Thursday, February 5, 2009

two less items in the freezer

My housemate called me up to tell me there was a gorgeous red fox dead on the road just a mile away. I didn't go get it. I had a lot to do that day. (Excuses! Excuses! -- You never plan to have a four-hour gap in your schedule for dealing with a roadkill from the moment of gathering up rubber gloves, plastic bags, and sharpened knives to the final disposing of the body in a respectful way ... and in a way so that your dog can't dig it back up). No, the real reason was that I couldn't stand to put one more hide in the freezer while I continued to procrastinate on learning how to tan them.

Our freezer came with several hid
es in it when we bought it, used. We composted some of them (deer skins that had already been in there several years), but kept the beaver pelt. Since then I've added Silvy's skin - one of two pet rabbits we were given that later got killed by dogs straying onto our place from down the road. Silvy had such lustrous silver fir I couldn't let her go to waste, so she was the first animal I ever skinned. Next was a young gray fox picked up on a frosty morning after dropping Ronan off at school. Last was the massive great lump of Pearl's hide. Pearl was one of our goats and the only one with a black coat. That hide had fallen on the ground before getting bundled into the freezer, and I'm really not looking forward to thawing it out and working it. I think you can see: enough was enough. I used the guilt about not getting the red fox to motivate me call my friend Valerie and set up a time to tan hides with her.

Too bad I didn't bring the camera. It was a brilliant sunny day - one of the way too many gorgeous and dry days we've had this rain season - and I love Bruce and Valerie's place. Plus, there would have been photos of the beginning of the proce

I worked the fox pelt on the Valerie's fleshing log and Ronan worked the rabbit pelt on a big round rock. Ronan learned one thing in particular that day: never volunteer to work a hide that was a person's first experience with skinning. The poor kid had a lot of cleaning to do, whereas as my lean, nearly fat-free fox was a breeze in comparison. Ronan stuck to the job all morning, though, and would have kept at it well into the afternoon, but Valerie told her to call it good enough when I had the tanning solution mixed up.

Which was also where things may have gone awry. The recipe we used called for alum, salt, oatmeal, and sour milk, made into a paste and spread only on the inside of the pelt. I had defrosted some goatsmilk from the freezer and let it go sour, but it went so sour that it separated completely into cheese and whey. With no other alternative, we proceeded anyway.

The next day I was worrying about whether the process was really working and also about whether I was ruining the fur side because liquid from the paste was draining off the hides and getting into the fur. So I called my friend Rohn (a Black Choctaw) for advice and, kind of as expected, in all his years of experience with processing furs and skins he'd never heard of the recipe I used. I asked if I could just stop the process (by washing with borax and water) and continue some other day because after the next day it would be many days before Ronan and I would have time to work the hides to soften them. He thought I could redo the tanning if I wanted. He also told me not to put the pelts in the washing machine to clean them.

Valerie had already put them in her washing machine and they'd survived, so I took a chance and did them on delicate. (Sorry, Rohn!) Ronan and I spent Sunday trying to work them in between a series of potlucks and visits. Dragging the granite boulder around with us to soften the hides on was nearly as big a challenge as having to have more than one portable dish prepared. The result so far?

The fur is still on both hides, and they look good. The skin is stiff, partly because we haven't worked them enough and partly because even the book says that alum tanning makes for stiffer hides. They still smell ... uh ... fleshy. But not rotten. Rohn said the smell could only be fixed by smoking the hides, and I haven't done that yet.

Ronan wants to make a hat out of Silvy. So we've got a ways to go, possibly re-tanning and definitely smoking, as the odor of the skins is super-clingy and stays on your hands even after washing twice in dishsoap (but it is eco-friendly dishsoap). I hope to maybe make a pouch out of the fox pelt but the tail may prove impractical for anything but the most ceremonial of pouches. I'm flexible, though (even if my fox pelt currently isn't); I can just add the fox to our home decorating scheme just as it is.

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