Micro-Season: “The Elk Sheds Its Antlers” (2022)

We have entered the micro-season of “The Elk Sheds its Antlers”.  This is the second micro-season of the mini-season Winter Solstice.  All the micro-seasons within Winter Solstice are:

  • The Common Self-Heal Sprouts (Dec 22 – Dec 26)
  • The Elk Sheds its Antlers (Dec 27 – Dec 31)
  • Beneath the Snow the Wheat Sprouts (Jan 01 – Jan 05)

These seasons were established in 1685 by Japanese astronomer Shibuka Shunkai and are specific to Japan. However, just because the calendar focuses on Japan doesn’t mean it isn’t applicable to others.  No matter where you live you can use these seasons as a starting point for your personal exploration of the world around you. 

To celebrate this season, we will learn about the deer and elk in Japan, explore the difference between horns and antlers, and read some deer-inspired haiku by Basho, Buson, and Issa.


A Word About This Season

This micro-season was initially translated by the Utsukushii Kurashikata Institute as “The Elk Sheds its Horns”.(1)  Because elk have antlers instead of horns, I took the liberty to change the season’s title to “The Elk Sheds its Antlers”.  To understand why this switch in terminology is important, let us first think about the difference between horns and antlers. 

Horns or Antlers? 

Horns are associated with animals in the Bovidae family including cows, bison, and mountain goats. Horns are also permanent and are made of keratin. Keratin is the same substance that makes up our fingernails. Horns are also likely to grow on both males and females.(2)

Antlers are associated with animals in the Cervidae family including elk, moose, and deer.  Antlers are shed every year, are made of bone, and grow off a pedicle.  A pedicle is a spot on the top of the animal’s head from which the antler grows.  Antlers typically just grow on males.(3)  

What Is the Purpose of Antlers?

Antlers are used by the males as a display of their health and dominance for the purposes of attracting a mate.  It takes a lot of energy to grow antlers so only a healthy male can develop and carry a large set of antlers.(3) 

Antlers can also be used as protection against predators, as tools to knock down fruit and to scrape on trees as a way to indicate territory.(3)

Elk or Deer?

Another potential challenge with this season’s title is that elk are not a native species to Japan. Elk are typically found in the northern forest of Eurasia and are known to inhabit parts of China.  Since China’s 24 solar terms provided the foundation for the 72-season calendar, it is suspected that when Shunkai was adapting the calendar to Japan he may have wanted to keep the imagery of the great elk as the “embodiment of the midwinter cold of a faraway land”.(1)

However, there are deer in Japan. The Sika Deer (Cervus nippon) are native to Japan.(4) This species, which was once found in eastern Russia and northern Vietnam, is also known as the Japanese Deer or the Northern Spotted Deer.(5)  

The Sika Deer were once considered a sacred animal and killing one of the deer was punishable by death up until 1637.(6)  Around 1945, the status of the deer transitioned from being identified as a sacred animal to a natural monument.(6)  The deer remain a protected species under this designation.

Nara Park, which is one of the oldest parks in Japan, is home to over 1,200 wild Sika Deer.(6) In this park the deer roam freely and visitors to the park can purchase “deer crackers” to feed the deer during their visit.(6)  

In a commentary on a haiku by Issa, Chris Drake explains the importance of the deer in Japanese culture. 

[D]eer were sacred in Japanese shamanism, and the deer in the Nara park are believed to be manifestations of the three main gods of the nearby Kasuga Shrine: they act as messengers for these gods and also carry the gods when the gods want to travel between this world and the other world.

The Nara deer park is also revered by Japanese Buddhists as the manifestation in Japan of the deer park in Sarnath, India, where Shakyamuni Buddha preached his first sermon.(8)

Because of the abundance of Sika Deer in Japan and the lack of elk, it would seem to make more sense that this season would be titled “The Deer Sheds Its Antlers.”  In fact, the US/Japan Cultural Trade Network does title this micro-season ”Deer shed antlers”.(7)

Deer Photo by Leeloo Thefirst on Pexels.com
Deer Photo by Leeloo Thefirst

Seasonal Haiku

The World Kigo Database tells us that “deer” by itself is not limited to any particular season. However, certain life stages or behaviors can place the deer in different seasons. Pregnant deer is associated with spring, and speckled fawn is associated with summer. Deer cries or deer calls are often associated with autumn and deer mating season. Shedding antlers can be associated with early winter, and, of course, there is always winter deer or tracks in the snow as a possible winter kigo. 

With all this in mind, let’s read some haiku.

Basho

crying ”beeeee” 
how sad the bellowing
of dear at night
(translated by Jane Reichhold)
deer antler
now branching at the joint
farewell 
(translated Jane Reichhold)

Buson

Three times breaks the silence,
then no sound at all — 
the cry of a stag
(translated by Geoffrey Wilkinson)
A deer in rain
even budding antlers doesn’t stop
its love
(translated by Allan Persinger)
A cold deer
its body and antlers merge
with a dead tree
(translated by Allan Persinger)
eating meat
everybody is talking about
Deer Valley
(translated by Allan Persinger)

Issa

tied around one
of the stag's antlers --
a letter
(translated by Chris Drake)
Kasuga Field's deer
also attend, I see...
Buddha's birthday flowers
(translated by David G. Lanoue)

(In Japan, Buddha’s birthday is celebrated on April 8.)

stag cries --
what do the Buddhas
say about this?
(translated by Chris Drake)

A Haiku Invitation

This week’s haiku invitation is to write a haiku or senryu that references deer, elk, or any other member of the Cervidae family.  

