Joseph Bottum's rendezvous with BambiNov 9, 2015, Vol. 21, No. 09 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
She seemed more curious than frightened, the doe-eyed . . . doe, I suppose, and we studied each other for a long moment or two. She, calm in a farmer’s field, looking over the fence line. And me, unmoving in the wreck, staring back at her through the shattered glass.
Then some click of the cooling engine, or maybe a groan of bent metal and drip of radiator fluid, convinced her that I wasn’t worth her time. The deer trotted a few yards further along the fence, leapt it with a neatfoot bounce, and disappeared off into the woods—leaving me to climb my way out of my broken car and scrabble back up to the highway, hoping to flag down some help.
Odd, really, to see her so clearly, so sharply, when I never actually saw the other deer, the one I hit at 80 miles an hour on a South Dakota highway—the one that left me with a couple of cracked ribs, a chipped collarbone, a gouged ankle, and a sprained wrist. Oh, and a spectacular set of bruises placed around my body with the precision of a drunken xylophonist.
Plus, of course, a totaled car. There are, it is said, more deer in North America today than there were when the Pilgrims landed. Certainly there are more out on the western prairies. The Homestead Acts often required the planting of acres of trees to prove a farmer’s claim, and those windbreaks and narrow groves have added up to a massive national nature preserve: a refuge for white-tails and mule deer. Of course, they then wander out onto the highway, where there’s not much refuge for either deer or the drivers who hit them.
Nearly everyone I’ve spoken to, in the days since my accident, has a story of animals on the road. The problem, in my case, is that the first notice I had was the darkening of my field of vision as the windshield bowed in at me. Picturing the accident now, I realize that the deer probably didn’t see me, either. Driving into the dark, with the twilight behind me, my car would have been invisible, and the deer must have jumped up out of the long fall grass of the road’s shoulder at exactly the right moment to slide across the hood of the car and land, back first, on the windshield.
But I see that only in retrospect. At the time, the craze of cracks in the safety glass left me blind as I flinched and swerved, only to slide sideways down the steep embankment and bang along a 50-yard line of—what else?—trees planted as a farmer’s windbreak maybe a hundred years before. Eventually, the fender was bent in enough that the front wheel could catch on one of the trees, swinging the car 180 degrees so that the driver’s side could get its own share of smashing.
I’m not sure where, along the way, the deer fell off. A little blood on the fender, as though I’d clipped its legs, and some hair on the windshield shards were all that was left—even on the trail of plowed down grass I’d left behind. However badly injured, the deer somehow managed to walk away from the accident.
Which is better than I did. For me, it was more of a crawl out of the car and up the embankment to wait for help. After I declined an ambulance, a paramedic told me I’d need X-rays and taping up, and, sore as I was, I’d be even sorer the next day, once everything tightened up. So I signed the highway patrolman’s accident report and had the tow-truck driver drop me off at a Sioux Falls car-rental agency—deciding that, since I still faced a six-hour drive back home to the Black Hills, I might as well do it immediately rather than wait for the painful stiffness of the next day.
That may have been a mistake. The Midwestern demand for self-sufficiency, an often self-defeating virtue drilled into my boyhood, was strong enough to get me up and moving. Strong enough, for that matter, to keep me going about as far as Rapid City. But, man, the hour in the car beyond that, driving home into the hills, was a trial.
Still, I figured that if the deer I hit could walk away from the accident—if the other deer, the one I watched from my wreck, could stay calm even after I’d smashed through her woods—then I could probably make it home, however painful the final miles. And though I saw a few deer in the woods along the way, they must have decided enough was enough. None of them jumped out into the road, and I made it at last home to painkillers and bed.
When Britain was an outpost of an earlier empire.
Oct 12, 2015, Vol. 21, No. 05 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
You can find them here and there, scattered across England: the small green mounds, the hillocks and filled-in ditches, the hints of straight lines that once cut through the landscape. Just beneath the long grass lies the rich silt, piled up by the wind or washed in by the rain in the 62 years since the coronation of Queen Elizabeth I I. In the 177 years since Victoria took the throne. The 949 years since a determined William of Normandy landed on the English shore. The 1,418 years since St. Augustine came to Canterbury, a prayer book in his hand.
