The Authentic Animal – excerpt

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from the Introduction:

To skin an animal, you start with a single cut somewhere around the throat and draw the knife downward in a thin, straight line to the nethers. It’s a lot like unzipping a fly. The thrush. The tomcat. The tusker. The beginning is always the same: a single cut. After this beginning, every animal presents its own challenges, the idiosyncrasies of its own terrain. The wings. The antlers. The gills. The fatty haunches. The only way to get good is to practice, to skin animal after animal after animal, because what you want, ideally, is that skin not just intact, but flawlessly intact. A skin like the artful helix of an orange rind peeled off in one go. Thin, pliable, but strong. A skin clean and full of potential. It’s hard at first to think about, disembodied skins as nonetheless clean. Because we’re animals, too, and we have skins the idea of the removal of which makes us pretty uncomfortable. Skin is both our largest organ and our most erotic—there’s a whole line of mags promising nothing but the exposure thereof. It is also the oily soil out of which our hair grows, the place that seeps our sweats and sebums, the part that burns and wrinkles and flakes off from us like birchbark. Skin removed from our bodies becomes dust to be swept and tossed and forgotten. Skin removed from animals’ bodies becomes any number of things. Coats, shawls, stoles, and shrugs. Rugs and mats. Shoes, handbags, briefcases, and jackets. Footballs. Chew toys. Pork rinds.

And taxidermy. From the Greek taxis meaning “arrangement” and derma meaning “skin,” taxidermy is generally any such arrangement (a bearskin rug, an expensive fur coat), but more specifically the term refers to the practice of re-creating the animal. In taxidermy, the 2-D becomes 3-D and what was dead becomes lifelike, and this is what interests me in the artform. For years now I’ve been obsessed with taxidermy, with the public and private spaces it fills, with the processes by which animal skins get converted to lifelike sculpture, despite the fact that I’ve never once in my life been on a hunt. I’ve never once had any relationship to an animal outside of the everyday pet-owner one and have in some sense always understood animals as outside the world, not a part of it, kept in some separate space from my own. In other words, I’m not the typical person to fall in love with taxidermy, if such a person exists, and yet that’s exactly what’s happened. I’ve fallen in a kind of obsessive love with this thing, and as a result I’ve begun to feel if not “closer” to animals than at least as though animals had begun at last to feel closer to me. How did this happen? I’m still trying to figure it out.

All the same, I’ve never personally wanted to undertake the process of mounting an animal. (And here we first arrive at the unfortunate middle-school pun that lies at the heart of taxidermy: “mounting,” har har; it’s a goofball double-entendre this book will by needs be lousy with, a regrettable outcome of the otherwise not regrettable shift in taxidermy from stuffing hides to draping them over sculpted forms, about which more to come.) Taxidermy can be a brutal endeavor, but this isn’t like some kind of detraction. I don’t get green around the gills. I could stomach the skinning of a hide from an animal’s carcass, the scraping of excess flesh from the hide, the chemical tans, the fitting over a bodyform, the sewing, the tucking in of eyelids. All of it. And it’s not for any ethical reasons, either. A practicing taxidermist need never do the actual killing of an animal. Even still, I’m not interested. This obsession isn’t so much participatory as spectatorial, much like an armchair quarterback or the theatergoer who’d rather see a show than have to be in one. I like very much to look at a mounted animal. I like very much its stillness, and the fact that I can touch it. I appreciate the work that goes into creating the illusion of its seeming alive and I like very much this illusion. But why? Why does this illusion produce in me the nerves and giddiness of some preteen about to land his first slowdance? Why am I drawn toward this thing that repels so many others? It’s not, please believe, a goth thing. I have no other inclinations toward the morbid—I collect yarn art, for Christ’s sake. In other words: it wasn’t me. I didn’t push myself toward taxidermy. Taxidermy, somehow, drew me to it.

