history

Thoughts on Taxidermy, Fashion & Bighorn Sheep by Brandon

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.

Thoughts on "Darkmans" by Brandon

If Thomas Pynchon had a daughter who learned from his mistakes, that daughter would be Nicola Barker, author of Darkmans. I don't know quite how to describe it, except by recommending you put on some good headphones and blast Animal Collective's "Fireworks" until your eardrums vibrate on their own. But before that, listen to an old, random song you don't really like and will quickly forget, and afterwards you take a shower and put on a terry-cloth bathrobe and smoke a cigarette over Earl Grey tea.

But what's it about? For once the cover blurb comes close:

Darkmans is a very modern book, set in Ashford [a ridiculously modern town], about two very old-fashioned subjects: love and jealousy. It's also a book about invasion, obsession, displacement and possession, about comedy, art, prescription drugs and chiropody. And the main character? The past, which creeps up on the present and whispers something quite dark - quite unspeakable - into its ear.

A palmful of quarters and dimes to go with that: Barker's prose layers banality on top of virtuosity on vernacular on OCD, emulsifies it with compassion, bakes it in a casserole dish of curiosity -- and she'd probably forgive me for that sentence. She turns virtue into vice and vice versa, understands glue sniffers as well as scholars and could "unrapt a raptor," in one memorable phrase. The book is 748 pages long and set in sans-serif.

Among the plot devices are demon birds and a man who fathers his own ancestor, but the surrealism is never for its own sake, and somehow exists in the same conceptual continuum as shopping mall expansions and contractors' vendettas over phone book listings: they're either equally sensible, or equally absurd, and in case are part of a larger story -- the aforementioned emergence of the past, which doesn't so much creep up as blast out like a stoppered sewer.

Darkmans' sense of past is twofold. The first is social. As England emerged from the Middle Ages, jesters were the only people permitted to communicate without sanction, and thus the ribald guardians of a truth outside authority. They were made irrelevant a by the maturation of the English language -- a process that's lately been called a linguistic saltation, making possible a culture of unprecedented complexity and freedom.

As language atrophies and society is consumed anew by icons, inarticulation and arbitrary justice, the jester is needed to make communication possible again -- and this plays out in the second fold, the personal stage, an immediate past of failure and disappointment between father and son, husband and wife, that underlies the present and shouldn't be concealed.

But jesters aren't always nice.

And ... enough said. Read it. Bonus points: one of the characters belongs to the Yazidi, a secretive Kurdish tribe that believes itself descended from Adam. No word on whether or they do in fact fear and loathe leafy green vegetables.

Image: youngrobv