I recently got an email from someone who was interested in Vulture Culture, but felt like they couldn’t actually be a participating member of this “fandom” unless they were tanning their own hides and cleaning their own bones and otherwise processing their own specimens. It’s not the first time I’ve run into this, either. It’s great that so many Vultures are learning these skills, and DIYing their way through their hobby! But it’s not absolutely necessary.
I mean, look at me. I’ve been working with hides and bones and other specimens in my art for over twenty years, and if you count my childhood collecting I’ve been part of what would become Vulture Culture for well over three decades, longer than some Vultures have been alive. And you know what? I’ve never tanned a hide, and only cleaned a couple of skulls. I can dry-preserve wings, but that’s really about it.*
And that doesn’t make me any less sincere or valid a member of Vulture Culture than all those awesome DIYers out there. There are plenty of reasons someone might not get into the messier aspects of the hobby:
–No place to process a bunch of smelly, fresh specimens (or long-dead smelly ones, either!)
–No money to buy supplies, even the cheapest options
–No time to go through the lengthy processes of bone cleaning or fur and leather tanning
–No interest in doing these things, preferring other ways to participate
And there are so many ways to participate, just like any other fandom! You can collect your favorite sorts of specimens (I’m partial to skulls, myself.) Looking for animal bones out in the wild is also a popular pursuit if you have access, but other found specimens can include (legal) feathers, dead insects, shed snake skins, and so forth. Maybe you’re like me and you enjoy making art from specimens already preserved, or using them as art references for traditional media. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with just liking to see pictures of other people’s collections, even if you don’t have anything yourself.
My point is, not everyone has to DIY their hobby. You can appreciate others’ efforts without feeling like you’re not as genuine a Vulture because you’re not out there saving every bit of roadkill you can find. Ultimately it’s all about your enjoyment, and if you’re too worried about “doing it right”, you’re not going to have fun! So relax, participate with Vulture Culture in whatever ways you see fit and to whatever degree you prefer, and allow yourself the freedom to explore without pressure!
* Because I wanted to shared these skills but hadn’t developed them myself, I hired guest writers for the how-to tutorials for my book Vulture Culture 101: A Book For People Who Like Dead Things. I felt that made it a much more complete book on the subculture, and it gave some other writers a chance to show off their chops. But it also allowed me to stick to the things I really enjoy doing, like writing!
Vulture Culture 101: A Book For People Who Like Dead Things has arrived! This is the first book about the subculture (fandom?) surrounding hides, bones, and other animal specimens. In it you’ll learn about who Vultures are, how to build your own collection, tutorials on bone cleaning, tanning and more, how to explain Vulture Culture to the general public, and much more. Whether you’re just getting involved or have been a Vulture for years, this is a great addition to your bookshelf–and it’s the perfect thing to hand to someone who may not understand your unusual interests, too!
Note: This was first published on No Unsacred Place around 2011-ish, which went defunct a few years ago (RIP–it was a good site). Then it was on Paths Through the Forests, but I split from Patheos a couple of years ago due to philosophical differences with their new ownership. As they have not honored my request to have my writing taken down, and I don’t want to direct more traffic to them, I am slowly reproducing my work from there here. That way if I want to share this post with someone it will come from my site and not theirs. Please help me by sharing this link around–thank you!
The beauty of the wild is the long gesture of life in time. The beauty of skin and fur and feathers, the beauty of blood, the beauty of bones sinking into grass.
–John Daniel, from The Soul Unearthed
That is the quote I painted on a recent creation of mine, shown in the picture above. My canvas was a piece of rawhide left over from a drum kit. The visual punctuation of the entire piece included an eclectic mix: a rooster feather; a coyote toe bone; a sea urchin spine; and two pieces of deer hide, fur and leather.
I chose the quote deliberately for that piece. There is a certain ambiguity to the words, flowing from one end of the life-death cycle to the other. “Life in time” breathes and pounds its heart, while the “bones sinking into grass” create a vivid image of the core structure of the animal, all the rest borne away, disintegrating into nourishment for the flora. In between, the hides and the blood are left open; they may be alive and running yet, but the blood may also be sluiced upon the ground, and the skin stripped from muscle and tendon and prepared for preservation.
In much of the United States, people have a poor relationship with death, to include that of nonhuman animals. The idea of the “poor, dead animals” (particularly those that aren’t carved up on a dinner plate) is often enough of a shock that no one wants to think, let alone talk, about it. We eat beef and pork, not cow and pig, and very few of us ever eat anything that’s looking back at us; even the shrimp are conveniently decapitated for our culinary comfort. The most common discourse about dead animals seems to come from some animal rights activists who quite often use guilt, shame, and shock to try to convince unsuspecting leather-clad omnivores into changing their ways. When the choices are either silence or stigma, there doesn’t seem to be much room in between for more moderate discussions.
