Having worked with hides, bones, and other animal parts in my art and spirituality for 15+ years, I’ve had my fair share of people questioning me about what I do (or being even more high-volume in their responses and reactions). I understand it can be a pretty emotional subject for a lot of people; death is a difficult thing for a lot of people in this culture, and unnecessary death even moreso. But there’s this thing that the occasional dissenter does that drives me a bit batty. Somehow in their mind “you make things out of animal parts” turns into “you can’t possibly like animals because you eat/wear/make things out of dead ones!” It’s an accusation tossed out at other people, like hunters, taxidermists, omnivores, and so forth. And it’s completely based in a logical fallacy, with such varied names as “excluded middle”, “either/or fallacy”, “false dilemma”, and so forth. (You can find out more about this little cognitive blip here.)
First, such a statement narrows the potential options down to two, based in the idea that “you’re either with me or against me in this argument”. There’s no gray area between “If you love animals you’ll do everything I do” and “If you don’t agree with me it means you don’t love animals”. Furthermore, it completely invalidates my actual feelings on the matter. I do love animals. I’ve had many pets through the years that I cared for dearly and took good care of. I admire the beauty and diversity of other beings, and I appreciate the lives of the animals whose remains I now work with in my art and spirituality. I have always put aside some of the money from my art and book sales to donate to nonprofits that support wildlife and their habitats, not because I want to keep having hides and bones to work with, but because I want there to keep being a great diversity of life independent of any subjective (and especially material) value humans may place on it. I know my own heart and why it carries what it does.
Speaking of my heart, let’s look a little more at that idea that I don’t care as much as they do about animals (or at all). First of all, there’s not an empirical tool for measuring “caring”, or “love”, or “attachment”. And second, the idea that omnivores, taxidermists and the like “don’t care about animals” is a complete falsehood (and something I touched on earlier this year.) I can give you plenty of examples of people who eat, wear, and even kill animals who also love animals, which invalidates that “you don’t REALLY love animals” argument. I grew up in a small town with a significant farming community. I didn’t grow up on a farm myself, but I went to school with a lot of kids who did. I grew up around people who named baby calves and pigs, took good care of them, spoiled them rotten, and then took them to the FFA show or the county fair or the livestock auction and sold them to someone who would slaughter the animals for meat. Or their family would do the killing themselves, and they’d eat the meat of the same animal they cared for all year. This wasn’t seen as a contradiction. It was just the way livestock farming is; you care for animals, and some of them you kill later so your family (or another family) has food to eat. Sure, some of those farm kids grew up to be vegetarian because they didn’t agree with what they were raised with. But others kept that life/death balance, and they’re not more or less right than the ones who changed their minds.
It’s the same with hunters. Some of the most passionate nature-lovers I know are hunters. It’s not, as some animal rights people like to say, “go out and admire nature’s beauty and then kill it”. Hunters in cultures around the world, indigenous and otherwise, honor the very same animals they kill. So do many farmers, and other people involved in killing animals for human consumption, food and otherwise. In fact, it’s a sentiment that I think needs to be more widespread in the more corporate, overgrown areas of agriculture where the animals are just seen as a commodity. Seeing them as beings deserving care and respect does not mean that they are not also a source of sustenance. I do feel that as a culture we could honor the animals we depend on much more than we do, and that this could lead to changes in how we raise and kill them, and treat their remains afterward. But this requires the ability to accept both the life and the death of the animal and our involvement in both.
And that’s where we run into what I see as a big deficiency in this culture–a lot of people have trouble with dialectics. They don’t seem capable or willing to hold two seemingly conflicting ideas in their mind at the same time; it has to be either/or for them. We really aren’t prepared for the gray areas. Look at our two-party-dominated political system, and look at how they tear into each other during campaign season. Look at how often religious beliefs are framed in us vs. them terms. Same thing with sex and gender, race, and other group affiliations. We have the chorus of “right vs. wrong” drilled into our heads from an early age, and no one really prepares us for the possibility that things may be more complicated than that. I think sometimes when there comes a depiction of gray areas, there are those who shun them, and those who latch onto them; look at the strong positive response to Miyazaki’s film, Princess Mononoke/Mononoke Hime. One of the reasons it’s so beloved by its fans is because it’s not a simple good buy/bad guy picture; here’s a wonderful short comic that illustrates something profound that Miyazaki said about good vs. evil. I think we need more of that here. We need more challenges to this black and white way of viewing a complicated, sometimes messy world.
