Sunday, July 30, 2017

Childhood is the time when we learn death

So thanks to this great article by Philip Yancey I asked my husband to alter the blocking program on my computer and cut my internet completely off in the evenings (because even using it till 9:10 was causing me to waste the rest of the evening) so I can read instead. What I picked up to read was this book, by a German psychologist named Alice Miller, which argues (among other things) that Hitler's actions stemmed from his horribly abusive childhood. Lots of thoughts. That's what's supposed to happen when you read, right? As advertised.

I remember reading an off-hand comment about this sort of thesis (the Hitler thing I mean), in an article in Books and Culture about 60's radicals in America. The author tossed off the fact that (I paraphrase) “There were people who truly believed that the cruelty of Nazi concentration camp guards stemmed from how they were potty-trained.”

That comment always gave me pause. It was given as if it was abundantly clear that such a belief was laughable—no counterargument needed. And I'm not saying the belief was true, or true in its entirety, but please, someone tell me—how were they potty-trained? Were these 60's snowflakes proclaiming that a mother's insistence on bowel control is inherently traumatizing—or were these children perhaps beaten or systematically deprived of food? If the methods used on them could be accurately called cruelty—is the notion still laughable then? Just because it contains the word “potty?”

Alice Miller argues that we are blind to the suffering of children, that we don't take it seriously, that we can't because we don't want to seriously recall, and thus relive, our own childhood suffering. Now when she says “we” she means Germans of her generation; I think the blindness has lessened since then. But I run across signs of it all the time—that comment not the least.

Childhood is an extraordinary time. Do you remember? The world so fresh and huge, painted in colors more brillliant than we can even imagine in our sane lives now. Joy massive as a mountain, and also terrible, suffocating despair. We were learning what the world was, this place full of glory and death—no wonder we were a little bipolar. We were learning what the world was, and one of the things we understood very early was that we had no power in it. The joy and despair all depended on someone else's decisions. I thank God that that someone else, in my case, was two good people.

“Children are resilient,” people say. They are. They know they have to be. Their aim is to survive. It doesn't mean that they don't feel it.

One morning when he was two, the Boy went out with his father and found a chipmunk our cat had killed—a chipmunk we had enjoyed watching run around the porch all spring. “Da was sad about the chipmunk,” he informed us every now and then for the next month. He didn't cry. The repetition was how we knew it mattered. He repeated that more than almost anything else—as well he might. He had learned death.

What was that like for him, inside the mystery, deep inside the shifting, colored bubble of childhood? Till then, for all he knew, he might have been born into a world where everything lives forever. No war, no parting, every tear wiped from our eyes. Sorry, kid. You're on Earth. What does the stoic, expressionless little face mean? The same thing it means on an adult in those circumstances. It means the emotion is deeper than tears.

A few months after that, my father-in-law passed away. We explained it to the Boy. He took it stoically again, didn't cry. He asked us questions about it. Again and again and again. “Papa died,” he used to tell us, out of the blue.

Within the next year, three more people that he knew died—three community members here, whom he interacted with often. All of them were expected—more or less. “Why did Jim die?” he used to ask. “Because he was very old,” we told him. He began to inform us that when he got old he would die.

I remember, too, the day he found out about slaughtering. We live on a farm. He was two years old, and I'd been taking him down often to what we call the Valley, to see the newborn piglets, see them nursing and getting bigger; he loved them, and called them the “piggies.” One day late in the season I saw the blue cattle trailer backed up to the pig barn, its doors open, likely to get the pigs used to it for a day or two before they were loaded in. The Boy asked me why it was there. I swallowed and said, “Well, they're going to put some of the pigs in there and attach it to the farm truck and take them away, to a place where people will kill them and turn them into meat.”

He looked at the trailer, expressionless, for a long moment. Then he said, “Will they kill the little piggies?”

“No,” I said. “They let them grow up. They only kill the big ones.”

He said, “Oh.”

