Poetry Monday: “Traveling Through the Dark” by William Stafford

How do you decide what the right thing to do is, let alone teach children how to make those choices?

I read William Stafford’s (1914 – 1993) “Traveling Through the Dark” for the first time as an assignment in high school.  Quietly emotional, it is the perfect poem to ignite discussion among bored students.

Traveling through the dark I found a deer
dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.
It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:
that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead…

…she was large in the belly.

My fingers touching her side brought me the reason–
her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,
alive, still, never to be born.
Beside that mountain road I hesitated….

Our class discussed with great fervor for the entire period which choice the author should have made. I still find this a moving, challenging poem.  How many of your high school assignments can you say that about? My choice of what the right thing to do in this situation has changed with maturity.  My inclination has not.


Filed under Life, poetry

4 responses to “Poetry Monday: “Traveling Through the Dark” by William Stafford

  1. This is an interesting problem, both from an emotional and logistical viewpoint. My inclination is the same now as it was when I was 12, and as it was when I was the director of a grass roots human society back in the late 80’s. So, I’m not sure this is a question of maturity of choice… though I do understand what you mean. Perhaps the “realization” that I may not be in the proper position to do the right thing for the fawn comes with maturity, and I can then distinguish between that and my “inclination?” However, coming from a part of the country (New England) where it is not unheard of for vehicles to strike deer, moose, cows and horses on the farm roads as well as the highways, I have taken part professionally in the debate about what to “do,” and helped to decide what should be the standing policy on hooved animal emergency rescue in various Massachusetts counties and areas served by large animal vets. Available tax funds/grants etc. play a big part in whether it is possible to serve the needs of those who know whether an unborn fawn “can” be saved efficiently in such a situation.

    The issue really comes down to your experience: if you know which animal rescue or vet to call, if you are close enough to them — or they to you — and if you have reached the mother in time, the baby actually has a decent chance of being saved. Especially true based on advances in animal medicine over the last 20 years. Now, whether you decide to take action (assuming a “yes” to all the aforementioned) is more of a moral code choice, I believe, than a maturity-based decision. Do you believe it is right to interfere in the natural order of things? Or do you believe that a human’s metal vehicle traveling 60 miles an hour on a strip of asphalt and killing an expectant deer is, in fact, a “natural” occurrence? My personal view is that we have already interfered in the natural order quite enough by taking over the animal’s habitat, so saving the animal’s baby, if I know the chance is high, makes sense to me and I deem it the right thing to do. If the deer, horse, moose is not very far along, it wouldn’t be right, and would only prolong suffering of the unborn fetus needlessly. But, if the unborn fetus is far enough along, I feel I’ve got some responsibility toward the animals I am crowding off the planet, so to speak. Having said that, I know I have a better understanding of how to judge gestation length in horses and deer than I do for cow or moose. That latter would be a more difficult decision.

    • Well, by “maturity” I meant experience and education, which you clearly have a lot of on this subject.

      I also meant that in being older, I (hopefully) read the poem more closely than I did at 15, and to my uneducated in animal husbandry eye, the line that says “she had stiffened already, almost cold” indicates that too much time had passed since the doe was struck and the fetus would have little chance of survival. So, though my inclination would be to save the fawn, I wouldn’t try.

      And, on a more cynical note, New England and (I believe) Oregon (where this poem takes place) have no shortage of deer these days. We’ve done away with their natural predators.

      • The line you mention in your response doesn’t appear in your initial post, so I didn’t get the same communication from the poem that you did when you re-read it, and if I had, it definitely would have indicated a lost cause. In those cases, only a vet with equipmet in her trunk might attempt a rescue at that point. And yes, it’s unfortunate that our own moving vehicles have become predators of deer. Although hunting season is still an active response to the population problem, I suppose that’s a whole other conversation 🙂

      • Of course, it would have helped if I had clicked on the link to the poem and read the entire thing, instead of just the summary. 😛

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