Verner column: Sometimes nature makes you look twice
Standing motionless at the top of a rocky embankment, the deer appeared more apparition than actual animal.
It was white, with a few russet splotches dappling its neck and chest, as if it had been the target in a mudball fight. For a moment, I thought it was a spray-painted lawn ornament that someone had placed high above the roadside for the entertainment of motorists passing through Wilkes County on U.S. 421. Then the head moved, and the body turned, and it slipped back into the woods. This was no statue, although at the time I wasn’t exactly sure what it was I had momentarily glimpsed on an overcast morning as I headed toward Boone.
Initially, I thought it was an albino deer, a pretty rare sight even in states like North Carolina that have an overpopulation of white-tails. According to one estimate I found, biologists say that only about one in 100,000 deer are true albinos, meaning they not only lack the pigmentation that produces normal coloration but also have pink (or light gray) eyes, pinkish hooves, nose and ears and other characteristics of albinism. I wasn’t close enough to gaze into this deer’s eyes, which was fortunate on my part ó if you can gaze into a deer’s eyes, it’s usually because it’s coming through your windshield. But the washed-out mottling told me this probably wasn’t a pure albino, and a quick search of some deer Web sites on the Internet confirmed that suspicion.
What I had seen wasn’t an albino deer but a piebald, designated as such because the mottled coloration often resembles that of a piebald pony.
This came as a bit of a letdown, I must confess. While piebalds are unusual, they aren’t as exceptional as pure albino deer, which are revered as creatures of mystical import and spiritual power in many Native American cultures. White bucks and does aren’t held with quite the same awe as a white buffalo, perhaps, but albino deer ó or “ghost” deer, as they are sometimes known ó are still believed to embody magical and healing powers. Simply seeing one, some tribes believed, would bring the observer good luck, and who can’t use more of that?
Killing one, legend held, would cause a hunter to lose his predatory skills or result in some untimely accident, a taboo still practiced by many deer hunters who won’t kill an albino. In some states, it’s even illegal to take one, although not in North Carolina.
Even if my piebald deer wasn’t as rare or as spiritually potent as a pure albino, however, it was still a stunning sight, posed there on a rocky abutment, its white coat as incongruous as plaid trousers on a monk.
I asked Sgt. Anthony Sharum, an officer with the N.C. Wildlife Commission and a frequent contributor to the Post’s Outdoor page, what he could tell me about my sighting. In an e-mail, he said that piebalds, like albinos, are genetic malformations that tend to occur within overpopulated herds. Along with mottled coloration, they also often have malformed feet and smaller than normal heads. As stunning as these deer are to behold in the wild, nature has done them no favor by so gaudily separating them from the herd. Their white coats, compromised eyesight and genetic inferiority render them especially vulnerable to predators and illness.
“Many times these deer do not survive to adulthood, although enough do that I see a few taken every year by hunters,” Sharum said. “They are pretty cool to see, but seeing a lot of them in one area would be a bad sign.”
Still, I’ll take it as a good sign that I happened to glimpse a lone piebald standing ghostlike on a hillside, lending an eerie luminescence to an otherwise gray day. From a biological perspective, it may simply be thought of as a genetic anomaly ó a freak of nature, if you will ó involving the absence of pigmentation, recessive traits and random mutation. But like the positive and negative electrical charges that create lightning storms, these are simply the mechanisms that jolt us into a deeper awareness of, and appreciation for, the infinite variety of creation. As Native American cultures might tell us, the biological mechanism shouldn’t be confused with the spirit of the thing itself.
While my piebald wasn’t a pure albino, it still created a moment that was pure magic. – – –
Chris Verner is editorial page editor of the Salisbury Post.
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