What, inside the mystery of childhood, happened inside him that moment—the moment he first learned that not only do we die, but our lives depend on death? I doubt it was nothing. I really, really doubt it.

I have a notion of what might have happened, actually. When I first moved to the country, I learned to butcher deer. My first couple of times were not fun. Guts, bones, the smell of blood, the dead eyes looking at you, the tongue hanging out. But then you learn. You learn to shut something off inside of you. You learn not to look at the deer as a living creature that has died; you “turn it into meat.” It's easy then. I can skin a deer now without turning a hair.

It's easier when it's a deer that's been hit by a car, when it's not your own hand that brought about the change. But I'm positive this shutting-off is part of hunting too. Of any killing.

When I'm feeling sensitive, alive to the highly-colored world as a child is, I remember that moment looking at the trailer as a moment of violence. I told my son that we killed pigs—that Matthew, the farmer he idolizes, sent them off to be killed. I told him to shut off his empathy for them if he ever wanted to pretend to be Matthew driving the tractor again. And he did it. All he asked of me was to let him, if possible, retain his love for the little piggies. I said yes. If it hadn't been the truth—about this farm, at least—I wouldn't have said it.

You could say it wasn't necessary, this moment of violence. You could say that we could become vegetarians. But I've farmed. There is absolutely violence done in crop farming. To plants, to the land, to animals. (What do you do when they start eating your crops?) To limit that violence is the thing; to do it gently, to give back. If you do it by not eating meat, and can stay healthy that way, that is good. But our lives depend upon death. I couldn't lie to my son about that.

This shutting off, we learn it as we grow. We have to. Wide-open to the world, wide-eyed as a child, we cannot possibly do the work we must do to survive. (I've read that babies see everything in their field of vision with equal intensity. That's part of why they sleep so much—exhausted. When the Boy had only just learned to talk, I took him on my back into the woods and he instantly said “Water!” Down at the far, far edge of the woods was the tiniest glint of a stream.) And we have to shut out our children's wide-eyed, dramatic world as well, have to say Please, just cool it a minute, I am trying not to burn supper here, or Listen, I get it, but other people have feelings too, and it is her turn now. But there's more that we do, sometimes. This shutting-off, sometimes it's hard—but sometimes, when it's become a habit, it is easier.

Alice Miller is right: sometimes we shut out the child's world completely. We do not take children seriously. We know—accurately—how badly they misunderstand the world sometimes, and we feel this gives us a right not to respect them or their feelings at all. We see that expressionless little face and because it suits us, we choose to interpret it as indifference. Could she be right that we do it because we think this, too, is necessary for survival? Because we are afraid to remember our own childhoods as they really were—for all of us—the flip side of all that wide-eyed wonder in the sunlit world?

Remember the time when your peers weren't yet afraid to insult and degrade you to your face? Remember when your flaws could be discoursed upon at length in public, with both flight and protest forbidden? Remember when a blow to your body that you were not allowed to defend against or return was a thing that could happen in your life? When is the last time those things happened to you? When is the last time someone threw a rock at you, or called you insulting names in front of a watching crowd? Most likely—during the time when your soul was most sensitive and unprotected, your eyes still wide open to the world.

(Or maybe it wasn't. Maybe you are a black person living in America. I don't know what to say, except: I'm sorry.)

It is not possible to live inside our children's worlds with them. But when they bring news of those worlds, let us listen. Their world is huge and weighty, and no less real for their ignorance. Childhood is the time when we learn pain. Childhood is the time when we learn glory. Childhood is the time when we learn death. It doesn't get more real than that. Let us listen to the children we were and to the children we love, and give them our respect.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Canticle of the Turning

For today, I'd like to share one of my favorite hymns. You may not have heard it before. It's actually Catholic (though I didn't know that till I looked it up online just now), but it's in the hymnal at the Mennonite church we attend, and the worship leader leads it very well. (If you're reading this though, Phil, I could barely keep up with that fast version, and I'm pretty fast...)

