Within reach from my desk is a small wooden box. Inside is a snake’s skull, the gift of a friend who taught high school science. In another box, somewhere on my shelves, are catbones—skull and forelegs—dug out from an empty lot, this when I was twelve or so.
And in the garage are plastic jewelry drawers filled with the remains of sealife I gathered from L.A.’s coastal tidepools when I was twelve: mollusk shells, skeletal corals, dessicated seahorses.
This is an incomplete inventory of my the animal remains I’ve assembled. Though unobtrusive, they are placeholders for memory.
The poet Sara Ryan’s chapbook, Never Leave the Foot of an Animal Unskinned (Porkbelly Press, 2018), is interested in the question I store in wooden boxes and repurposed jewelry cabinets: When we keep animal remains just to look at—not to wear or eat or transform into tools—what, exactly, are we doing?
Taxidermy is the process by which one animal, a human being, fashions the empty hide of another into a simulacrum its absent embodied self:
we are all animals here—
the wily foxes on two legs, eating
at the dinner table. The crying
wolf’s tail caught in the mower.
Restoring that mowed wolf to a convincing lifelike pose requires considerable experience with chemical preservatives, combs and brushes, sewing needles and thread and metal armatures. Ryan speaks of technique with authority:
fill him up with cotton
dry leaves, grass, or
crumpled paper. wood wool
is driest and best.
—“Of Men and Birds”
Why do we do it? The explanatory lines that struck me most deeply are from “Stopping Time”:
if you want to see God, peel back the skin of a
mouse’s tail, see the small bones clicking their way
up in steps of pearl.
I’m reminded of the phrase still life. Still lives are in fact stilled lives: Manet’s silver fish, mouth gaping, bought not long before from the fishmonger. Emil Carlsen’s swan, crucified on Carlsen’s table. Goya’s grotesque “Still Life with Sheep’s Head.” I’ve always thought of still life and taxidermy as particularly European traditions (I may be mistaken about this). Is this because, over every congregation is a thorn-crowned corpse? The crucifix, the stuffed mourning dove, and the slain sheep: all are embodied absences, halted just before the corpse itself disappears into heaven, into a scavenger’s mouth, or onto a dinner plate.
Still lives are therefore distilled lives, distilled down to the finest detail of mid-motion. It’s not just a matter of making the animal pelt look fresh. It’s a matter of posing it as it would appear in nature, its front hooves angled just so, its nose convincingly (but not excessively) wet.
There is more to it than a drive to halt the time elapsing from life to death. Ryan suggests taxidermy seeks to restore dignity to the dead animal, an animal that, after all, blundered into nets, traps, or gunsights. In “Of Men & Birds,” a taxidermist treats a carcass with care:
as a lucky bird, not a greasy swan
you wouldn’t want him
to look the fool.
Taxidermy is as well a “site of memory.” It is the human hunter’s memory, a particular form of braggery, a trophy head on a paneled wall. In museums, the stuffed body recalls a planet as remote from most museum-goers as is Mars.
My own childhood trips to the LA County Museum of Natural History had the same effect on me that the Field Museum had on Ryan, embedding in my small skull a memory of places I’ve never been and of beasts whose freedom I will never witness. The effect is that of an Alfred Bierstadt landscape displayed in mid-19th century New York City. Done right, the viewer is stunned. You mean the country really looks like this?
Half the chapbook consists of Ryan’s notes. These are each miniatures of creative nonfiction, paragraph-long essays on taxidermic history and meaning. The most significant of these meanings is objectification, by which the animal becomes object and we become its (re)creator. “Through making things,” Ryan writes, paraphrasing Merle Patchett, “people make themselves.”
The notes (and one of the poems, “Bad Hunter,” set at the Taxidermy World Championships) reminded me of Sarah Vowel’s offbeat tours of roadside memorials and monuments. Ryan refuses to condescend, but I went straight to two favorite words: kitsch and grotesque. Then I remembered the box on my bookshelf, the one containing a snake’s head. I have my own kitschy grotesqueries.
One last thought. Sara Ryan’s lines got me thinking about “the uncanny valley,” a term coined to capture the unease we feel when we interact with humanoid robots that are not quite human enough. Though the phrase is recent, the experience is not. I took my first trip to the uncanny valley as an eight year old in 1966, watching Disneyland’s animatronic Abraham Lincoln speechifying on Main Street.
Certain kinds of taxidermy do elicit revulsion. Consider, for instance, Gunther von Hagens’ plastinated Body World exhibitions, with its flayed human flesh preserved in a synthesized petroleum-derived matrix, or Damien Hirst’s vitrines, filled with sharks, sheep and formaldehyde.
Most taxidermy avoids the uncanny valley because stuffed animals don’t move. Their stillness, like that of naturalistic sculpture, expose the truth central to all figurative art: in unchanging stillness, there is no life. A taxidermist’s bald eagle, is more than dead: it is absent: its bones, muscles, nerves, brain, organs, blood, and bile have vanished. What’s left is surface, skin and feather.
Besides: we are used to stuffed animals, whether as museum pieces, as hunting trophies, or as plush stuffed bears won at county fairs and available cheap from Amazon. Though we may rebel against wearing anything that was cute while it lived (that’s a no to ermine and mink), few of us think twice about slipping our feet into skin flayed from a cow hung from a hook, shivering into her death.
Reading Sara Ryan’s work, it’s hard to take museum elephant’s immobility as much for granted. I’m at the uncanny valley’s precipitous edge. The view is exhilarating… and unsettling.