But I’m talking about more than the morbid dissection and reconstitution of animal parts. I’m talking about taxidermy as you know it, the end product hanging on your uncle’s den’s wall. The “family” of brown bears you’ve seen behind glass in a museum. Taxidermy is a way to measure and characterize the relationship between humans and animals, a relationship that extends back to the beginning of time. It is an umbrella term covering a whole array of activities, from cataloguing a birdskin for a scientific collection to dyeing a rabbit’s paw for sale at a tourist trap. Taxidermy is beautiful and horrible. It is something regarding which everyone has if not an opinion than at least a reaction—usually negative. And taxidermy has a whole host of experts and scholars none of us has likely ever heard of. One of the first people I talked with about taxidermy was Dr. Trish Freeman, who works on the top floor of Nebraska Hall at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, a floor with long, fluorescent-lit hallways lined with dozens and dozens of gameheads taken from Asia, from Africa. All over the planet. These, Dr. Freeman explained, were part of the Elgin Gates Collection of the Nebraska State Museum on UNL’s campus. Comprising more than 150 specimens, the taxidermy on all of them was done by a man in Denver who studied, Dr. Freeman explained, under “the father of modern taxidermy”—Carl Akeley.

A distinction, I imagine, is being made here from classical taxidermy, when skins were stuffed so full of straw you’d think we’d meant to sleep on them. Modern taxidermy—an era we’re still pretty much in the thick of—has brought what once amounted to little more than spooky upholstery into the realm of sculpture; animal skins are now draped and glued to pre-made bodyforms sculpted to precise specifications based on each specimen’s anatomy. Whatever lifelikeness we imagine we see in a taxidermized animal we owe to these modern developments. Whether we owe them specifically to Carl Akeley is unclear. Certainly we’re meant to; the moniker “father of modern taxidermy” implies no less. In truth, he’s like all fathers—the father of modern science, the father of modern art, the father of you—creating something new not from a void, but from certain inherited traits. Pre-sculpted forms were in use well before Akeley ever skinned an animal, but without question he took these previous innovations and improved on them, resulting in a plaster-casting technique that came, in the early part of the twentieth century, to be known as “the Akeley method.” And thus the title, the implied siring of an entire artform.

It helps with these things to be a bit of a character. Cézanne, considered to be the father of modern art, was a depressive and a draft-dodger. Father of modern science Galileo Galilei pissed off the whole Roman Catholic Church. Freud, the father of modern psychology, was Sigmund Freud. Akeley has his share of idiosyncrasies that makes him fit for the title. He had a predilection for younger women, having met his first wife when she was fifteen and already married to his good friend and hunting companion. He once sculpted a figure of a man bursting out of the skin of an ape and called it The Chrysalis. He had a dinner table made from an elephant’s ear and tusks, and fell head-over-heels in a manly, platonic (but what seems by all accounts mostly unrequited) love for Teddy Roosevelt. He died at the top of a mountain. That was in 1926. Carl Akeley’s life interests me the way a classical hero’s might, for the story it can tell of a boy growing up on a farm in tiny Clarendon, N.Y., who through taxidermy ends up dying in the Belgian Congo. He interests me for the history his life represents, but taxidermy, let me be clear, isn’t historic. Maybe because the age of the safari is over (though safaris still go on, throughout Africa, available to anyone with a couple thousand dollars and a tolerance for international hide-shipping regulations), or maybe because museum mammal collections go back sometimes to the wee morning hours of the 19th century, taxidermy has an otherworldly feel. It comes to us from some other lost time. But taxidermists live on, attending schools of taxidermy and shows of taxidermy, working for taxidermy supply companies, entering taxidermy into taxidermy competitions, forming nonprofit organizations of taxidermists, sitting on boards of taxidermy directors, opening their own taxidermy shops in small towns and haggling over the prices of a mounted squirrel or Dall sheep. Taxidermy lives. It’s living, today, and changing through technological developments and shifting attitudes toward animals. What’s useful about looking at Carl Akeley’s life story is the way contemporary problems of taxidermy can find roots there. How and whether to preserve someone’s pet. How to learn the mechanics of mounting animals. The presentation of specimens in museums. Organizing taxidermists around the country and the assessment and judgement of their work. The need to collect animals, the defense of taxidermy as an artform, the ethics of murder and death. Carl had a hand—both hands, really—in all of it.