Joseph Bottum sings a serpent's praisesSep 21, 2015, Vol. 21, No. 02 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
I've always loved the sound of a serpent. Well, no, not really. The 16th-century musical instrument is breathy, buzzy, and inexact—consistently requiring the player to gesture at the note in what’s called falset: using the tension of the lips in the mouthpiece to approximate a tone that the instrument’s fingering and natural overtones don’t want to produce. There was a reason the valved brass tuba swept the serpent out of modern orchestras in the 19th century. The tuba could, like, you know, actually sound the note.
Robert Conquest, 1917-2015.Aug 17, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 46 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
Robert Conquest could easily have missed being . . . well, Robert Conquest, the most morally significant historian of the second half of the twentieth century. Now that he’s slipped away—dying in California on August 3 at age 98—it’s possible to see that he might well have failed to find his way.
A cult classic stands the test of time.Aug 3, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 44 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
In 1956, Doubleday published The Dragon in the Sea, the first novel by a California newspaperman named Frank Herbert. Even now, the book seems a little hard to pin down. It was, for the most part, a Cold War thriller about the race to harvest offshore oil—except crammed inside the thriller was a near-future science-fiction tale of fantastic technology. And crammed inside the science fiction was a psychological study of naval officers crammed inside submarines.
Joseph Bottum, morning truantJul 6, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 41 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
Morning comes like a great bird, sailing over the dark curve of the earth to illuminate the hills and trees. Dawn arrives like an angel’s burning sword, expelling night from the garden of this world. Sunrise melts to fresh dew the last wisps of frost across the lawn, a diamond sparkle in the golden angle of the sun’s first rays, and in the background always plays “Morning Mood,” the opening movement of Grieg’s first Peer Gynt Suite.
What explains the years of rage on campuses? Jun 15, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 38 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
Maybe American higher education was never all that serious about, you know, the education portion of its name. After more than a decade of teaching in the Ivy League, the philosopher George Santayana dubbed Harvard and Yale the nation’s toy Athens and toy Sparta. He actually meant it as a compliment—as much a compliment, anyway, as he could muster. Santayana resigned his Harvard professorship in 1912 and moved to Europe.
Setting that certain feeling to music.May 18, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 34 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
I found an error in Ted Gioia’s new history of love songs. It’s late in this 336-page book, when he mentions that Simon and Garfunkel gave their 1968 hit “Mrs. Robinson” to the movie soundtrack for The Graduate. As it happens, the adulterous Mrs. Robinson was first a character in the 1967 movie, and the little koo-koo-ka-choo filler they composed for her they developed into a full song only after the movie’s success.
Joseph Bottum, book burnerMay 18, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 34 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
It took me six hours to destroy it all, that cold, wet winter day. Freezing rain coating the leafless trees and the slush of snow left from the previous days’ storms. A weak fire in one of the stingy, grudging little fireplaces they used to build in Manhattan apartments. And me, alone with thousands of pages of unpublished writing by Richard John Neuhaus, burning the record he’d kept of his life.
Joseph Bottum refuses to convert.Mar 16, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 26 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
It used to happen regularly. Some poor science writer for a magazine or newspaper would try to humanize an astronomy fact: The distance light travels in a year is enormous!
Joseph Bottum counts the days Jan 5, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 17 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
until after Christmas.
Christmas doesn’t really begin until Christmas—Christmas Day itself, that is. And I don’t mean just in the way the Christian churches lay out the season: the whole 12-days-of-Christmas thing, if you remember. And I know you do, because everyone remembers the song about the partridge in a pear tree, which is what our loves would give us on the first day of Christmas, if they were true.
Green in exchange for green.Dec 15, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 14 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
Speaking truth to power is easy—or easier, anyway, than speaking truth to money. We might resist a sovereign who commands us to preach his favored doctrines. But a sovereign who slips us a little cash on the side, just for a sermon or two on something we maybe don’t really disagree with all that much? Harder. Much, much harder. It was true back in 1717, for example, when Benjamin Hoadly preached a famous Anglican sermon in front of a receptive King George I—a sermon that called for church government to be taken away from the bishops and given directly to the king.
How it is that we once again find ourselves rooting out sin, shunning heretics, and heralding the end timesDec 1, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 12 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
1. The Return of Original Sin
Feb 24, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 23 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
Hazel Motes, the hyperanxious protagonist of Flannery O’Connor’s great novella Wise Blood, finds himself so bedeviled by the demands of religious belief that he rebels by founding a religion of his own: The Holy Church of Christ Without Christ. The mainline Protestant churches of the twentieth century, says our contributing editor Joseph Bottum, did something similar when the challenges of the secular world proved too much: They abandoned the inconveniences and discomforts of faith and became, instead, secular liberals.