Saturday, May 13, 2006

arranging the skin: the two heads of taxidermy

how does taxidermy make you feel? I mean truthfully, how are you with the whole thing? do you have any special experience that those 4 syllables bring to mind –syllables that begin so threateningly and end with such good humor. perhaps a formative childhood memory of your first encounter with this limbo creation between plaything and stoic pet.

raise your hand if you have one of these at your work?

it’s really not all that different from making a superficial mummy, without all the freight to bring into the hereafter. or at least a more sympathetic one, the kind you might introduce to relatives and old fraternity brothers. but this all depends on who you ask. from what I can gather there seem to be 2 camps here: the hobbyists and the craftsmen. let’s see, the first remembers when taxidermy was just a way of life. if you wanted to make it in this world you would have to participate in the activity of cleaning, preserving and filling the skins of dead animals with special material to make them look as if they are still alive. this characterizes about half of the definitions you come across; very pragmatic and even a little vulgar.
but there is a faction out there, Merriam-Webster press among them, who would nudge this rude activity into a more elevated realm: the art of preparing, stuffing, and mounting the skins of animals and especially vertebrates. a gentlemen’s sport. other definitions included special shout outs to different phyla- fishes, reptiles and stuff. and what about that bit “and especially vertebrates”- have you seen a sea cucumber that’s been…um, stuffed, mounted?

this introduces another problem: coming to some agreement on a verb, most likely through a back-formation from the noun. even though taxidermy is going on all around us-no doubt there are like 7 or 8 people arranging the skins right at this moment- we still have no suitably accurate way to say what they’re doing! believe me, I’ve asked around. the deer hunt is a county holiday here and I’ve got people shooting at mourning doves, mountain lions, elk, ducks and turkeys all around me. here’s the problem put simply. do you have your dead animals taxidermied, taxidermized, taxidermed? none seems right and when I ask the locals, it’s “oh I just say stuffed and/or mounted.” call me fastidious but that doesn’t quite work because to mount an animal you will need a saddle. and a stuffed animal is something else. it’s what you spend your lunch money trying to grab with the impossible 3 fingered claw out of that big glass bin at the arcade or grocery store entrance. plus niether word fully represents the process, which is quite involved. I mean it’s all a big semantic mess and we can’t go on ignoring it! meantime here we are trying to make decisions about wire tapping. do we think this is just going to go away?

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