How do we learn to be more comfortable with dialectics? By being willing to face the uncomfortable reality that there will always be someone who disagrees with us vehemently. By accepting that people will have different solutions to complicated problems, and that our way is not the right way for everyone. By knowing that what may seem like a contradiction to one person may make complete sense to someone else, and that they may put every bit as much consideration into their viewpoint as the first person has (or perhaps more!) By being willing to try and understand the other person’s perspective, and remembering that “understand” is not synonymous with “agree with”. And, finally, by not seeing a dialectic as an excuse to attack or try to force the other person to choose between two black and white ways of seeing the issue.
Finally, I invite you to question how you approach those you disagree with, to include on really difficult, emotionally laden subjects, because you may not be completely at odds. Consider that I may agree with you on Opinion A, B, and C, all the way, but I may disagree with you on X and Y, and feel that Q and K are better options for me. It doesn’t mean I don’t still agree with you on A, B, and C, and I may even join forces with you on those. For example, I’m not a supporter of banning hunting, but I am a supporter of humane treatment of animals killed for meat, to include the quickest and most humane death possible. I don’t agree with trophy hunting or killing just for the sake of killing, but I’m okay with preserving the beauty of an already dead (natural death or not) animal for education, for a museum, or even for artistic expression. If you and I both think that bees and other pollinators need to be protected, my aesthetic appreciation of taxidermy doesn’t change that. But you may need to accept that I have different relationships with the bees and the deer, that lots of people relate to different beings and situations in varying ways, and that this sort of complexity is normal in this world.
Being able to understand and accept this complexity and the conflicts it may bring is, as far as I’m concerned, a more productive way of dealing with disagreements than hurling logical fallacies and invalidation at someone else. Instead of saying “I can’t see how you could possibly see things that way (and I refuse to even try)!”, try saying “Can you explain why you see things that way?” If what they say doesn’t mesh with your own opinions and you accept that disagreement instead of trying to force them to your way of thinking, at least you haven’t wasted your time with a pointless argument no one’s going to win and everyone’s going to resent. And you may still be able to find common ground on another issue that you can then join forces to work on. I’d rather have people approach me with that attempt at cooperation than accusations and fallacies; it’s a better use of scarce time and resources.
(One final note: as with many things, just because I can articulate things I think need to be improved doesn’t mean I don’t make the very mistakes I cite. If anything, this issue is closer to my mind right now in part because I can see where I screw up in this regard, to include recently. These posts are at least as much a reminder for myself as an invitation to others.)
You make me want this. All these posts about animal parts and I’m thinking “I want to gather them all and hang them. You’re like an adoption agency for dead critters who need a home, it’s so wonderful.
Heh—thank you :)…
Most people don’t see the sacrifice that humans make to animals like that and they don’t appreciate what the animal went through during the process of making. It’s sad to me that most cannot appreciate this more and have a better respect for animals who have died by human hand to make our clothes and other things. But you..you change that mentality and offer an honorable and respected service not just for humans, but for the animals in which played a part in making different materials for our own personal gain. I just think that shows real respect and it needs to be acknowledged because we should be thankful for what we have..and we should be thankful for those lost animals who played that part because without them, we wouldn’t have the things we have now.
When I see your posts I definitely feel this energy of respect and gratitude that this is honest and well respected work, like you take every consideration into account before you just take and turn it into something else. For me..it’s a sigh of relief that someone else feels that way and it makes me want to adopt some parts of my own just because I know you treated them well. It’s not something you run across everyday, a respectable person who deals with dead critters not just in the flesh, but the spiritual and respects them. So for all of that..it just warms me.
