My Racoon Skin

(For my followers, this is today’s post. The one you received half an hour ago had a problem — half of one of the paragraphs was missing.)

Recently while scrounging around in the basement for felt, stuffing and anything that might be useful for making fake fruit, I came across the racoon skin from our homeschooling days. The ringed tail came off long ago, but for years I used it on the flat surface of my hutch and put pretty things on it, like a glass bowl or a decorative candle. Unadorned, it looks like this. You have to imagine the tail.

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I realize that not many people would have and/or use a racoon skin. I just like it.  I found it as soft and luxurious as it was thirty years ago, though it was not originally intended to be part of the décor. Originally it was part of a lesson about Daniel Boone, pioneer days and self-sufficiency.

We didn’t kill the racoon. The kids were young then, early elementary, and we don’t kill things anyway. But we were reading about and talking about what people had to do back in the day when you were immersed in the natural world around you and relied on it to provide for a good portion of your needs, back when you cut down the trees to make a path through the woods, when you built a house with those logs, when you killed the predators that were killing your livestock, when you milked your own cow and churned your own butter. If Daniel Boone needed a hat, he couldn’t just go buy one because he was out there in the wilderness somewhere and there were no stores with hats.

I was never one for only reading and talking about a thing – I want to do it. (I know this is a surprise to some of you, but really it’s true!) Coincidentally, we left home one day to go who knows where and what did we see along the side of the road? Roadkill, that’s what. A road-killed racoon. And what does any self-respecting homeschool mom who is trying to make a point about Daniel Boone’s self-sufficiency do with that? She stops, checks to see if it’s: a. freshly killed – no smelly or decomposing carcasses for me, thank you, b. undamaged, other than being dead of course, and c. (seemingly at least) unclaimed – I would not want to take someone else’s roadkill.

I grant that for some people the idea of skinning a racoon is off-putting to say the least. We are all a product of our experience to a point though, and my experience included three years of being the anatomy lab assistant at Douglass College (Rutgers U.). In anatomy lab you study anatomy, hands-on. I mean hands on the real thing, not looking at pictures or plastic models of the muscles, tendons and bones. Sure, you can talk about how the transversus  abdominus of a cat inserts into the linea alba, and you can read about how the masseter is covered by a tough, shining fascia lying ventral to the zygomatic arch, but there is nothing like taking a sharp blade in your hand and carefully dissecting the animal.

There is no room for squeamishness in this process. I became familiar with it, comfortable. So the road kill racoon didn’t faze me. We brought it home and pretended to be Daniel Boone. I’m not saying it was a pleasant experience, but the real world is messy sometimes. It is complex and hard and utterly fascinating. I think I can safely say that the inside of a racoon is unlike anything you have ever seen.

In the end we didn’t make a hat though. Once the fur is off the rest of the racoon (and the inner part discarded somehow, I forget how), the job is not done. You don’t go from dead animal to useful, clean skin that easily. The fur is soft (and would surely be warm) but other side of it (the hide) is wet, one might even say gooky. The next step is tanning, which involves trimming and scraping the hide, placing it in the shade on a flat, cool surface such as a large rock and covering it with salt.

Where Daniel Boone got salt out in the wilderness is beyond me, and we take our self-sufficiency lessons only so far. A friend of mine, who was far more self-sufficient than I, had at about the same time gotten mad at the racoons that were getting into her garden and had taken a shotgun and killed them. She was having those skins professionally tanned. I jumped on that option. A few weeks later I went to her house to pick up our beautiful racoon skin.

I think we didn’t make a hat because by the time it was ready, we had moved onto other exciting lessons – though it is hard to top skinning a roadkill racoon. Besides, and more importantly, the fur was just too beautiful to cut into. On whatever surface I put it, it served as a reminder that we had once, in a very small way, walked in Daniel Boone’s shoes. We had done a messy thing and ended up with a beautiful thing. We had done a thing ourselves that most people would have had someone else do.