Dan Zanes (with a mandolin)
Speaking of our worship leader, though, let me digress for a little. It'll be worth it. Our worship leader, Phil Kaufman, is my kid's new hero. It all started one day after church when Phil was jamming with the worship team as he usually does, and I heard the tones of an especially mellow pennywhistle from the group. I play the pennywhistle (well, I know about three Irish folksongs on it), so I pointed it out to the Boy and brought him up to look at it. One of the Boy's favorite videos for several months now has been this series of concert videos by children's performer Dan Zanes, and by quizzing his dad he had already learned the names of every single instrument and was starting in on how many strings each had. He was fascinated by all the instruments--and Phil, a passionate musician, has quite a few. They bonded quickly; the Boy announced: "That's a mandolin! It has eight strings!" and the next week Phil gave him a harmonica. (He sounds real good on it; it's incapable of producing a dissonance!) For weeks, maybe months now the Boy's been picking up every stray saucepan, spoon or shovel and announcing whether it's a guitar, banjo, mandolin or ukulele (not to mention the two Lego guitars his dad made him,) and there's nowhere else he wants to be after church but up front with the music team. I've been scratching my head over it, because Paul and I are not musical beyond the most basic level (though my Mom tried!)--but Mom's certainly got the touch, and my aunt is an incredible musician, so maybe the Boy's got something from the family that I missed.

Something the Boy hasn't seen yet of Phil's--and probably won't be able to appreciate till he's at least a teenager--is his one-man show of the Cotton Patch Gospel musical. There's no video of it that I know of, so you may not be able to take it in either unless you live in the American Midwest, but here's the Facebook page for it in case it comes near you someday--it's extremely worth it. The musical by Harry Chapin was based on the "Cotton Patch" version of the gospels of Matthew and John by Clarence Jordan. Jordan founded the deeply Christian and deeply anti-racist community Koinonia Farm--in Georgia back in 1942, a community of black and white Christians living and farming together, their produce stand soon boycotted by their neighbors. (This is also the community that Habitat for Humanity later came out of.) Jordan, a scholar of New Testament Greek, wrote an adaptation of the Gospels straight from the original into the local, Southern English people spoke around him, and into the context he was living in--setting Jesus' birth in Gainesville, Georgia, and His crucifixion in Atlanta. It's not meant to be read as literal "gospel truth," I guess you could say, but as an eye-opening story that puts the "stumbling block" of Jesus into a political and social context we're more familiar with, offering a fresh sense of just how revolutionary He was and is. The musical is all that--and will also make you laugh and cry.

Well I can't say all that and not let you see anything of it, so here's the trailer I found on Youtube for a different one-man performance of Cotton Patch. This is a song by the governor of Georgia--a.k.a. Herod--about how you can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs.

And check it out! I found a video of Phil Kaufman after all! Just a short song from when he was starting out the project. The one-man show version of the musical is normally a "one-man plus four-person bluegrass band" show, but Phil found a way to make it truly one-man, replacing the bluegrass band with four projections of himself:

The full script of the musical is available here.

And at the end of that long, bluegrassy detour, let's come back to that favorite hymn. The Canticle of the Turning. It's set to the tune of my favorite Irish folksong, Star of the County Down (I was born in the County Down, and besides, the girl in the song has brown hair and bare feet, so how could I resist?) and it's quite an anthem. It's almost scarily revolutionary (if you like "Do You Hear The People Sing?" you'll love this), and it is Mary's song when she was pregnant with Jesus, also known as the Magnificat. There's nothing in it that isn't in that Scripture passage or another (for instance "the day You bring" refers to the "day of the Lord" the minor prophets talk so much about.) Just put into new words, fresh, like the Cotton Patch Gospel. I have sung it in church three times now, and every single time it has given me goosebumps.