Btw, so excited for your new book on plants and fungi. There aren’t many books like that and I’m totally stoked for it. :)
Wow, thank you! We live in a society that’s so heavily leaning toward the material side of things that it’s really easy to forget where our consumer goods come from, what they’re made of, and what the price was beyond a dollar sign. Few people have grown their own food or killed an animal to have clothing, and while I don’t think everyone needs to convert their yard into a tannery or full-scale farm, I feel there’s a serious disconnect between “leather pants I just bought for dancing” and “this was a live cow a year ago”. Problem is that if we try to force people to make that connection too abruptly—for example, anti-fur people shoving pictures of bloody fox carcasses at others—the message is lost and the action is pointless. Education needs to be at the best pace for the individual person to receive and understand it, and sometimes that means being gentler and more positive.
And I’m glad you can appreciate that. Back when I started this art 15 years ago, I didn’t know anybody who did this kind of spiritual/art work; that’s part of why I created the practices that I did, the ways of communicating with the spirits in the skins and bones and the rites of creation. It makes me happy that I’m not alone and that I’ve been able to share and see what others do, too.
I’m really excited for Plant and Fungus Totems, too! I think it’s one of the very best books I’ve written, and I’m glad I finally got to write about some of my work that wasn’t animal-centric :)
i know a lot of taxidermists take photoshoots of their pelts hanging on gravestones and i’ve thought about doing that (i like taking my pelts with me) but after thinking about that i think it might be disrespectful so i avoid it at all costs and make sure i never lay my possessions on graves if i have anything with me
Which brings up an interesting set of thoughts about the different ways people respect the dead and their remains. Just desecrating the dead stone object marking the place where someone’s body lies is seen as a much worse offense than some of the things we do to nonhuman animals’ bodies. This isn’t a bad thing or a criticism of the above, just a curious difference.
In American society as a whole human remains are treated very differently than other species’, hence there being nonhuman animal meat and leather and such freely available. We’d never dare do that to humans (as a culture, anyway). We’re biased toward our species. Look at all the different ways human remains are cared for—burial with embalming, green burial, cremation, scatter or keep the ashes, burial at sea, sky burial. All these have different connotations, often even different across cultures. But they all tend toward “treat dead humans with as much perceived respect as possible”. Look at how angry people get over the desecration of deceased humans, from Hector of Troy to a modern crematorium that dumped bodies into the woods behind the building.
Contrast that with other animals. Some people will bury or cremate a beloved pet that’s died, though plenty of dead fish still end up flushed down toilets across the nation. For the most part, other nonhuman animals aren’t treated with even that much care; it’s a much more impersonal affair to deal with their remains. Eat them, wear them, let them rot in a gutter with the other dead rats.
Taxidermy and other dead critter art is often a way to give the animals’ remains some additional respect, according to the artists, anyway. But opinions differ on that note, especially with animals that were killed only for their skins. Is it respectful to carry a pelt around, or wear a headdress into a grocery store, or wear a tail to school? Is it respectful to preserve a hide as close to lifelike as possible with taxidermy? What about ritual tools made from hide and bone that are strictly kept in sacred places?
I don’t think there’s one right answer, especially as this can be a very heated topic with people on all sides firmly convinced they’re right. Despite the ways in which we are much stricter about the treatment of our own species’ remains than those of other animals, even the disagreements there pale in comparison to the debate over nonhuman animal remains. There’s not as much of a set system in place, and there’s plenty of room for debate.
I’ve been working since the 1990s to create such a system for myself, based on my work with the animal hides and bones I’ve incorporated into art and spirituality. I’ve written about these practices extensively, and tried to make it clear what I was about. I’m not surprised I still get criticism for it, though, in part because the culture surrounding animal parts is in more flux.
Anyway, enough rambling from me. I just liked the initial vignette above, and thought it illustrated the different in how we treat the remains of our own species vs. those of others.
Hey, if you haven’t been over to No Unsacred Place lately, there are some wonderful articles that have been posted as of late! We’ve got a great reflective piece on Skin Spirits (by someone besides me!), a beautiful myth about the planet Theia and the creation of the Moon, and a much-needed dose of perspective on our place in the Universe and how we perceive it. It’s all at http://nature.pagannewswirecollective.com :)
I shouldn’t have had to write this one more fucking time. I really shouldn’t. But this is what I’m going to point any gung-ho animal rights activist at whenever they give me hell for my artwork, because I am so fucking sick and tired of saying it over and over and over again:
I’m vending at an event this weekend and not getting a lot of sleep. Yesterday morning, I woke up to this email, which I assume is from someone who saw me setting up at the event and decided they needed to Take Action:
"How are your fox pelts obtained? I cannot think of an ethical method. Plz respond, I intend to protest / flyer your booths."
