The other day, my 3.5-year-old son Maxwell and I were walking along the top of Marye’s Heights on the Fredericksburg battlefield, enjoying a beautiful view on a sunny day, with temps in the low forties. We intended to circle past the two artillery pieces along the crest and into Fredericksburg National Cemetery, where we’d follow the path down off the hill and back to the parking lot.
In a muddy patch just outside the cemetery gate, several wayfarers had managed to leave their booted impressions in the mud next to the rubberized path. I wouldn’t have given the bootprints a second notice except scatted among them were a number of hoofprints.
“Hey, look!” I said to Maxwell. We stopped to inspect the prints, and I traced out the inverted heart shape of the hooves for him so he could better make sense of what he was looking at. He knows horse hooves—not only because his sister owns horses but because I can be tedious when it comes to explaining the Mule Shoe Salient at Spotsylvania, even to a toddler—but I wasn’t sure if he know what deer hooves looked like. Fortunately, Google knows everything and cell reception atop the heights was good.
The hoofprints surprised me because, after all, the cemetery sits on the southwest of town, surrounded by development. Farther south along Lee Drive, I see signs of deer all the time, but the cemetery seemed to be a somber island in the middle of a lot of commercial and residential space. Where did these deer go during the day?
At home, I again consulted Google—this time, Goole Maps. A satellite shot of the cemetery shows its isolation, but I could also see a number of small forested areas all relatively connected to each other: eastward along Hazel Run down to the Rappahannock River; southward to an extended stretch of woods along Lee Drive; and back-stopped in the west against Route 1. Roads bisected all of these green areas, so wildlife would have to run gauntlets of pavement here and there, but there did seem to be at least some space for wildlife to move about even if it wasn’t the richly forested area it used to be once upon a time.
I reminded myself, though, that these green areas look larger on the map than I know them to be in real life. Those deer do have places to go—but not many. That we don’t see more of them in the day is maybe even a little surprising to me, but it just might be there aren’t many of them to begin with. Any habitat can sustain only so many animals, after all.
I might not ever see these deer (I see them all the time at Chancellorsville and Spotsy), but I’m glad to know they’re there, somehow. I hope they stay clear of people’s cars (which would be good for everyone involved).
In any case, nature always invites me to take a closer look when I’m on a battlefield. I often find wonder written in the smallest of ways, but those discoveries always leave me a little bit richer.
For more on this topic, check out:
“A Different View of Chancellorsville” from June 11, 2014
“A Nature Trail Through a History Park” from June 5, 2013
“Preserving Our Battlefields: ‘History’ and ‘Nature’ are Not Mutually Exclusive” from March 13, 2013