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Friday, September 05, 2008

A Brief Lesson On Taxidermy

Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, September 6, 2008.)

Taxidermy has a long tradition as an art form,
right along with painting, photography,
scrimshawed ivory and decoy carving.

With the nomination of the governor of Alaska as Vice President of the United States comes a show of ignorance about what taxidermy (and the rural lifestyle from Maine to Alaska) is about.

Governor Sarah Palin is a lady who hunts, fishes, and is a life member of the National Rifle Association. She brings home the moose, cooks it up on the grill, and never lets her husband Todd… well, never mind. Peggy Lee’s words were better. It’s enough to say that she’s a lot of things urban Americans don’t understand and a lot that the radical left in America won’t understand.

That became clear with the publication of a photograph taken in the living room at the home of Palin’s parents in the town of Wasilla, Alaska. It showed Chuck and Sally Heath watching television news – a report that John McCain named their daughter his running mate on the Republican presidential ticket for 2008.

The Heath home is like many Alaskan homes. On their wall hangs a museum-like assortment of taxidermy, including a beautiful white Dall sheep, some smaller animals, antlers, horns, rugs made from the skins of a grizzly bear and a black bear, plus a variety of Alaskan artifacts.

About Sarah Palin’s candidacy, a lot is being said that is designed to disqualify her. Much of it is plain nasty. The things I want to talk about are not just nasty; they exhibit a frontal assault on the values of rural America’s hunting culture. The following are just a few of the contemptuous comments made against the Heaths and their home.

Try this one on: “How insane do you have to be to have dead bodies all over your walls.” Sorry, fella. Taxidermy is actually much less than dead bodies, and at the same time far more. People collect what museums collect, so it’s no more insane than a visit to the Smithsonian.

Here’s another: “Good grief, early Neanderthal decor.” Maybe the next sarcastic comment will be something about a trailer on the White House lawn. Wait a minute – that was said, too. I’m seeing genuine scorn for rural America.

It gets worse: “I will never understand the mentality that prefers dead animals to living ones. Although, when you think about it, it’s kind of related to the right-wing mentality that prefers dead soldiers to living veterans who might need medical care and have the audacity to object to their policies.” The assumption that underlies this statement is truly twisted – that legally harvested game animals equate to fallen American soldiers.

“The horned skull over the door is the thing that caught my eye. I’m not saying they worship the devil or anything....” Or, maybe you are. Forgive me, but the skull, complete with antlers, is a “European mount” – probably of a Sitka blacktail deer. Imagine someone who loves wildlife equating a deer to Satan. On second thought, don’t bother. It’s unimaginable.

Besides the fact that they have no appreciation for the art of taxidermy, what these lefties really don’t like is a lifestyle and set of values that differ from their own.

Taxidermy has a long tradition as an art form, right along with painting, photography, scrimshawed ivory and decoy carving. Jason Morrison of Buckhaven Wildlife Art in Sugar Grove, PA, echoes all taxidermists who are worth their salt when he says “The work I do is art, and the materials I work with are created by God.”

Like any form of art, not everyone will like it. But those who denigrate it in such hostile and negative terms should at least understand that taxidermy is not dead bodies. It’s a creative art that involves the preservation of an animal skin and the restoration of it to a life-like form that will last indefinitely. It’s a way of honoring an animal that’s as old as man’s interaction with the animal world.

Both art and science go into quality taxidermy. That’s why the best taxidermists know down to the smallest detail what the animals they recreate look like. They understand the musculature, the skeletal structure, the habits, the posture and the attitudes.

If taxidermy is just a dead body, then so are the shoes on our feet. But it’s much more than a dead body – it’s a painstakingly crafted work of art that gives anyone who appreciates it a much closer connection to the natural world than anyone with contempt for it will ever have the pleasure of enjoying.


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