I choose what I perceive as one potential moderate path, tempered with much awareness. For over a decade I have been an artist of animal remains, part aesthetics and part spiritual work. On the one hand, I very much appreciate the lovely curve of bone and the lush texture of deerskin, the intricately veined colors of feathers, and the varied structures of the hairs of all sorts of furs. Beyond animal parts as an artistic medium, though, the core of my work is funereal. From the beginning my art has been about reclaiming these remains from being trophies or status symbols, and a significant portion of my “supplies” is made of old fur and leather coats, reclaimed taxidermy, and the like.(1) I guide these remains to a better “afterlife” with others, as has always been my role with them, and everything I make with animal parts gets a full ritual purification as part of my pagan practice.
Over the years I’ve gotten a wide variety of reactions to my work, from awe to indifference to outright hostility. Thankfully the responses have canted toward the more receptive, whether in person or online. I get the distinct feeling, though, that most people, regardless of their views, are highlighting certain individual facets of the work that, together, I tend to take as a whole.Most of the people who favor my work seem to primarily connect with it on an aesthetic level. They like having something pretty, whether as something to wear, or as a “powerful” ritual tool. They appreciate it as art, which is perfectly fine. At the other end of the spectrum are the occasional activists who come in swinging; they see the death and the remains, to the exclusion of anything else.
On some occasions, though, I will meet people who bring my art home both as art, and as sacred remains. They haven’t glossed over the fact that what they hold was once living, often combining the parts of animals that never would have met in life (such as the cow and the sea urchin in my wall hanging above). But they still see the beauty in those remains, and in the fact of their death. They can appreciate the loveliness of a long-dead deer’s ribcage seated in a field, and the arrangement of those same ribs into a totemic shrine. They know they carry lives in their hands.
I have not lost sight of the living end of the cycle, either. I have always donated a portion of the funds I make from selling my art to nonprofit groups that work to preserve both animals and their habitat, as well as informal donations to friends and acquaintances in need of help with emergency vet bills and the like. I think my partner, S., put it best when he told me that my most powerful alchemy was taking the remains of animals that had often died cruel and inhumane deaths, and turning them into funds to help those creatures still living and the environs that support them.
And I do my best to educate people about the sources of the remains; I maintain a database of international, federal and state laws on possessing and selling animals parts in the US to help them make educated decisions. Nor do I lie about those of my “materials” that are byproducts of the fur industry; I do not claim they’re roadkilled or “natural deaths”, or wild instead of farmed, to try to assuage people’s guilt or to make me look more ethical in their eyes. To do so would be an insult both to the people I speak with, and the animals themselves, never mind my artistic and spiritual work.
This work with the remains is another foundational part of my nature-based path, and as I write in this place over time, you may see me refer to the “skin spirits” as a collective term for the spirits of all the animals whose remains I work with, skin, bone and otherwise. My nature-based paganism is rooted in all of the life-death cycle, and this is how I seek the beauty in that which is all too often ignored, or so symbolized as to be almost entirely removed from the gritty reality.
(1) I have become so known for collecting dead critters in certain circles, in fact, that I have been over time gifted with a number of antiques that were inherited by people who had no idea what to do with them, and so decided I was a good next stop for Grandma’s fur coat, or Uncle Doug’s deer heads.
Hey, everyone! So in case you haven’t heard, I am writing a book about Vulture Culture, the “fandom” that’s sprung up around the appreciation of hides, bones and other dead things in recent years. The working title is Vulture Culture 101: A Book For People Who Like Dead Things, and I will be self-publishing it via CreateSpace; the projected date of publication is Summer 2018. Currently, the first draft of the book is done, and I am working on edits and revisions. There’s also an IndieGoGo campaign through March 23 at http://igg.me/at/vultureculture101 which has already met its initial goal and is working toward stretch goals.
While I have spent over twenty years making hide and bone art, I do not have extensive experience with tanning hides or cleaning bones or otherwise prepared raw specimens. However, no book on Vulture Culture would be complete without tutorials on some basic processes, which is why I’m seeking writers to contribute essays!
Each essayist will be compensated with $100 and 10 paperback copies of Vulture Culture 101 once it has been published. Thank you again to my IndieGoGo contributors for helping to make this happen!