I’m not proud of my initial brief, terse, and frankly snarly reply to this email, which was born of little rest and a short temper because of that fatigue. I get a lot of these sorts of messages, and they’re usually from people who don’t seem to do any research about who I am and what I do before they decide to take offense at my chosen medium. Still, “Turbowag” did ask a question, and I’m glad he(?)’s at least that curious.
The short answer is that my materials come from a network of suppliers and channels that I’ve cultivated over most of twenty years.
Read the rest here: http://therioshamanism.com/2013/02/24/a-psa-about-dead-critters/
Alright, since I had such a good turnout for my first set of free video workshops this past weekend, I’ve got another pair queued up! This time I’ll be talking about skin spirits and working with animal parts in spirituality and art. As before, there’ll be two time slots to choose from:
Friday, January 18, 2013, 7:00pm Pacific Standard Time
Saturday, January 19, 2013, 11:00am Pacific Standard Time
Here’s a time converter you can use to determine what 7pm/11am PST would be at your time zone. You don’t need to sign up anywhere, just make sure you have a Livestream account and show up! And, again, I’ll upload versions to my YouTube channel. Also, I’ll be doing some practice runs to make sure that I get all the technical bugs worked out, to include making damned sure I can find the chat this time :P
Here’s some of what I’ll cover:
In the last few years there has been an increase in interest working with hides, bones, and other animal parts in both art and spirituality. My work with skin spirits and their sacred remains has become one of my most asked-about topics as a result, and now you can have the opportunity to find out more directly from me in this free online workshop! Plus you’ll have the chance to ask me questions via chat related to both the art and spirit of my work for the past 15 years.
Here are just a few of the topics we’ll cover:
—What are skin spirits, and how do I work with them, and why are the hides and bones known as “sacred remains”?
—How can I respectfully work with animal parts in art or spirituality, and what rituals can I use?
—Where can I find animal parts to work with, and how do I decide what to do with them?
—What are other considerations, such as legalities, ethical guidelines, and safety?
—How can I physically and spiritually take care of the animal parts that I have, and what artistic options are available to me beyond traditional taxidermy?
Newcomers and more experienced folk are all welcome. Because of the sensitivity of this topic, the chat and questions will be moderated. And, again, I’m offering this workshop free of charge! If you’d like to support my work financially, feel free to check out my books at http://www.thegreenwolf.com/books.html or my ritual tools and other artwork at http://thegreenwolf.etsy.com
Alright. I’ve seen (and responded to) the recent rant by someone on dA regarding headdresses (among other things, most of which I agreed with, some of which I didn’t, but none of which struck me as disrespectful), and I saw the harassment that another dA/Tumblr person got over her rare pelt that…
In case you missed it last night.
Alright. I’ve seen (and responded to) the recent rant by someone on dA regarding headdresses (among other things, most of which I agreed with, some of which I didn’t, but none of which struck me as disrespectful), and I saw the harassment that another dA/Tumblr person got over her rare pelt that she was going to headdress, and I’ve seen other people snark about headdresses for various reasons. And I’d like to make a few points.
First of all, it’s none of anyone’s business what a person does with a hide they have, whether that’s make it into a headdress or a soft mount or a blanket or a wall hanger or something for their cat to sleep on. Traditional taxidermy is not inherently more respectful to the animal than headdressing. They can be respectful for different reasons, but ultimately it comes down to the individual person and their approach. And since not a single one of you is sitting here in my living room, watching my work, and none of you are in my head any further than my writing lets you in, you don’t get to have the final say on how respectful I’m being or not being. If you want to sit and fume about how THEY’RE DOING IT WRONG, fine. If you want to be jealous of how they have something that you don’t, you can do that, too. But ultimately it’s not your choice what happens to something that isn’t yours. I’d love to nab all the fur coats that are donated to PETA (or whatever group) that are then given to animal shelters for bedding, and use those coats for pouches and other art instead. At the same time, I can also see that they’re doing that in their own form of respect for animals both dead and alive, and just because I’d do something different with those coats doesn’t mean I’m more right than they are.
