On my ride home from a meeting on Sunday night, I found a small raccoon that had been hit by a car. It was lying against the curb in the gutter, hands and feet curling in delicately, little eyes half-closed and dim, its muzzle rimmed with blood.
This was my third dead animal this fall; the first was a Cooper's hawk that Georgia and I found while riding down an alley one night, its body still warm and perfect except for the angle of its neck and slight flatness of the side of its skull, and the trickle of blood from its beak. We took it home, wrapped it in a shroud, and put it in the freezer; after Georgia's class had had the chance to see it, we gave it to my friend Tracy Williams, Sesemiya, a weaver from the Squamish Nation. She'll use the feathers or the skin in regalia.
The second dead animal was a sheep. The farmer donated some fleece to EartHand earlier in the fall, and in the course of chatting about this and that, we got onto the topic of tanning, and he asked if I had any use for a hide. He would be butchering one of his ram lambs in a few weeks, he said, and would I have use for the hide? So he called me when the weather was right for butchering, and I drove out the next day to pick up the hide.
When I arrived, the gentleman's crew had started the butchering and were in the process of peeling off the hide. It was only my second butchering, so I was keen to learn. In some cultures there are several different verbs for 'to butcher', depending on the method; but our language is or has become very blunt and imprecise for this elemental activity that almost none of us experiences.
But the farmer himself came out within moments of my arrival (he's an elder; his son and buddy were doing the butchering), and firmly invited me into the house for tea. He knows little of me, only that I am roughly the age of his children, teach people the age of his grandchildren, and live in the big city -- I think he was doubtful that I could handle it, or thought that I might have judgements about it. Flesh is so potent, and so taboo.
Chris and his buddy got the hide off and they rolled it up and put it in a cardboard box (it was bloodless); I brought out some plastic bags, and Lawrence picked up the head and we double-bagged it (it was very bloody - brains are used in natural tanning). When I got home, I had to clean out my freezer and re-roll the hide tighter to make everything fit.
Tracy has hides in her freezer, too, and we've talked about getting together to do make some buckskin. She has a bit more experience than I do, though we're both pretty green. Countless hides go to waste every year because, though everyone eats, not everyone has the skills or time to honour a hide through careful tanning. They go to the landfill instead, the ultimate insult to the cycle of life.
Then the raccoon. I passed it on my way out, and thought that if it were still there on my way home, I would collect it. It was, so I did. I picked it up and put it in a plastic bag that I found in one of my panniers, and then tied it onto my bike rack, and rode home. I put it into a cardboard box, and then into a plastic bin, and left it outside in the cold.
The next day, I crossed the taboo. With rubber gloves and my kit of blades, I laid out the raccoon on a sheet in my private backyard. I didn't want to have an audience amongst my city neighbours as I did something most of them would see as freakish and alarming (skinning roadkill), so I froze silent whenever I heard someone pass.
I lit some incense and sat quietly and admired the raccoon's details, its fingers and claws, its whiskers. I found myself asking for permission to take the hide to help me learn to be part of the cycle, to cross the threshold of flesh by my own hand. I was afraid: afraid of cutting into the creature's body, afraid that it would be mutilated. The first cut was the most difficult, piercing the skin that is never meant to be pierced in life. And yet, as I carefully made the cuts that would release his hide from his body, I felt more and more kinship with the little beast: here he is, a little omnivore like me, and underneath our skins, our flesh is the same; his flesh is just like my flesh. The only blood was from the broken bones that the car had left him with. He still has his hands and feet, his face and tail; he didn't look mutilated, only naked.
His body isn't going to be picked up by city workers and sent to the landfill or the incinerator; his hide will now become part of the thread of ancestral skills that connects human beings to the land; and I will wrap him in a shroud, and bury him underneath the big fir tree, with deepest gratitude for helping me cross this threshold.