Woodland Cemetery in London, Ontario, is both old and modern. Established in 1879 and occupying over 100 acres of woodland it houses more than 50,000 graves. The place is beautiful, with an older section of large and lovely tombstones going back to the Victorian and Edwardian eras. There is a dedicated area for veterans, marked with identical stones laid out in rows that is deeply moving. It is also the home of a family of deer.
The deer are what initially drew me to Woodland. I thought perhaps it was simply an urban legend, not really believing deer would choose to live in a populated city space, and I wanted to see it for myself. The deer are definitely there, in a group that averages twenty-five or more. And over the past three years I have gone back many times.
These are white-tailed deer. They are reddish brown in spring and turn a grey brown in fall and winter. The females become pregnant in late October or early November and the fawns - anywhere from one to three - are born in May or June. The stags regrow their antlers every year starting in late spring and shed them between January and April of the following year. Their antlers can vary in size and number of points; larger antlers are a sign of maturity, health and vitality. Apparently the shedding of antlers is not painful.
The deer wander throughout the cemetery and in and out of the ravine at the back, but they seem to prefer the older section. The stones are larger, the trees more mature, offering more shelter. It's a beautiful space and I like to imagine the deer sensing the peace and aesthetic of this particular part of the cemetery.
The grounds are well kept. The gravestones are cleaned periodically, and restoration is an ongoing process. Some stones have fallen, some are broken or cracked, and many lay buried under accumulated dirt and grass. Recently three students from Western University were hired to unearth, clean and repair more than fifty of these Victorian-era tombstones. An impressive project, not only honouring the dead but providing us the living with more beauty and a greater sense of the history of the area.
The deer, while not domesticated, have become accustomed to people. They will run off but often, if you're willing to wait, they'll remain close by, letting you see their expressive faces, the fur in their ears, their lovely coats and impressive antlers.
I return often, seeing this family of deer in each season. In spring the babies are born, in fall the changing leaves seem to enhance the colours of the deer themselves, and in winter seeing them against the snow in that soft winter light takes my breath away.
There is something special about a group of living sentient creatures residing so comfortably among those who are no longer here. It adds something unique to Woodland and I like to think the deer feel it as well. A mutually beneficial relationship.