I’ve avoided writing Akeley’s life as a biography, or at least an exhaustive biography. Akeley has been given the treatment plenty of times. Instead my treatment of him is like a pointillist sketch, making up just a part of a larger project. In wanting as multifaceted a look at taxidermy as I could get, I’ve filled the book with facts, those culled both from nerdish research in hard-to-find books and from personal observation here and there around the country. All the same, I’ve eschewed any attempts at being authoritative. Authority as I understand it, is something granted, not claimed. As a kid growing up with two older sisters, I revered my friend Clay as I would a brother. He was two years older and lived right across the street and was considered by me an authority on all things from math to foursquare. Once, I must have been six, maybe seven, Clay told me and another neighborhood kid that human eyeballs had a certain kind of weak but potent power. “If you take, like, thousands of people,” Clay said, “and get them all to stare at a specific point on a brick wall, if they do it long enough they’ll all burn a hole right through that wall.” I remember this conversation so perfectly; we were sitting on the sidewalk and curb between our two houses in the late afternoon hours of a slow midsummer’s day, just before dinner would be ready, the sun bisected by Clay’s house’s brown roof. Wasn’t it plausible enough? What reason did I have not to trust him that this could, in fact, happen? I carried that trust into my teens, at one point sharing the factoid with some friends, all of whom subsequently stared at me as though I’d confessed to illiteracy, or to enjoying the taste of my own dead skin. When I confronted Clay about it later, he had barely any recollection of that afternoon and was surprised that I did. “I never expected you to believe me,” he says.

There are so many lies out there, but what’s harder to understand is how many truths can exist simultaneously with one another. Carl Akeley took painting lessons as a boy, so that he could create backdrops for the birds he mounted. He considered these to be the first attempts at incorporating painted backgrounds into taxidermy displays, but Charles Willson Peale had done this decades earlier. Likewise, most taxidermy historians write that a rhinoceros dating to the early 1500s is the earliest extant piece of taxidermy, but this rhinoceros doesn’t actually exist. Are we being lied to? We make myths of the real. We do this every time we write stories down. One of my goals in this pointillist treatment of Carl Akeley is to avoid such mythmaking, but it hasn’t been easy. There is so much romanticizing to be done when writing about the dead.

And here, then, is something we can’t avoid. Taxidermy is an artform that begins at the moment an animal dies. This is a gentler way of saying that taxidermy needs animals to be dead. It is wrong to say that taxidermy kills animals, but it is not wrong to say that any close study of taxidermy is going to have to get comfortable, or “come to terms” in therapy parlance, with death. Taxidermy is the arrangement of an animal’s skin over a pre-made form in an attempt to make that arrangement look alive, and so taxidermy does traffic in acts of resurrection. But to live eternally and to live again a thing must first be dead and this is what taxidermy is. Death. The dead. Taxidermy is the neat red pinhole popped right between the eyes of a whitetail deer one morning in November, the high five from father to son that sounds out in the quiet forest dawn. Taxidermy is a mountain lion crossing an interstate too far from home, smacked in the hip by a car’s front bumper, and now rolling to the road’s shoulder like some lost cargo, left to bleed herself empty. Taxidermy is two ring-necked pheasants, one rooster and one hen, unmoving in a corn-stubble field one North Dakota winter, watching and listening for another footfall of the man eyeing them along his sight. Taxidermy is the click of the trigger, the crack in the air, the explosion of feathers that go flying upward. Best to just admit it. Get it out in the open. Taxidermy is the American, the Englishman, the Frenchman, the Russian, the Western Man of Means in stately khakis, sturdy leather boots; it is the pack of paid-for Kenyans, the mother elephant sussed out of the jungle, the war story that gets told for generations, the trophy hung dramatically overhead. Taxidermy is the old brown owl found beak-down on the floor of the barn one morning. It’s the family dog that lived for seventeen years now gutted, his fat stripped away from the flesh, his brains pulled from the cranium, his eyes replaced by hard plastic. The family dog that lived for seventeen years rotating slowly for a week, two weeks, in a stainless steel freeze-dry drum. Taxidermy is a set of antlers screwed into the skull of a jackrabbit, it’s a fish tail sewn to the torso of a monkey, it’s a chicken’s head stuck right on the body of a stillborn lion cub. Taxidermy is the capture of all these. Taxidermy is their deaths and the deaths of the polar bear, the alligator, the chipmunk, the gorilla, the canary, the moose, the brook trout, the iguana, the joey, the three-toed sloth, the human, the marlin, the dik dik, the fox, the armadillo, the capercaillie, the ring-tailed lemur. Let’s come to terms. Every animal dies. Taxidermy is what comes next.