I am seeking one essay each on the following topics:
Skinning a freshly dead or frozen and thawed animal and preparing the hide for tanning
Tanning a hair-on hide, starting with a raw hide (rabbit would be best as it’s a nice small hide that’s easy and inexpensive to acquire); while you may choose one method of tanning, such as alum, please briefly mention other tanning methods like egg tanning
Brain-tanning leather, starting with a hair-on hide (deer is most popular but I’m open to other easy to acquire suggestions like goat)
Cleaning bones through maceration, starting with a whole skinned carcass, though with a brief mention of dermestid beetles and nature cleaning as alternatives, and proceeding through degreasing and whitening
Wet specimens in jars, to include long-term care, how to change out old fluids, etc.
Very basic mouse or rat taxidermy, including how to prepare the hide, positioning, etc.
The basics of skeleton articulation; there’s not space to go through an entire skeletal articulation, but at least give people an idea of the tools and methods involved, and basic steps from skeleton acquisition to final display
Essays should have the following qualities:
Between 1500 and 2000 words (you may be able to go over that a bit if you need the space)
Written in easy to read English and suitable for a general audience
Thoroughly explain the topic in a step-by-step manner; steps should be numbered
Be accompanied by at least 4-6 print-quality photos showing different steps of the process (if you have to show different animals at different stages of the process, such as for longer processes like maceration, that’s fine, so long as all pertinent stages are covered clearly)
Should not be previously published, either in print or online. If you’ve written similar essays that’s fine, just write a unique one for this project
I will have already covered topics like where to get hides and bones, and legalities concerning them, so you don’t need to go over them again. Stick to the how-tos of your topic. I will be doing some basic editing and proofreading, but you should be sending me final drafts by the due date.
Please apply by contacting me at lupa.greenwolf(at)gmail(dot)com; you will be asked to provide the following information:
Your name, general location, email address and phone number
A brief description of your experience in working with hides and/or bones and/or other dead things
Which topic you would like to write about and what makes you qualified to write about it (you can apply for more than one topic; however, only one topic will be assigned to one writer unless there is a serious lack of suitable writers)
At least three samples of your writing, published or not; Vulture Culture topics and how-to articles are extra-awesome, but send the best of whatever you have. Please also send a few sample photos showing your photography skills. You can send them as links and/or attachments.
If you are under the age of 18, proof of permission by a parent or legal guardian
The deadline to apply is March 28, 2018. Selections will be made by April 7, 2018 at which point acceptance letters and contracts will be sent out. Completed final essays have a FIRM due date of June 7, 2018, so please make sure before you apply that you can dedicate the time to finishing your essay on time. You can also send me drafts in progress before that point if you’d like feedback.
What compels me and many other people to fill our homes with the preserved remains of animals, and how can you join in the fun? Vulture Culture 101: A Book For People Who Like Dead Things explores the modern revival in acquiring, preserving and creating art with these natural specimens. Written by author and artist Lupa, this is the first full-length guide to Vulture Culture, a subculture that in recent years has grown up around the appreciation of hides, bones and other animal specimens.
Want to help Vulture Culture 101 become a reality AND get your copy of the book at the lowest price ever? Want to get neat perks like my other books and art made from hides and bones? Want to help a self-employed author and artist create a valuable resource both for members of the V.ulture Culture, and people who are just curious about what it’s all about?
Back the Vulture Culture 101 campaign today at http://igg.me/at/vultureculture101! We’re already well on our way, and early bird specials are going fast. Even if you can’t back the campaign right this moment, please send the campaign to anyone you feel may be interested, and thank you for your support 🙂
I am excited to announce that the official IndieGoGo campaign for my next book, Vulture Culture 101: A Book For People Who Like Dead Things, will launch on February 6, 2018! More than a book on taxidermy or bone identification, Vulture Culture 101 is a guidebook to the subculture surrounding the preparation, collection and appreciation of hides, bones and other specimens. It’s suitable for both beginners and experienced Vultures and may even appeal to those who are just curious about us and our collections.
The full IndieGoGo campaign won’t be launched til the 6th, but you can get a taste of what will be included at the prelaunch page here. And you can sign up for an email reminder to be sent to you when the campaign officially starts!
As with my wildly successful IndieGoGo campaigns for The Tarot of Bones, this campaign will help me to fund attendant costs for the book, such as paying guest writers for how-to essays on topics like hide tanning and bone cleaning, as well as the cost of printing physical books and having them shipped to me. Anything left over after that will help me cover my bills and other expenses as I finish up the last bit of writing, editing, layout and other work that remains before projected publication in Summer 2018.
I will, of course, make an announcement when the campaign itself goes live, but for now check out the prelaunch page for a taste of what’s to come! And, as always, thank you for your ongoing support.