Canticle of the Turning

My soul cries out with a joyful shout
that the God of my heart is great,
And my spirit sings of the wondrous things
that You bring to the one who waits.
You fixed Your sight on the servant's plight,
and my weakness you did not spurn,
So from east to west shall my name be blest.
Could the world be about to turn?

My heart shall sing of the day You bring.
Let the fires of Your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears,
For the dawn draws near,
And the world is about to turn.
Though I am small, my God, my all,
You work great things in me.
And Your mercy will last from the depths of the past
to the end of the age to be.
Your very name puts the proud to shame,
and those who would for you yearn,
You will show your might, put the strong to flight,
for the world is about to turn. (Refrain)

From the halls of power to the fortress tower,
not a stone will be left on stone.
Let the king beware for Your justice tears
every tyrant from his throne.
The hungry poor shall weep no more,
for the food they can never earn;
These are tables spread, ev'ry mouth be fed,
for the world is about to turn. (Refrain)

Though the nations rage from age to age,
we remember who holds us fast:
God's mercy must deliver us
from the conqueror's crushing grasp.
This saving word that our forebears heard
is the promise that holds us bound,
'Til the spear and rod be crushed by God,
who is turning the world around. (Refrain)

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Blood and soil: white supremacists and the love of good things

The other night I fell into a rabbithole on Twitter and found some white supremacists. It made me think.

It's not the first time I've read white supremacist material on the internet. I research Nazis. There's, to say the least, a certain amount of overlap. A websearch on "Nazis" plus some other keyword will sometimes turn up, for instance, someone praising Nazis on their highly disturbing blog and detailing why they were right. And I'll admit to some fascination. Like a trainwreck, it's hard to look away.

There are certain recurrent themes in this kind of material--both modern and historical--that I wouldn't have expected to see back when everything I knew about Nazis came from school. One tends to picture Nazi Germany as a sort of industrial wasteland in the making, rather like an early stage of Mordor. So I was a bit surprised by the strong back-to-the-land emphasis, both from Nazis and white supremacists today.

So what I discovered on Twitter the other day was the hashtag "tradlife." Short for traditional life, it identifies a marriage of back to the land, family values, strongly hierarchical gender roles, healthy eating, celebrating cultural traditions... and white supremacy. One prominently placed message showed lovely pictures of young white girls dressed up in traditional costumes from Sweden, Scotland, etc, asked weren't they lovely, and then took a hard right turn into "Whaa??" territory: white people do have culture, the writer insisted, and don't "need Islam to 'enrich' them." When I was finally done puzzling over who had told this lady white people needed Islam to enrich them (I still wonder if she misinterpreted multiculturalism by accident or on purpose), I looked at the pictures again and saw something I had seen many times before.

A lot of white supremacists don't look nearly as scary as you think they're supposed to. A lot of them focus on, and post pictures of, very attractive things. There is a slogan often made into image macros, sometimes entitled "14 words" (watch out if you see that phrase online, it's a code): "We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children." It's often superimposed on very lovely and romantic images of white women and children. The phrase itself, especially with those images behind it, seems to focus on the protection of good things--children--and subtly implies its real message: the white race is threatened and we must fight back. (What they see as the great threat to the white race, by the way, is intermarriage with other ethnicities, which they believe is so frequent--and backed by conspiracy--as to pose a definite threat that sooner or later there will no longer be any white people. They will and do actually refer to this as genocide.) And in the process they often use images of--and declare themselves to be protecting--things that are personally very precious to me.

The Nazis used the phrase "Blut und Boden," meaning "Blood and Soil." It was about a people's sacred ties to their land. It was about farmers staying on their land for generation after generation and holding it in trust, cherishing it. Like Wendell Berry wants us to and so do I. It was also about the German people's spiritual, mystical ties to the German land, which were violated by anyone of the wrong ethnicity owning that land or living on it. And in the end it was about cleansing those "wrong" people from that land as if they were vermin.