Second, yes, traditional taxidermy if well cared for is going to last a long time, probably longer than a headdress that’s getting a lot of use or a softmount that’s getting a lot of snuggling. That being said, there are ways to help a headdress last longer. I learned some tough lessons with my first wolf headdress, for example, and I know now better ways to take care of the skins I dance with. Does it mean I was being deliberately disrespectful because early on I didn’t know better and had no one to tell me better? Of course not. I was doing the best I could at the time. And now I know how to keep it out of the rain and not right up next to the fire (because that fire hurts *me* too, ya know!) and how to condition the hide to help it last longer and so forth. Does it mean I’m less respectful because what I choose to do with some of my pelts won’t make them last as long as a traditional mount that stays indoors and maybe gets dusted now and then? I don’t think so. Longevity =/= respect. I have seen some taxidermy mounts that I felt were a waste because I thought the hide and antlers and such would be better put to more practical uses, but in retrospect they weren’t any more wasteful than my own works. Even bad taxidermy is often someone’s practice attempt and was the best they could do at the time. These days I feel, whether you believe in spirits or not, if you’re doing something you feel shows the animal at its best and you’re doing what you can to help it last as long as possible while you do it, then that’s respect enough for me.
The cultural/spiritual thing also comes up. I’m not going to get into the “my invisible friends are better than your invisible friends” argument here, because it does no good. I can’t prove my spiritual beliefs are empirically true, and I don’t treat them like they are. I give them as much space as I give anything that I feel strongly but can’t prove. What I will say for sure is that I can’t help not having been born into a culture that had a pre-existing, long-standing animistic tradition with animal parts. I have spent the past fifteen years doing my absolute best to create a path for myself that fulfills that niche in my life, and that offers some guidance for others who feel the same need. I don’t feel my practices are the same as those of indigenous cultures, but I don’t claim they are, either. What frustrates me is when someone says “Well, you can’t have these traditions because you weren’t born with them, and you can’t create them, either. So sorry. You’re just shit outta luck.” (I get that last bit more from people on Tumblr than on dA, FWIW.) I’m not trying to “be an Indian”. I am being a white chick from the Midwest, currently ensconced in Portland, who is figuring out her own way to create an animistic tradition involving these sacred remains. Everything I do was created from my own experiences, not an attempt to pretend to be someone else.
So, what. Because I’m a white girl I should only rely on the traditional taxidermy created by Europeans and carried over to the States? That’s the only dead critter art available to me? It’s like saying my religion should only be that of my various European ancestors because of my genetics and that I’m not allowed to make my own connections to the land and its spirits here in Oregon because my family’s not from around here. For what it’s worth, while I think traditional taxidermy is beautiful and I admire those who can do it, I neither like nor want to engage in it myself for a variety of reasons. I’m not good at it, and it’s not something I enjoy in the way that I enjoy the art that I do make.
I could retaliate in the “my art form is better than your art form” debate by saying “Well, you’re disrespecting the animals by using non-biodegradable styrofoam mounts and chemicals and other things that aren’t eco-friendly and thereby polluting their habitats, and you just turn them into trophies to hang on a wall and never do anything, and so my headdresses are better, nyah-nyah!” But that’s not true, either, for a variety of reasons, and that’s not how I feel about traditional taxidermy even though it’s not my chosen art form.
Because I do see each one as its own distinct art form, and each one possessing its own potential for respect for the animal, whether that’s through preserving the skin as long as possible, or bringing the skin back to life through movement and dance and ritual and other right-brain practices that people in cultures worldwide enjoy. It’s less about the art itself, and more about the people creating, purchasing, and admiring it.
Now can we please get back to showing off our respective dead critters so everyone can enjoy it?
Megalithica Books 2009, $19.99 US
Review by Erin
Even casual readers of this blog should understand that Lupa is a friend of mine. But don’t let that make you think that this means I am going to slant this review in her favor.
Having said that, this is an…
Eeeee, look! A new review of my book Skin Spirits! Thanks, Erin <3