(Featured picture: drum fish skull)
Ask any scavenger of hides and bones what their favorite piece in their collection is, and you’re liable to get an excited flood of passionate words and stories. Sometimes the object of the collector’s affection is a rare, hard-to-get specimen, but it’s just as likely to be a commonly found skull or bone or hide, perhaps the person’s very first acquisition, or something that they found themselves on an adventure in the woods.
I personally find it hard to pick favorites. For a while, earlier in my collecting career, I was pretty big into whole hides. One of my earliest purchases was a very old Alaskan brown bear rug from an antique shop in rural Missouri; I removed the rug “apparatus” so all that was left was the hide, and that was the start of that collection. However, as I got older and continued to live in small apartments, it became incredibly impractical to have a bunch of large, bulky hides taking up a lot of space, so I made them into art and rehomed most of them over time. I still have a couple that are very near and dear to me, though, my bear included.
My fascination with hides was more the “Oooooh, shiny!” effect that a lot of newer collectors get, where they want to have ALL the dead things they can get. Later it transformed into acquiring and maintaining hides as ritual companions in dance and other sacred acts. And I have always enjoyed incorporating them into headdresses and other artwork.
But more recently my eye has turned toward skulls, and there’s a decided natural history flavor to my current interest. Comparative anatomy is one of my little amateur naturalist geekeries. I love how one particular basic structure–the skeleton–can take on such strangely varied forms. A mass of collagen and calcium stretches, through natural selection and genetics, into shapes and sizes ranging from the massive bulk of the skull of an elephant, to the finely sculpted lines of a garter snake skull–and the accompanying bodies, too. Skulls have evolved to consume all manner of foods, to act in aggressive and defensive manners, to house the tiniest and largest of brains.
And it’s all out of necessity. A skull is a tool for a job, and the animal that has a skull better suited for its job than the next animal is the one more likely to pass its genes down to the next generation. The hummingbird whose bill is just a tiny bit longer can reach more nectar and therefore have more calories to work with. The bighorn ram with stronger horns and a thicker skull has a better chance of winning–and surviving–fights with other rams for the privilege to breed. So it is that from one generation to the next, tiny mutations can lead, over time, to great changes and adaptations.
You can see this concept throughout the entire body of any vertebrate–or any living being, really. But skulls are perhaps the most dramatic illustration of comparative anatomy, and to my mind among the most beautiful. Not everyone shares my appreciation, of course. There are people who feel the collection and display of skulls and remains is a morbid subject; this is a relic of our culture’s inability to properly deal with the reality of death. We’re supposed to go through life pretending death doesn’t happen, and acting only with horror and sorrow when the topic is broached (and then wondering why people don’t deal with grief very well). There’s an element of hypocrisy to the criticism of skulls, taxidermy and the like, too: People who routinely eat dead animals, plants and fungi have given me the hairy eyeball for my hides and bones. I suppose the idea is to not think of death once the remains have gone down one’s gullet, but it all feels a little like the teapot calling the kettle black.
But that’s part of why I have the collection that I do. Death is just one of the many realities of a multi-staged life cycle, and you don’t have to be a member of the Addams Family to appreciate it. More practically, it’s a lot easier for me to display the skull of a feral hog next to that of a white-thighed hornbill than to have the living creatures in my tiny apartment! And they sit alongside very much alive and thriving houseplants, and on the other side of the sliding glass door from my little balcony garden and bird feeder, both of which entertain a wide variety of living beings which I love and appreciate as much as my skulls.
In the end, I am a naturalist, if a mostly untrained one. And as I build my own museum, I am creating an ever-growing altar of curiosities dedicated to the wonders of the natural world, that which I consider most sacred. I would not be here today without the development of the vertebrate skeleton, or the evolutionary flexibility this miraculous structure has shown through millions of years of natural selection. I celebrate this marvel through the display of skulls, demonstrating the artistry and practicality of nature’s amazing processes.
Note: If you enjoyed this post, please consider bringing home a copy of my book Skin Spirits: The Spiritual and Magical Uses of Animal Parts, which details my years of spiritual work with hides, bones and other animal remains, along with step by step instructions on how to make assorted ritual tools with them.