Scent of Deer, Descent of Man

By Neil King Jr.

What I saw in the moonlight as a ghost, a bobbing blur of white vanishing down the path, my dog detected as the airborne molecules of a deer, floating up his nostrils. Off we shot in chase of the beast, man and dog in full sprint over soggy ground. We thought we had him on the run but no, there he was waiting around the bend, ears perked, legs coiled, ready to spring. He bolted with a single leap into the high grass and was gone. We ran as far as our lungs could take us until I pulled back on the leash. Without that tether Benny would have panted through forests and bogs all night, driven mad by the scent of deer.

I think about smell a lot when Benny and I are out walking the large meadow in front of the house we’ve made our Covid-19 refuge on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. It was once a soybean field but is now a magnificent tangle of trees, bushes and ponds along an inlet of the Chesapeake. It serves up sensory splendors far beyond my daily helping in Washington DC. The sweet explosion of lilacs in April. The smell of the pond when it goes shallow in summer, exposing fetid mud. The smell of raspberries in August or moldering sycamore leaves in late fall. 

But more than truly smelling as I stroll, I watch the other creatures smell, aware that here, as in so many other facets, I am the lesser being in the meadow, well devolved compared to the dog, the deer, the rabbit, the fox, the squirrel, the soaring osprey overhead. While I ramble along thinking and seeing, and occasionally stop to get the full symphony of sound, they live in an olfactory wonderland vastly richer than my feeble nose can detect. 

There was a time surely when the undomesticated human could still smell deer more or less as dogs do. We would pursue them with spear, bow, musket or rifle less by sight as by the musky tailings of their true being. Benny and I were out walking once along a suburban street just outside DC, parked cars and houses all about, when suddenly he went crazy on the leash and I turned to see a large buck bound by within five feet of us. That one I smelled, a deep carnal whiff of wet pelt and urine surely ten times as potent in the nostrils of my Airedale.

That’s an understatement, actually. Dogs have at least 45 times as many scent receptors as we humans do. Deer, for whom timely warnings are life and death, have still more. They can smell danger a mile away while I can smell it only after the soup has sat scorching on the stove for five minutes. 

Some scientists argue that our noses are better than we think, that we don’t lag so far behind the dog, but I don’t buy it. We have over 1000 olfactory receptors encoded in our genome but barely a third of them still function. The others are remnants tossed in the scrap heap over the 500,000 years since we parted ways with the neanderthal and built fires and huts, houses, cozy studies and laptops. 

Smell is not like sight or hearing. It is more akin to touch in its carnality, because when you smell something you are inhaling the actual thing itself. Perhaps that is why our language doesn’t really distinguish between the smell and the act of smelling. Verb and noun—being and thing—are one and the same. We smell a smell. A tiny particle of the thing being smelled wafts on the breeze to the thing doing the smelling. The one becomes the other. A vital scrap of information is conveyed. 

Deer are not only great at smelling. They are gifted at making smells. The two go hand in hand and both are primal to their very survival. They smell cougars or coyotes or hunters or Benny from far away, but they also create smells to lure mates, mark territory and warn one another of danger. Deer are loaded with glands purely designed to make smells. Their tarsal glands leave pungent reminders that they, and only they, were there: unique calling cards to aid in mating. Glands between their cloven hooves leave molecular signatures of themselves with every step, which explains why Benny chases deer with his nose to the ground. 

Smell is the most primal of senses, a chemical intermingling of the odorant and the receptor that takes it in. The sense of smell surely predates animals and existed in organisms within the ooze itself and drifted through the cosmos, long before noses came to be the central housing for the sniffing of predators or prey, wine and roses. Olfactory receptors have been found in our lungs, kidneys, colons. Sperm essentially smells its way to the unfertilized egg, much as the anadromous salmon finds its way from the ocean to its ancestral creek. Smell is so central to our neural wellbeing, such a trigger to memory and the wellsprings of our past, that the gradual loss of it is a sign of coming dementia.  

All of this is why I get annoyed when the deer bolt from me long before I see or smell them. I am luxuriating in all the obvious smells—the hyacinth, the horse manure, the cut grass—as they scamper in the distance at the merest whiff of my deodorant. Our game of hide-and-seek at all hours heavily favors them. The stupidity of my own nose is a daily reminder of the thousand skills and scraps of knowledge lost to the generations spent indoors. I’d have to go back ten grandfathers and grandmothers to get to the last one who experienced more nights outdoors than in. 

Sometimes, out wandering the meadow well after sundown or before sunrise, I come upon some deer curled in the grass and they flail as they wake and then run. It’s a satisfying moment in our make-believe ritual of hunter and hunted, but a passing one. I see the pressed circles they have left in the grass and envy them their time spent sleeping under stars, their tremors as a storm rolls in or their awe when the air in July goes thick with fireflies. I don’t envy them the ticks, the mosquitos, or the days and nights of snow and the slushy gray of March. 

Every now and then there is an ancestral sense of triumph. One afternoon Benny and I came around a bend and cut into a circular clearing in the woods along the bay. The wind must have favored us, because the herd of deer there had caught no hint of our coming. When they saw us from twenty yards away one of them shrieked, truly screamed. As they scattered, I could hear the air in their lungs surging through their nostrils, great gusts of horror I had no right to instill in any beast. All that gave Benny and I a swagger we didn’t deserve and added luster to the afternoon. Those deer were the embodiment of the wild in our meadow, and we had made that wild scream.

–Neil King Jr. is the editor of Gotham Canoe and a writer who, when not at home in Washington DC, is very happy to be elsewhere.