Very few of us would gladly spend his or her time mucking about with a carcass. This accounts for taxidermy’s queasy, kitschy qualities, the way all movie taxidermists are weirdos and fringe characters. Norman Bates is not a man to aspire toward. But very many sane people do choose to spend time with a dead animal, removing the skin, curing and tanning it, draping it over a manikin, and lovingly detailing the end product. Some of these people are hunters, yes, but some are scavengers. Some are scientists. Some are scholarly men and women in charge of museum collections. Some are young boys and girls tinkering around with what they know of as “God’s Creation.” If it’s true that the number of people willing to put their hands on a dead animal’s body is far outranked by the number of those who aren’t, then what results is that taxidermists form a small, tight-knit community. A subculture. And as with all subcultures, taxidermists as individuals are impossible to characterize. They are urban and they are rural. They hold graduate degrees and they’ve never finished high school. They are men and they are women. Young and old. Straight and gay. If there’s anything that distinguishes the set of taxidermists from the set of non-taxidermists it’s that the people composing the former have something the rest of us do not: an ability to see. Where the rest of us turn away from dead animals, a taxidermist turns toward. We see only the grave. They see possibilities.

This book is an exploration of these possibilities, an attempt to understand what the origins of the taxidermist’s vision might be. Put another way, I’m writing this book to answer a small but complicated question: Why do we stuff animals? I want to know where this desire came from, but also how it manifests itself today. We could start anywhere, which is to say anywhen. We could go all the way back to Lascaux in 15,000 B.C.E., to the paintings of deer, horses, and bulls on the walls of a cave; the moment, whenever it was, when the first human thought I killed this animal but I don’t want to forget this animal, not because I want to remember that I killed it, but because I want to remember that it once lived; the point at which pigment was made from iron ore and clay and applied by careful hands to the wall. The Lascaux Grotto is page one in any history of Western art; the first time humans looked at the world around them and put that world to paint. “It seems to be a law of nature that no man ever is loath to sit for his portrait,” Max Beerbohm once wrote, and so how refreshing to learn that we weren’t even asked to sit for the first portrait ever produced, that our artistic beginning is one of humility. It was nice of us. And telling. Before we ever recreated the self in 2-D, we wanted to depict the other—their swiftness, their size, their strength.

I’m speaking, then, of representations of animals, and thus we have the entirety of human history to sift through. We have the caves at Lascaux. We have the transfigurations of Greco-Roman myth: the Minotaur, the centaur, the Medusa. We have the Sphinx and the griffin, the whole of any medieval bestiary. We have the Chinese dragon. We have Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu deity. We have the hollowed-out head of the buffalo held on the shoulders of Native American dancers. We have the teddy bear, the beanie baby, the Tamagotchi. The whole of human history is riddled with animals, as though our time on this planet were one long, progressive safari, touring curiously through our various countrysides, watching them watch us. We are not them, we’ve decided, and yet it seems we can’t understand ourselves without them.

Depending on whom you talk to, taxidermy is either an homage to nature or a violation of it, man’s attempt to lie about the hard truths of life and death. Maybe it’s both of these, maybe both at once is possible. The problem, it seems, is one of positioning. No other human activity sits so squarely at the intersection of nature, science, and art. Taxidermy, like nature, like science, like art, has no discernable beginning, but all the same that’s where we’ll have to begin.

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