They frame themselves as protecting the good and the beautiful. In its service they destroy.

Those images of children in traditional costumes are beautiful. There is nothing wrong with white people celebrating their ethnic heritages--on the contrary. I haven't read the book myself, but an African-American friend once told me about a book called How the Irish Became White. Irish immigrants to the U.S. were not considered "white people" in the early days, not really--they were considered dirty immigrants, "No Irish Need Apply." The author of the book argues that it was by defining themselves as "white" in opposition to black people that Irish immigrants (in general) gained the status they desired in their new country. Could learning and appreciating our specific ethnic roots--Irish, Swiss, Hungarian--loving them simply as ours, without notions of superiority--be a sort of way of reversing that process? Might loving the good and the beautiful that our ancestors handed down could help us to respect others' roots as well, or understand how awful it was when others' roots were taken from them when their ancestors were kidnapped and enslaved or taken from their families or forced off their land? I feel like it might, if we do it in a humble spirit.

Or--if it's done in a spirit of aggressive, wounded pride--it could be very, very different.

I'm not certain what my point is today. I know that I'm troubled that I share a deep love of certain good things--the land, rooted traditions, family, food that you grew with your own hands--with white supremacists. I know that that doesn't make those things bad. It's a deep, complex, thorny issue, ethnicity and the love of a people for their land--as becomes richly clear when land is in dispute--but I know at least this: that love is not wrong, though terrible things can be, and are, done in its service.

Let's be careful, when people tell us the good and the beautiful is under threat. What if I didn't understand about Nazis? Would those lovely images put hooks into my heart? Would I wonder if the white race really was under threat? People often tell us things we love are under threat, when they want some reaction out of us. Let's be careful. Maybe that's an obvious lesson, but it's what I've got for today.

Also if you see the phrase "14 words" online, watch out.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

A Flame in the Night - a preview

I recently signed the contract for A Flame in the Night, and the final manuscript is almost complete. I thought I'd share a little preview today. This is one scene that can be viewed completely out-of-context--in fact I'm considering making it a prologue. It's the scene where we meet the major new character in this story, young Elisa Schulmann.


Elisa Schulmann took the last pin out of her mouth, slipped it carefully into the silk of the skirt she was altering, and picked up her needle. She glanced up; Madame Serge was watching her, standing in the open doorway that led to the front of the shop. She kept her hands steady under her employer's frown, taking a tiny, careful stitch.

“Wash your hands.”

Elisa laid down her work. “I washed them when I came in, Madame.”

“Wash them again. You're sweating. Do you know how much silk costs these days? If we have to replace that I'll dock every centime from your pay. Anyway, put that aside for now, I've just gotten a rush order from Madame Boutet. I'll need you to stay till it's finished.”

Elisa sat up very straight, glancing at the doorway of the windowless workroom and the narrowing stripe of afternoon light. She ducked her head carefully, keeping her hands still on the linty black fabric of her skirt. “I'm truly sorry, Madame, but you know that on Fridays—”

“You will make an exception tonight.”

Elisa lifted her head and looked Madame Serge in the eye. “I'm truly sorry, Madame,” she enunciated.

The woman's cold frown sharpened. “You people shouldn't work in Christian shops. I ought never to have hired you. Always trying to rub your difference in people's faces—too good to drink a cup of coffee with us—I wouldn't be so proud if my religion was based on doing cruel things to baby boys—”

Elisa was on her feet before she knew it, blood pounding in her ears. She froze. “Excuse me, Madame,” she said through lips stiff as clay. “I have a personal need.” She turned and walked carefully to the shop's tiny bathroom, then locked herself in and sat down on the toilet lid, shaking.

“God, help me,” she said in a harsh whisper. “Help me, please.” She closed her eyes, thought of the lines in Papa's face last week when he'd told her the rent had gone up again. Their rent, not the neighbors'. All Jews have gold under their mattresses, didn't you know? She thought of the day Papa had asked her to do this. The day Karl Schulmann, who had once been able to provide what was finest for his family, had admitted he needed his daughter's help. A tiny, burning coal had lit somewhere behind her breastbone at that moment. It was burning still. I will not fail them.