Share your haiku in the comments below, or post on your own page and link back to this post. I can’t wait to read what you write!  


Resources

  1. 72 Season App
  2. “Horns and Antlers: What’s the Difference?”: American Museum of Natural History
  3. O’Brian, Bill; “A dozen facts about antlers”. U.S. Fish and Wildlife
  4. Brazil, Mark; “Japanese Sika Deer”: JapanExperience.com
  5. “Sika Deer”; Wikipedia
  6. “Nara Park’: Wikipedia
  7. “Deer sheds antlers”; US/Japan Cultural Trade Network
  8. “Deer(shika)”; World Kigo Database

Basho’s haiku were retrieved from “Matsuo Bashō’s haiku poems in romanized Japanese with English translations” Editor: Gábor Terebess. Buson’s haiku retrieved from Wilkinson’s “The painter-poet’s eye, and ear: nine haiku by Buson” Presence and from Allan Persinger’s Foxfire: the Selected Poems of Yosa Buson, a Translation.  Issa haiku were retrieved from World Kigo Database.

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35 thoughts on “Micro-Season: “The Elk Sheds Its Antlers” (2022)

Add yours

    1. Thanks Ashley! Glad you enjoyed this one. Earlier this week, I realized that I am on my second time around with these seasons and there is always something new angle to investigate. Have a good New Year!

    1. Hi Nancy, thanks so much for sharing. Your ku reminded me about my adventure this morning following deer tracks. It wasn’t around the pond, by down the creek bed. I so enjoy knowing that the deer are always just out of sight. Take care and have a happy New Year!

      1. Mark,
        Happy New Year to you and yours.
        Our “pond” is actually our sump pump runoff, and in the late fall, we put in a bird bath heater to keep the water from freezing. The birds love it as do the other animals who visit. Sometimes, the only way we know it is visited is the tracks left by them including deer. Considering the fact we technically live in the city, it is amazing what animals visit. On the other hand, we are a block from Lake Erie and half a block from the river so we do get wildlife. All my best, Nan

  1. almost lost
    in the snowy woods
    deer antlers

    I am so grateful, Mark, for all that I’ve learned this year since I first started reading your weekly column. Your writing, dedication, and generous replies make this one of my favorite days of the week. Happiest of New Year’s to you!

    1. Hi Eavonka, Thank you so much for your kind words! I greatly appreciate all the support that I have received as a result of this project. And, the fact that I get to read haiku for so many great poets brings me a lot of joy. Thanks again for sharing your work and your consistent support.
      I hope you have a safe and happy New Year!

      1. Thanks so much, Nan! I loved yours and learning about all the animals you attract to your “pond”. Nature is always so near.

        Happy Happy New Year to you and yours! 🎉

      2. Hi Eavonka and Nan, I agree that learning about Nan’s pond is great. It reminds me of a story that I read in one of my animal tracking books. The narrator lived a more urban area, and once they started paying attention, they noticed lot of animal life moving around them. One morning, after a light snowfall, they went outside and noticed tracks. They initial thought they were dog, but then realized that they were fox. He followed the tracks around the neighborhood and found that the fox was living in the neighbors yard. Very cool. Nature is always around! Have a great weekend.

      3. Hi Eavonka and Mark,

        Since living here in our home we have found a young opossum dumped in our recycling bin in our garage (by its mother, perhaps?). It was alive and we just released it unscathed. We had a mink run through our yard and bushes; we’ve seen (and smelled) skunks in our backyard way too often; we dealt with a groundhog who wanted to live under our porch (we blocked up tunnels), and had raccoon(s) destroy our corn crop one evening, just when we were about to pick it. We’ve seen a fox or two, but not up close and have heard coyotes howl out on the spoil area of the lake, not to mention all the birds including hawks, bald eagles, and all kinds of water fowl (from gulls to herons and egrets). It makes life interesting living so close to the lake and river.

        Wishing you both a happy Hogmanay and all the best in 2023!

  2. this one’s my favorite with its stark imagery:
    A cold deer
    its body and antlers merge
    with a dead tree

    And here’s my contribution:
    Wisconsin deer glide
    Colorado deer go boing
    no favorites here

  3. Hi Tracy, I really like that one too. I have an IG post ready to go for that haiku. I usually only do one IG post per season, but the verse is too good to pass up.
    Wonderful haiku that asks us to notice how animals move! Thanks for sharing and have a great New Year!

    1. Hi Sue, The link worked! Wonderful haiku. Thanks for sharing your work and adding to the conversation. I hope you are enjoying the holiday season!

  4. Hi Mark
    Thank you for your kind comments. I have spent the holidays in Edinburgh with my family. I returned yesterday to a light covering of snow. It is good walking weather with wonderful views of the Cuillin mountains covered in snow. I wish you a Happy New Year!
    Sue:)

    1. What a wonderful haiku! I am getting a sense of peace and traquility with this one. Thank you for sharing your work and adding to the conversation. Have a happy New Year.

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