Saturday Morning Hide Tanning

I knew that hide tanning was one of the things we’d be learning this year as apprentices, but I didn’t really know what I was getting into.

This was my cryptic to do list for Saturday morning (which I unfortunately left in the lunch room at the office on Friday, for the speculation of my colleagues). A day of decadent feasting and then exercising? Car stunts and massage therapy?

Nine days earlier: The contractor bag had been thawing next to my wood stove for a couple of days before I opened it. I was on kind of a tight timeline; I needed to thaw and then soak this deer hide before taking it to the Wildwood Path weekend where I would learn how to work it. So I untwisted the bag and pushed the plastic out of the way—and saw her face.

This was my first time seeing her. She had arrived at my house in the dark and went straight into the freezer, delivered by my friend whose dad had shot the doe this year. She was beautiful, and big. I’ve never been so close to a deer. Her eyes were clouded and her tongue was hanging out. I felt tears well up for this quiet deer who couldn’t help her undignified expression. I sat down, stroked her cool, soft face, and talked to her.

My beliefs about dead bodies are fairly unsentimental (although subject to change). They are currently, more or less: once a being dies, their body no longer contains them. I can talk to them or call up memories no matter where or in what state their body exists. So it’s not like I thought this deer could literally hear me with her ears, or be physically uncomfortable curled up in a plastic bag. I could have talked to her while I was washing dishes or driving to work. But it did feel right to be touching her and looking at her while I told her how beautiful she was and how thankful I was to be a part of her body’s post-life existence. I told her that this would be my first time working with a hide, and I would do my best to honor her.

So that was how we began. The weeks that followed were hard work, sometimes going really smoothly, other times more like gruesome slapstick. I told Trevanna in an email that I felt like this deer was patiently amused at my efforts (as I awkwardly juggled slippery, heavy flesh and wiped splashes of egg yolk and brains from my cheek). At times I was reminded of Mary Roach’s book, Stiff about what happens to [human] bodies after we die. The introduction includes this passage:

“Many people will find this book disrespectful. There is nothing amusing about being dead, they will say. Ah, but there is. Being dead is absurd. It’s the silliest situation you’ll find yourself in. Your limbs are floppy and uncooperative. Your mouth hangs open. Being dead is unsightly and stinky and embarrassing, and there’s not a damn thing to be done about it.

“This book is not about death as in dying. Death, as in dying, is sad and profound. There is nothing funny about losing someone you love, or about being the person about to be lost. This book is about the already dead. The cadavers I have seen were not depressing or heart-wrenching or repulsive. They seemed sweet and well-intentioned, sometimes sad, occasionally amusing.”

The strength and elasticity and complexity of her skin is amazing. The way it varies in thickness and density, the way the grain layer releases easily in some places and defies my blade in others, the way I can push with all my strength against her skin (Skin! Magical skin that is able to be cut and bleed and heal as a matter of course), and not puncture it. The way it dries to rawhide if neglected, but when shown constant attention, will dry to fine, soft, fluffy folds that beg to touch your cheek.

The donuts to which my to do list refers are a method of wringing moisture out of the hide. Hannah, our instructor, had suggested in a mentoring phone call that given my short time frame, I would do well to repeatedly wring out the hide and replace it in the eggs and brains over the course of several hours, to encourage thorough penetration. This done, I sewed the hide to a large frame, tightening evenly in all directions. I then started stretching it, pushing the hide from side to side and top to bottom over and over again, trying to pay special attention to edges and thick areas (“especially neck, spine, butt”). Once the stretching has begun, you can’t stop until the hide is completely dry, or it will harden into rawhide and you’ll have to soak it and start over.
Hannah told us that she has spent anywhere from two to ten hours individual hides; the drying time depends on many factors.

I started at noon. Jackie joined me at my house with her own hide to stretch, but wasn’t able to stay for long. After four hours of stretching, I decided that I didn’t want to be in my basement anymore—I had thought the temperature upstairs might be too warm, but speeding up the drying process didn’t sound like such a terrible idea anymore.

After 6.5 hours, I texted an SOS to my friend Emily, the one who had brought me the deer hide. At 8.5 hours, she finished with her evening commitments and joined me at my house. My forearms were tingling in a way that said “I might be permanent nerve damage LOL” and my fingers could barely make a fist. I collapsed on the couch for about twenty minutes before we traded off again.

At 10 hours, we opened the wine. At 11 hours, the Cheezits. At 12, we took turns
reading crossword clues to each other. At 2:30 in the morning, we agreed that the thighs were maddeningly close to being dry, and Emily went home for some well-earned sleep.

At 3am, fifteen hours after starting, I gave this nice, dry deer hide a kiss and bid her good night.

I loved this whole hide-tanning process (although it did take me a while to get out of bed the next morning). It was physically taxing, time-consuming work that, as my friend Murphy says, is best accomplished in community. I’m thrilled to learn about this new way to have a relationship with wild animals and use the parts of them that might otherwise be unvalued, and so happy to know so many other people who are learning and teaching these skills!

My narrative jumps around and skips a lot of steps. I recommend Hannah Sol Rhea’s hide tanning video, for an overview of the process that I was following.

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