She took a deep, silent breath. Help me. She loosened her bun and re-pinned it, carefully, then rose and opened the door. Madame Serge was measuring a hem. Elisa stood silently till the woman finished, then spoke quietly, eyes down.

“I apologize, Madame. I will try to wash my hands more often. I apologize for my attitude and I will do as much as I can for you tonight.”

“Till it's finished?”

“Till seven, Madame.”

Madame Serge blew sharply through her nostrils, turned away and began to roll up her measuring tape.

By seven Elisa had the new sleeves of Madame Boutet's dress pieced, pinned, and the first seam stitched, and she was exhausted. She showed Madame Serge her work, ignoring the breathy sounds of her displeasure; they were good signs, signs that breath would be the only consequence tonight. She ducked her head respectfully as she said Bonsoir. She walked out of the shop and heard the door close behind her, and filled her lungs with the open air.

The narrow streets of Lyon were deep in shadow beneath the three-story houses, clouds already brightening to pale sunset gold in the sky above; Elisa went quickly, threading her way to the dingier quarters. She turned into her familiar alley and went down it hugging the gray wall, away from the stench of the sewer drain where something seemed to have died. She let herself in the back door and climbed the stairwell, shutting her ears against the sound of angry voices through thin walls. Her eyes found her own door, her fingers rising instinctively, eyes on the two ragged nail holes where the mezuzah used to be. They always tightened her stomach a little, those holes. She passed them by and let herself in the door, into peace.

It smelled like chicken. It smelled like Shabbos. The deep, sweet peace of Saturdays in the house back in Heidelberg came back to her with the scent, and her eyes stung. Her right hand lifted to the small bright mezuzah nailed in its new place on the inner doorframe, and for a moment she thought of nothing but the holy words inside. Then she heard her sister's voice: “Just stop it!”

She set her jaw and walked down the little hallway to their bedroom. Her brother Karl sat on the bed, arms crossed and face defiant, as their sister Tova, fingers tangled in her half-made braid, wailed “I'm going to have to redo it all!

“Karl,” said Elisa.

“I didn't,” said Karl hotly, “I didn't touch her, I just asked if I could share the washbasin a minute—”

“You hit my elbow!”

“I didn't mean to!”

“But you did,” said Elisa. “Apologize. Tova, I'll fix it.”

“Sorry,” muttered Karl to Tova's shoes.

“Thank you,” whispered Tova, tears appearing in her eyes. She smiled at Karl through them. She was the only one of them who used her Hebrew name for everyday; it had stuck, Mama said, because it meant “good.” And wasn't that just like a parent, thinking pliable was good? Elisa worried for her. “Shh now,” she soothed as she braided her sister's thick, wet hair. “It's all right.”

She gave Karl his turn at the basin and then shooed them out so she could change. She heard clinking from the kitchen as she peeled out of the sweat-stained black working dress, and doubled her pace. As she combed her hair something rustled behind her. A slip of paper appeared under the door—then flicked back out of sight. She turned her back. Do you know what I do for this family? I'd like a minute's peace sometime. Rustle. Flick. She glanced back. There it was, then—flick—a grin seemed to hang in the air. The corners of her mouth softened helplessly. Whispers from behind the door; a giggle. She twisted her hair into a bun, shoving bobby pins in ruthlessly, and dove for the paper as it slid forward again. “Ha!” She threw open the door and displayed her trophy. “I win.”

“Come to the table,” Mama called from the dining-room.

As she followed her grinning siblings down the hallway she glanced aside at the open door of her parents' cluttered bedroom. Her smile fell away as she took in what lay on the bed.

Mama's jewelry box. Open.

