the reality that Hiss had indeed been--as Chambers alleged--a secret Communist, a low-level Soviet agent, a traitor, and a world-class liar.   Their reluctance required of them more or less inventive theories of why and how Chambers had been able to frame Hiss with flamboyant untruths and a specially manufactured typewriter.  One theory was that his deranged mind had projected upon his friend Hiss bizarre plot elements of a fiction by another Austrian writer, Franz Werfel, (Der Abituriententag, 1928) translated by Chambers as “Class Reunion”.  A scholar must consider all evidence.  Having read “Class Reunion,” I thought I’d better read Bambi as well.  I found no political clues in either, but I did end up among what must surely be but a happy few who saw the film Bambi at age eight and read the novel Bambi at age sixty-eight, with pleasure and admiration in both instances.

            One interesting aspect of Bambi (the book) is its lore concerning the methods used by mother deer in raising their offspring.  That sentence, which in terms of the techniques of prose composition could be called a “transition,” requires some spatial movement as well—away from my library and in the direction of our large back yard and toward the several seriously forested acres of common ground lying between it and Lake Carnegie about a quarter of a mile to the south.  Today these grounds are home to a numerous and increasing herd of whitetail deer—in addition to several other species of wildlife.  These deer are not quite tame, but they show less and less fear of human habitations and the activities surrounding them.  The deer mate mainly in November and, after a gestation period of about 200 days, the does drop their fawns mainly in late spring or early summer.

            Our suburban deer face no predators, though the automotive slaughter on major roads is dramatic.  This year has witnessed a particularly large crop of deer babies—portending problems ahead for gardeners and possible short rations for the deer themselves.  A couple of weeks ago I was out combating the sprouting bamboo—the gestation schedule of the bamboo being roughly that of the deer themselves—when I practically fell over a curled up fawn along the edge of my back lawn not fifty feet from the house.  The newborns, though not entirely immobile, are barely ambulatory.  The mothers park them in some supposedly safe place, then leave from for hours on end, returning to nourish them and, as soon as they get control of their thin, wobbly legs, lead them off to the woods in the gloaming of dusk or the dawn’s faint light.  When I looked again after a couple of hours, the cradle was bare.

            New Jersey suburbanites

         But what sort of places, exactly, does a mother deer consider “safe”?  Our house is one in which the actual front door gets little use.  We generally enter through the garage, and go in and out from the garden side at the back.  On Saturday morning, however, probably to check for the mail, I did open the front door—only to be startled by an agitated russet motion and the clatter of ineffectual tiny hooves against the stone of the threshold.  An enterprising doe had decided to use our front porch as her maternity ward!  I made the discovery about ten-thirty in the morning.  How long had the fawn been there?  Had the letter-carrier simply reached over it to reach the box?  Later in the afternoon our daughter arrived from New York.  She has been a participant in earlier animal husbandry capers on the family acres.  We tried to reach Animal Rescue, but without success.  We then consulted the all-knowing Internet, and in particular an impressive essay on offer from some deer lovers in SouthCarolina.  Its advice was: Leave the fawn be.  Mother knows best.

            Periodically throughout the day we tiptoed around to the front of the house to take a peek or a photo.  The fawn sat there on the welcome mat hour after hour--serenely, patiently, with touching infantile dignity.  Our daughter drove back to New York.  As night fell the animal was still there.  But in the dawn of Sunday, made confident by the expertise of the South Carolinians, I boldly opened the front door and looked down to see what I expected, a slab of bluestone and a welcome mat.

A note to our esteemed readers.  I believe that 460 of the 462 posts of on this blog met a rigorous once-a-week schedule.  But I now find that fanaticism is among the characteristics that are waning with age.  It is my hope that I shall be leaving tomorrow on a tour of great libraries in Britain, followed by some serious down time in the Provençal countryside and the fleshpots of Paris.  The hope is that blog and blogger will reappear in about a month.