Seen on the G train: A bookish young hipster bringing home the taxidermied head of a bighorn ram.
As a kid I saw bighorn sheep several times, though I'm not sure whether the memories are my own or appropriated clips from Marty Stouffer's Wild America. Probably both. Sure-footed and wary, deep-chested rams colliding with an impact that should crack the mountain.
Recent lines from the New York Times: Two interior designers live in a 2,000-square-foot TriBeCa loft featuring "a stuffed baby seal in a glass-encased seascape diorama … and many other taxidermied creatures, including a wallaby, a hawk with a rabbit in its talons and an enormous lion’s paw, claws fearsomely intact."
Less recent lines: So-and-so, directors of the play 69°S., in which white-parka-clad puppeteers on stilts recreate the Antarctic ordeal of Ernest Shackleton's icebound crew, are "the kind of theatrical couple who collect old taxidermy."
It's easy to envision. The mounted deer head, or even a mountain goat; fox on the floor, weasel on a table, beside some early-industrial instrumentation of indeterminate purpose and terrariums made from laboratory glassware.
Maybe so-and-so aren't like this. Maybe they deviate from type. The point is that there is a type, a predictable bohemian aesthetic, a kind of. (One that, should I sound too superior, I happen to share, at least somewhat. Not being able to afford large-animal taxidermy until it falls from fashion and lands in eBay, naturalist prints take their place. A dozen or so. Including one of a bighorn, natch.)
Fashion alters and cheapens what it consumes. If you're not careful, you lose what you buy, especially when fashion and personal taste -- identity -- converge for a time in agreement. When cultural waves recede, they cause erosion. Awareness is a seawall.
There are at least two distinct currents to this mainstreaming of naturalia. Label one the Nineteenth Century Explorer: Spiced with steampunk, evoking an age of mannered discovery, gentleman adventurers launching expeditions and returning with tales to delight drawing-room crowds. A spirit of mechanical marvels and curiosity cabinets, maps drawn well but incompletely, of biological ephemera and naturalists' drawings.
Where does it come from? A rejection of overt consumerism, possibly, inasmuch as natural history seems intrinsically less commodifiable and more authentic than other subjects.
A necessary thrift amidst a stagnant economy and fears of collapse; pressed flowers and folios taken from library discards are, in their non-boutique varieties, reasonably priced.
A psychic escape from the pervasive sense that no space on our map remains blank, that civilization has filled its container and is pushing back inwards. A need for nature in denaturalized lives.
Or maybe the meaning is not so dark. Maybe naturalia frames emerging appreciations of urban and suburban ecologies, or a sense of new, as-yet-unfilled maps arising in digital and social space, freed from old topographies. Maybe it's nothing more complicated than an appreciation of beauty.
Maybe it's all these things.
The second of naturalia's currents is easier to decipher. Hipster rustic, a reclamation of 19th and early-to-mid 20th century white Americana as a rich and authentic source of culture. Then as now, times were hard; people were tough, self-reliant, frugal; naturalia of a piece with the lumberjack henleys and Red Wing boots and engineer jackets.
The fashion industry, as frivolous a professional class as exists, needed for the last several years to clothe themselves in utility. Once that might have seemed like co-option, revolutions drained of power through branding, but it felt more like guilt. If you're going to blow $300 on impulse with unemployment at 10 percent, it should be made of waxed canvas. Go Forth, advises Levi's.
The economy's better now, of course, so fashion has moved on to chillwave hiker. The art school kids walking to class late in winter look like they're off to climb Mt. Rainier in the early seventies. The Chelsea boys look like they've come back and changed for dinner. This summer they'll go on day trips to Yosemite.
Animals are a part of all this, for explorers and hikers alike, but as setting. A sign, a signifier, a t-shirt drawing of a deer based on an image found in the first page of Google's image search. And I can't shake the feeling that naturalia debases nature, turns animals into objects, renders our beautiful, extraordinary living world and its inhabitants as aesthetic commodities with no more or less meaning than paisley or a bright colorway. It's life as accessory.
That pleasant young man on the G train.* A bighorn's head, severed from any sense of its heaving flanks and liquid eyes, its meaning as a species or experience as an individual. It is signage.
I give my gum to the rats and whistle at the mockingbirds.
* Of course, for all I know his dad took him to see bighorn sheep when he was young, and he studies them in graduate school and always dreamed of having one's head and is himself named Ram. Et cetera.