She had been dead for a while when I found her. Her bones, dry and sun-bleached, were scattered widely on the side of the hill, her skull fragmented and almost unidentifiable. She was just young blacktail deer. Too many of the dead animals I find are so young, even fawns.
Deer, coyotes, turkey vultures and Jericho crickets inhabit Macedo Ranch, hills nestled in an unknown corner of Mt. Diablo. Cattle languidly chew the grass, which is characteristically golden most of the year. Residents don’t like this living gold, and they don’t want it in their gardens. They think the native grass looks dead. It’s not. It’s just drought resistant; it dries in the summer and comes green again in the spring, as verdant as ever. You should be so lucky as to come back from the dead.
You can get to the top of the mountain by starting at Macedo Road, through trails that are cut through with shallow creeks, where red-winged blackbirds call in the cattails, and over bare rock. I have run hundreds of miles here, most of the time never having realized how many skeletons rest there to be found, if you just know where to look. Cattle were brought to these hills by the Spanish to feed Mission San Jose, and to this day their descendants live and die in the shadow of the Devil Mountain. In dry creek beds and at the convergence of hills I find, touch, arrange skeletons, morbid but an osteal testament to the animal in life. Of course I would rather find the animal herself, alive, but bones are noticeably easier to catch. My deer waited patiently where the hills met the road.
Jane Doe was a victim of the edge effect, wherein the ecological community of a habitat is affected by sharing a boundary with another habitat or urban area. There are herds of Colombian blacktail deer that live in these hills, but as they venture closer to the city, they spend more time in gardens and crossing streets, and so they are more vulnerable to being hit by cars. On dozens of occasions I have found dead birds, squirrels, raccoons, and deer just a few feet from the road. Given her proximity to the street, it’s most likely that Jane died after being struck by a motorist. It’s okay I suppose; the deer population is still stable in this area. There is consolation in that fact. She wasn’t any sort of keystone; the logical conservationist sheds no tears for her.
Years ago I found a familiar calico pelt flattened on the side of the road. The pattern was random but unmistakable. It was the remains of my first cat, who had met the same fate as Jane. The cat population didn’t suffer much, and the ecosystem was not disrupted. I am a conservationist, I’ve been involved in countless environmental efforts and minored in sustainability, studying statistics and population curves on charts, and I am astutely logical. But my cat was not just an organism or a part of a food web. She was Mew Mew. She had slept in the crib with my sister. So I cried for her.
I made a simulacrum, I laid down the scattered bones as they may have been perimortem. I didn’t know Jane Doe, and she wasn’t my pet, but I doubt that thinking of the natural cycle of life and death and the food web would have brought her much consolation in her final moments. Was she the same fawn who had hid in my own back yard? Did she bleat at her herd members before expiring? I picked up her triangular distal phlanges, from toes that skittered up the yellow hillside. I saw fear in her eye-sockets, a ghost of when she hesitated, a deer in the headlights. She wasn’t the first skeleton I’d found, and wouldn’t be the last. She had been dead for a while when I found her, and soon she’ll be grown over with golden grass.