I got to thinking about all this because of Oscar Wilde. In the book I just read, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, there is a story about a little girl whose cat died. She was inconsolable until a stranger came along and told her that cats have nine lives and that her cat was enjoying his next life in France. The stranger then left, but what followed were letters to the little girl from France describing the new life of this cat, how happy he was, etc. The letters turned out to have been written by Oscar Wilde himself who had visited the island briefly and then gone on to France.

Whether all this truly happened or not, I don’t know, but it made me look him up. In doing so, I discovered his involvement in the 19th century aestheticism movement, about which I had known absolutely nothing specifically. I did, however, have the vague idea that surely someone before me must have also determined that things don’t have to have a purpose other than being beautiful. “Art for art’s sake” was their bottom line, and maybe my racoon skin fits that category.

The process of skinning the racoon hopefully taught my children a thing or two about anatomy, about the realities of pioneer life, about using what nature gives you to keep yourself warm. It was time well spent in their early education. But the skin itself, once it came back from the tanner, didn’t have a purpose for me other than being nice to look at and nice to touch. That was enough. Sometimes I would just stroke the fur. I enjoyed it for many years and will probably never throw it away.

I think we all have some things like that – things that we just plain like. They are not necessary things, not useful in a functionally useful way. But we get a good feeling inside when we are near them, and that makes them very useful indeed. They make our hearts happy and help to balance out the ugly, messy, uncomfortable parts of life.

Yesterday’s fake felt fruit is not necessary either, though it will be useful for Ellie in her picnic play.

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Making funky ladders for chickens is not necessary either.

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Nor is a peony bush in the bed with the lettuce and carrots.

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Or letting Coco lay on the sheets I’ve just pulled off a bed. I could just put them right away in a basket and take them away. But I don’t. I put them on the floor because this very predictable animal will come along and plop down and look at me like What? Something wrong?

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All of these things, and many more of course, make me smile. A long time ago someone told me there’s enough craziness and heartache in this world. You should do what you can to tip the scales to the other side, even in small ways, even if it’s only to make your own heart smile. You should make or do something beautiful, something fun, something that brings cheer as much as you can. Chances are good that you are not the only one who ends up smiling and feeling better.

The First Step is One of Many

It seems like there are all kinds of first steps taking place in my world. Some first steps are literal. My oldest granddaughter and my youngest son both had their orientation for school this week – Rise for kindergarten and Samuel for an intensive online course. Both of them took the first step into a new world that will stretch their minds, their skills and their futures.

Are these the ponytails of a kindergartener or what?

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Some first steps are a long time coming. Yesterday I put eight concrete cinder blocks in place in front of my house. This is when I was partway there, with four in place and four to go.

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See those large planter boxes off to the side? They need to move to make way for the “big dig” coming up soon – excavation work at the front foundation to fix an issue I’ve known about for seven years. By the time all eight blocks were in place, the sun had made shadows across the boxes so you can’t see them as well in the photo below. But they are still there. Soon they will be on the blocks. Here are all eight blocks in place, just waiting.

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Seven years! Ever since I moved into this house, I knew there was something funny about the outside wall as you go down the circular stairs toward the basement. It’s definitely bowed inward. No, I have not been watching too much of Stranger Things, the Netflix series Samuel has me hooked on. Okay, I take that back, I’ve been watching it every night all week. But I do not think a monster will be pushing through it any time soon! The earth though, surely, has been pushing against that outside wall for some time now, about 45 years actually. It’s time to fix it.

Some first steps are unexpected. I wonder if the silkies that laid these first eggs knew what was going to be happening when they sat down that day last week.

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First steps can be exciting. They take you back. Oh, this thing is really happening! Look at that! Even if you are a chicken, first steps mean that a thing that has previously been just a vague unknown is finally a reality.

