Recently I have developed an interest in people who haven’t pursued careers that require sitting in traffic, punching a time clock, a work issued ID card, or even a resume. Probably because I am not one of those people. I’ve sought out connecting with people who produce tangible things. Things they don’t make by double clicking on a mouse. Things they create in their basements and garages. From their gardens and backyards. I’ve been interviewing people about their craft. This is one of those stories I am working on telling.
The head of a nilgai – an antelope native to the grasslands of India – stares down the driveway of a ranch home in Austin. David W. is sweeping the floor of his garage. He is not what one might expect when meeting a taxidermist for the first time. David is not a recluse. He is not Norman Bates. David is an affable father of two with a close shaved beard and the thick, black-framed glasses of an architect.
When I arrived he handed me a mug of coffee and led me to the backyard carrying two moist deerskins. Sun streamed onto a patch of dry grass covered with a wooden board. He inspected a deerskin draped across a plank that he salted the day before. Underneath the pelt, blood soaked salt dried brown in the sun. He unfurled the other two and reached for the bag of salt.
“We are dealing with things that will rot or decay,” he said.
The plan for the day was to watch him mount a whitetail deer and catalog the process from fleshing the skin to the final touches of tucking in the eyelids. I wanted to know what it was like to try to bring something back to life.
I wasn’t really worried about feeling squeamish in the workshop. I am not a vegetarian. I have no problem with hunting. I’d much rather an animal be taken out in its natural environment than packed in a feedlot, pumped with antibiotics and driven to a slaughterhouse where it can sense its death because it can smell it coming. Growing up on take your daughter to work day I donned scrubs and watched my dad wield a scalpel. I saw the inside of the human breast. It looks a little like chicken fat. Still. Taxidermy is a little different. It is dealing with the dead.
Taxidermy is a memory taken down in its prime. It is death disguised as life. There are a number of ways one can taxidermy an animal but they all start with the same beginning: a death. Then the skin is removed and excess flesh stripped from the hide. The pelt is then cured to remove moisture that can cause bacteria to breed and decay the skin. Tanning happens next. Without any muscle or flesh attached, a deerskin looks kind of like a furry sock. With eyelashes.
David handed me a strip of sandpaper and let me sand off the seams of the deer manikin he would eventually pull the skin over. I imagined I was his apprentice. David is a third generation taxidermist. It isn’t something he was always proud of. He used to hate telling people what his dad did for a living.
“I thought there was a lot of shame to it,” he said. “I thought it was a crude way to make a living. I remember all of our customers coming in dressed in business clothes and thinking oh man, those guys, they’ve got the good life.”
It would take him years of working in front of a computer crunching numbers, making sure Excel columns made sense, to realize that maybe it wasn’t all what it was cracked up to be. After David’s dad got sick a few years ago he inherited his tools. David showed me his favorite mottling tool – a thin six-inch piece of metal with two tiny spades on the ends. It looks like something you would find in the drawer of a dentist office. He lifts his dad’s mottling tool to show me the difference: it’s thicker and made entirely out of wood. His dad died in 2010. He never got to meet David’s kids.
“My dad was a really interesting character. You just don’t meet people like him anymore,” David tells me. “He just didn’t have respect for artificial things. I never really understood the whole rest in peace thing, but that was the only thing I could think after he was dead. I hope that saying is true. I hope there is peace.”
Taxidermy makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Even though most of us wear animal skins on our feet or around our waists in the name of fashion every day, the moment one is mounted to a wall it becomes something macabre. I get that. Most of us aren’t running towards death. It’s not something we like to think about or talk about. Taxidermy puts it in your face. It forces you to think about how you live your life.
“You see how quickly life can be taken from you,” David said. “I’m pretty sure that if we really grasped how short our lives are we would live it a little differently.”
I thought a lot about that as I watched David score the inside of the deer’s ears so it wouldn’t warp as it dried. I thought about it as I looked at the ceiling and saw dozens of antlers hanging from it. I touched the inside of the pelt before David stretched it over the manikin. I ran my finger across the deer’s nose. Once David inserted glass eyeballs into the empty sockets of the maniken the deerskin was no longer a deerskin. I reached to touch the eyelashes and found myself pulling back for a second. I was worried it would blink.
David never does. He never forgets the animal was once alive. It doesn’t bother him that it’s not now.
“Death is a part of living,” he said. “Someone shot this and they’re going to eat it. This is allowing someone else to continue to live. When someone shoots a deer purely for meat and then it ends up being a trophy, I kind of think that taxidermy is a more of way to continue to honor the animal. Otherwise it would just go to waste. You can’t eat the skin.”