Dead Critters

I’ve just sent in the final .pdf proof of my next solo book, Skin Spirits: Animal Parts in Spiritual and Magical Practice, which should hopefully be out in the next couple of months. Already there are things I wish I could add in, even though I know there’s a certain point where one has to say “Okay, the book is done, get it out there!”

Over the past few months I’ve been working with my relationship with Death. It’s a rather uneasy one. I haven’t had anyone really close to me taken suddenly, and the deaths among family and friends have been few. This has historically caused me to feel anxious about Death, and what it will be like the first time I do lose someone close without warning. Plus, of course, there’s dealing with my own mortality, especially as I’ve entered into my early thirties, and I don’t feel quite so immortal as I did in my twenties.

One of the alterations I’ve made to the rituals I go through when purifying things I’ve made out of animal parts is to consider the mortality of my own flesh. I look at the hides and the bones lying prone and dead on the floor, and I then look at my own flesh, and the bones beneath it, and I contemplate the fact that some day this vehicle that I am intimately connected to 24/7 will cease to move, and will be akin to the remains around me. It makes me even more appreciative of being able to work with the remains of these once-living beings, and by extension being able to continue my life by eating the remains of animals and plants that were only recently still alive.

It’s like the (in)famous epitaph on certain gravestones, which are variants of this:

Remember Man as you go by
As you are now so once was I
As I am now so shall you be,
Prepare yourself to follow me*

And this all goes back to a large part of why I work with animal parts in my art and spirituality. Yes, there’s practicality to it, but there’s also reverence. I never view the skins and bones as trophies, or toys, or really even as possessions. It is a privilege to work with them in the way that I do, aware of the death that occurred, and that these were once warm, living beings the same way I am now.

I know I can’t inspire the same reverence in those who buy my artwork, but it’s my hope that at least some of them will see what I create as more than just “pretty shinies”. I know there will be people, for example, who buy the totemic dance tails as fashion accessories, not as connections to archetypal spiritual beings, or even the individual spirits of the animals whose tails they were when living. And I know that some of the things I create as ritual tools will end up instead as part of people’s “collections of dead things”, more for display than active work.

But that’s why I do the spiritual work I do, and then write about it, and how others can utilize it. Because some people will pick up on what I do, and adopt it to their own practices.

And it’s also why I do the food totem work that I do, honoring the totems of the animals and plants whose physical counterparts I eat to stay alive. I cannot live without killing something, unless I went entirely fruitarian, and even then some would argue that eating seeds contributes to the loss of potential life.

I don’t take Death for granted any more. No matter whether the death was from a trap or bullet or disease in the wild, or by gas or electrocution after a lifetime in a cage; no matter whether the intention of the death was for food or for fur; no matter whether the death was at the hands of humans, or another animal; no matter whether it occurred after two weeks or two centuries; the fact is that some living being ceased to be a part of this life and the world that I still have the privilege to interface with, and that is reason for a moment of solemnity, moreso if I was directly involved with that death.

All of the afterlife theories in the world cannot provide incontrovertible proof that there’s anything once the body shuts down. That objective uncertainty is even more reason to be aware of when we send another being into that unknown before us, and to be aware of the fact that someday we’ll be there, too. Not necessarily to dwell in gloom over it, but to simply consider the immense change we are facilitating when we contribute to a death.

* Of course, there’s also the witty reply to this: “To follow you I am not content/How do I know which way you went?”