First steps can be scary. The situations at school that Rise will face will mostly be fun and good, but some will take her into new territory socially, academically, emotionally. She’s ready for it, but we all know how other kids can be. She’ll have her moments. She’ll grow. She’ll get stronger. She’ll face the next day slightly less unsure. Then, hopefully, the next first step will be slightly less scary.

Most first steps are not as freestanding as we think. They might feel like a first step, but there are usually steps toward the first step. There are connecting steps, prior steps, prep work that came before. The first step toward actual walking is actual, confident standing up, the first step toward which was actual, confident sitting up. My grandson Nelson hardly needs a prop anymore and will very soon be off and running.

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My granddaughter Piper is two. She is not a kindergartener yet, but this week she played as if she was going to school with Rise.

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First steps often start with an idea or a hope. We build up to them. A few weeks ago on the way to Vermont I bought a book at the airport. It might have been the first time I ever bought a book at an airport. But I wanted something light and interesting, and found The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. It got my attention on several points. Isn’t there a guernsey cow? What could that have to do with a literary society? And what could potato peels have to do with a pie?

I finished the book yesterday when I had had enough of digging holes, fetching cinder blocks and hauling them into place, leveling, squaring, backfilling, etc. and needed to sit on the couch for a bit. (Funny how your body tells you That’s enough! You are done for today!) It turns out that the Guernsey is indeed a breed of dairy cattle from the island of Guernsey in the Channel Islands off the coast of Normandy (the other major island of which is Jersey, thus Jersey cows are a real thing too – who knew!?). On Guernsey, which was occupied by the Germans during the second world war, was (fictitiously) a literary society. The shortage of food led to making pie crusts with potato peels.

The author notes at the end explain that the book was many years in the making, many years vague, unformed, unsubstantive. The book was in fact a collaboration between a woman and her niece, health issues necessitating the help the younger woman gave toward the finished product. For all of us, every project, every meal, every trip, every class contains many steps, many of which are steps toward the next thing, which can sometimes feel like the first thing.

I remember in my house in Vermont there was a shabby bathroom next to the family room. It was functional when we moved in, but partly unfinished (visible studs even), nowhere close to as nice as I wished it was. For one reason or other, it took five years to get around to redoing that bathroom. I cringed at the bathroom, wished its remodeling came sooner, but it didn’t. And because it didn’t, I had five years to think about it and play with ideas, rejecting some, holding onto others. There’s no doubt in my mind that that bathroom was better in the end because I had five years to think about it.

Reading the notes at the end of the book about Guernsey felt like a step for me toward writing one of the books that have been in my head for many years. I was inspired by the author having made an impulsive decision to visit Guernsey, bought a book at an airport (!) and then (unbeknownst even to her) developed the spark of an idea for her own book over the course of the next few decades. Impulse can be good, books can be good, and letting ideas brew for a time is definitely good.

Hank Browne, who wrote the Ruins in Virginia book I referred to yesterday, was an architect for 50+ years, working often on projects that involved some sort of historic preservation. It was an idea of his for a long time to draw attention to the crumbling ruins he saw here and there. At some point he decided It’s time to make this real. He has already sold hundreds of copies and is working on a book about ruins in Maryland. Hank is 86. My hat is off to him in a very big way!

What’s brewing for you? What new project do you have in mind? What recipe do you want to try for the first time? What trip do you want to take to a place you’ve never seen before except in photos? You know you’ve already taken some of the steps toward making that thing a reality. You’ve thought about it. Maybe you’ve even rejected it. But then you think about it again.

Rise and Samuel and even Piper took important steps this week in their journey of lifelong learning. Nelson is one step closer to walking on his own. The silkies are laying eggs! I took a concrete (using literal concrete) step yesterday toward my big dig project.

Sparks. Brewing. Steps forward. Movement forward. Doing the next thing. Thinking about what that will lead to. Time goes by. More sparks. More brewing. More time. Real steps. “First” steps. Next steps.

I wonder what steps today will bring.