This Winter I tanned my first fur. It was my spiritual teacher, of all people, who alerted me to the body of the red fox on the roadside, and who continually thanked me for “honoring” the animal’s body in the way I was going to. I could not possibly tell her of the slick dark streams of blood which ran down his skinless face, black cloudy eyes sagging like mushy marbles from their sockets, while he hung like a Hannibal Lecter scene in my basement. I could not tell her about the ripping sound which the metal gambrel made as I forced it between the tendon and bone of his skinny back legs, only to tear deeper as I yanked and pulled, over hours to slowly free the skin from the veined and bloody body beneath it. Nor could I tell her about the overwhelming stench, not of rot but simply of gases in the organs, mixed with the natural funk that is red fox, in which I bathed while skinning this animal and then fleshing the skin.
He, a big guy with old nicks and scars peppered across his narrow face, had been hit right in the guts by whatever oncoming car had ended him, unable even to get over the curb and off the street. When I first saw him, lifting his body into the trunk of my car, one hand accidentally placed right in the blood-soaked hole in his back side, I assumed a quick death, for this reason. Once home, however, his still intact skull suggested otherwise: a death that was slow, and in great pain.
I’d been waiting for a fresh fox. Only a couple weeks beforehand, I had watched Eric, during my first lesson on skinning, perform the same gorish maneuver on another red fox–that one a female, and likely younger. Running his hands over her stiff body, feeling for the small nipples buried in her thick Winter coat, Eric told me she’d probably never had babies.
I was horrified during that first skinning, I’ll be honest. I was horrified by the sheer force required in the pulling on that small body, by the breaking of bones and the blood-spewing as Eric tried to strip the skin of the tail in one piece, and I was horrified by the stench. I was horrified, and I stayed, and for fear of repetition stopped myself from voicing (more than two or three times) the words which were rising incessant in me, like hot air: I’m really grateful for this. Eric I’m grateful for this. I’m really grateful for you showing me this.
I also felt suddenly responsible for this girl fox, the moment Eric slid his razor-blade through the skin of her back legs. I felt utterly concerned that her hide be processed with success, that from the moment it began this action not be in waste. It was a quiet and forceful purpose which arose in me, devotion-like, even though she was not mine, even though I wanted her.
The boy fox kept me busy for most of a week, as I fumbled, fussed, and troubleshooted my way through the steep learning curve which is processing an animal hide by hand. Literature is sparse, vague, and often second-hand on the subject of fur tanning, likely a testament to the loss of this art as a cultural value or necessity. I tanned the skin twice, the first time by scraping the then frozen carcass off the bed of Eric’s pick-up truck, where it lay amongst other Gray’s Anatomy styled friends, dragging it back inside, and taking a chisel and hammer to its still blood smeared skull to fish out the white mashed-potatoes-meets-cottage-cheese tissue which is brains. Pureed with water in my kitchen blender, ready to be smeared on the dried fox skin, it could have passed for a strawberry milkshake.
After nearly thirty hours of work, over ten of which devoted to a second round of softening, my hide reached the promised land of a soft, white, velvety fur-on skin. The girl fox hide did not. Her fur slipped right after drying, first from the face and tail, and then from the main of the hide. I felt sick and angry at this loss, which all tanners must experience from time to time, unable to know if it were due to some faulty step in Eric’s processing of it, which I might learn from and understand, or to the mysterious combination of factors like temperature, moisture, and salting which no one can fully account for or control. Still I felt regret at having failed her, at the deep promise I sought to answer but could not fulfill, for she was special to me.
My fox hide is a monument to darn hard work, and has incredible value to me beyond the hours, sweat, and figuring gone into it. Unlike nearly any material encountered today in our plastic dominated world, this fur is a transfigured piece of what was once an individual. His scars and nicks, and the unique patterning and size of his fur are without a double, anywhere. It is both a material and still, mystically, more than that, to the degree that I can not, and would not, simply do with it as I please. It demands of me respect, even something like honor, and when I handle it it is with care, with whole-hearted satisfaction at my own good labor, and with gratefulness of a kind that I have not known in the course of living, in the culture in which I have lived.
Were I to have encountered a face-on fur, in some antique store or junk shop, prior to this season, I would likely have thought it disgusting. Were I to have been told of the level of carnage and force which is involved in taking animals apart, I believe I would have objected. I am an individual who has been heavily influenced and impacted, during many periods of my life by vegetarianism, veganism, fasting, and even Jainist like ideals of non-impact upon all life. And yet today, I can find nothing more stirring and more deeply educating, in ways to which I cannot even reach, than scraping fat from skin, than rubbing bone on stone to shape into tools, and coming to know things I had never before touched–a wild fox’s foot, a deer’s severed leg, the feathers of an owl’s unfolding wing. I find myself going to what my immediate senses of sight and smell violently reject, and using them, and knowing them in some unnatural but familiar way, as part of myself.
A lover of plants all my life, I did not know animals. And I did not know how much I did not know them. I know a fox now, in a way I cannot communicate. My relationship to this animal is one of adoration, understanding, respect, pain, grief, play, infinite learning, and deep responsibility. As I continue to walk in these directions, I am finding that to be the case with almost everything.Freed of the flesh- the male freshly skinned & washed