The Big Issue : Edition 557
THEBIGISSUE.ORG.AU 9–22 MAR 2018 27 THE EMAIL CAME from a friend I hadn’t seen in years: This might sound odd, but were you walking through Northcote at midnight carrying a large white goose? I was, in fact. I’d gone out to the country to pick up a taxidermy snow goose, truly a beautiful work of art. Its wings were outstretched in mid- flight, which had made taking it home on the train to Melbourne quite a challenge. With the goose nestled on my lap, I’d fielded questions from many a merry passenger out for Saturday night shenanigans. It was not my first taxidermy transit; I’d once taken home a bedraggled duck on the Footscray bus, its beak poking out of a canvas shopping bag. Like most of my obsessions, my collection stemmed from my writing. I find the research stage of stories enthralling, whether the subject is the bubonic plague, methods of snake milking or Icelandic avalanches. The protagonist in my novel is an amateur taxidermist, and it surprised no-one when I quickly went from acquiring my own pieces to holding the scalpel myself. There’s been a resurgence of the craft in recent years, based on the principles of “ethical taxidermy”. The days of trophies of the hunt have long gone, and after 20 years of vegetarianism on my part, this was vital to me. Instead, my teachers and guides source their specimens carefully, and the resultant pieces are often used to educate about endangered species. There is great respect for the animal they hold in their hands, and a desire to preserve and honour its delicate form and being. I found this out for myself. My fellow students were all female, and all fascinated. A tiny quail I named Clementine was my first piece, with Cedric the mouse next. The workshops and caught a taxi home with the car boot containing a deer skull resplendent with antlers, next to a kilo of Christmas trifle. Friends bring me bird skulls they find on bush walks, skins their pet snakes have shed and porcupine quills to hold my hair up. I adore these articles and treat them, and the animals they came from, with great honour. I’m aware that my predilection may not sit well with others, however. I learned an important lesson when I teased my partner’s nine- year-old son that if he misbehaved, I would stuff him and place him on the mantelpiece next to Cedric. It took me time to remedy that step backwards, believe me. We’re still getting over it. My mother recently visited me. She walked around my house surveying my menagerie, giving that look of silent scorn that only mothers can provide. A snake skeleton hung on the wall next to bat bones, both in black frames. On a book case sat an insect encased in perspex, the lower half of its body trailing behind it like a beautiful evening gown. “This place is...well, interesting, darling,” she told me, with palpable distaste. “But I have to ask: are you quite happy being surrounded by skins and scales? Are you quite happy being THAT woman?” I looked at the pearlescent snake skins, at my kingfisher skull and dolphin vertebrae. “I am, Mum, yes,” I told her. “Very much so.” And under the bell jar sat Cedric, his hands clasped together in applause. » Rijn Collins is an Australian writer whose work can be found at rijncollins.com. In 2016 she won the inaugural Sarah Awards for International Audio Fiction in New York. take hours; scalpels scraping, bones snapping, every movement meticulous and methodical. We plucked out tiny hearts and laid them aside for the flesh- eating dermestid beetles my teacher kept in a tank. We prepared the “soft bodies” from wood wool, rubbed between aching hands before stitching the skins back together. When I found myself tenderly fluffing Clementine’s feathers with a hair dryer and paintbrush as though at a small animal day spa, I knew my novel would be all the richer for it. To taxidermy a creature is an intimate act. The awareness of anatomy it instilled in me was striking. The reverence and awe inspired by how bodies are held together and how fragile we essentially all are, makes a taxidermy workshop a truly amazing experience. I sit with my hand on my chest afterwards, fingers counting my rib bones, aware that the same beating heart, the same sinews and tendons and pulse of blood exist within me. It’s a humbling sensation, and one I’m supremely grateful for. Still, I did not excel. I messed up Clementine’s leg, and nicked through the skin on Cedric’s foot. When I showed him to my teacher she recoiled, and exclaimed “What have you done, you mad bitch?” A teacher myself, I recognised the tone. When I sent my partner a photo of the finished Cedric, a slightly hunchbacked piebald mouse clutching a tiny wedge of plastic cheese, he laughed so much he had to pull the car over. Cedric and Clementine sit together on my shelf (out of reach of my cat, per my instructor’s telling advice). There is also Olaf, an Icelandic dove, beside a bell jar of snake skins. My collection is growing at the same rate as my passion. Last Christmas I visited my deer farmer uncle ILLUSTRATIONBYDANNYSNELL Researching her novel, Rijn Collins falls in love with an unusual art form. ANIMAL MAGNETISM The reverence and awe inspired by how bodies are held together and how fragile we essentially all are, makes a taxidermy workshop a truly amazing experience.