Her heart tightened, then began to pound. The open lid, that ought to be locked and hidden in its place under the floorboards, spoke to her as if aloud. It's not all right. Tova and Karl were almost too young to remember the days back in Heidelberg when the automobile had gone, and the carved walnut furniture, and the piano. Her first piano. She'd cried and cried. The next day Papa had taken her to a rally. She'd heard words she still could not burn out of her mind. “We must leave this country,” Papa had told her quietly, as she walked home with him white-faced. “I am so sorry, Lies. I would not have sold your piano for any lesser reason than this. You see, they will not let us leave with our money. That is the price.”

“It's not fair,” she had whispered.

“It's not fair,” he'd said gravely, as if they were reciting a lesson together. Then, “We will pay them and go.”

She leaned on the doorframe, staring at the box. Who are we paying now? Where do we go? The handful of bright things in there was all their savings. Not enough. She had heard Papa say so. She had heard him say over and over that the rumors from Paris must be exaggerated; that even if the Nazis had done such a thing in the Occupied Zone it was another matter here. This was still France.

He had said it to her and Karl and Tova, his voice measured and calm. He had seemed so sure.

The gold in the box spoke its silent question. “I don't know,” she whispered, and turned away. She walked down the hall to the dining-room, to where against the scarred wall the pure-white cloth was laid on the table, the blue-and-white plates and the clean napkins by each one. To where Mama stood behind the four tall candles, and Papa by her side smiling. To Shabbos dinner, and peace for tonight.


image credits:

young woman sewing: Vincent Van Gogh, wikimedia commons

alley: vanOrt,

candles: Miheala Gimlin

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Buckskins and brains

And now for something completely different!

I'd like to share my strangest hobby with you. Interestingly, although it used to be a traditional feminine occupation (at least among some peoples), every single practitioner I've met online, in the course of learning it, has been male. I'm referring (of course?) to tanning buckskin.

It all started with the deer in the woods here at Plow Creek. They get hit on the road sometimes. And sometimes (in season) they get hunted. I learned from an experienced guy here how to field-dress and butcher deer that have fallen victim to cars (I have very high standards though--it needs to be still bleeding) and we've gotten some high-quality organic free-range venison out of it. (Mm, deerburgers.) One step in the process was burying the parts we weren't going to use. I always felt a little twinge at burying that big, soft, beautiful pelt in the earth.

So one fall and winter, when I needed what Jane Austen would call "useful occupation" due to some plans not working out, I started a web search about how to tan that beautiful fur.

The first thing I found out: it isn't fur. No matter how nice and soft it feels, it's hair, like a cow's or a goat's, which means it's hollow and will fall out after a few years; there's a reason they don't sell deer coats. Apparently wanting to tan a hair-on deerhide is a mistake all newbies make, in the interesting world of tanning forums, so I duly listened to my teachers. They said: you have the skin of a buck. Why not make buckskin?

So I did.

Buckskin is a fascinating material. It's not leather. It is technically its own, entirely different substance. It's softer than suede, strong as canvas, light as, well, probably denim, and stretchy. It's unbelievably comfortable to wear--as leather definitely isn't. The only thing wrong with it, as a garment, is that it absorbs water like a sponge. But other than that, it's light, strong and beautiful.

And it's made with brains.

What I don't do. Those lacings would be the end of me.
There's a certain oil in brain tissue that's crucial to the tanning process. (It can be found in other things--you can approximate it with egg yolks, for instance.) It's wackily enjoyable to imagine just who discovered this and how (and it must have been dozens of people, because native peoples all over North America and on almost every other continent have done it), but no doubt about it, brains do something special to hides, and it's said every animal except the buffalo has enough brains to tan its own hide.

I searched and searched the web for different methods, mostly for the sake of avoiding that incredibly arduous-looking process where you lace a skin into a homemade frame to scrape or stretch it--and I found what I wanted, and happily learned something called the wet-scrape method. Here are the steps.

1. Soaking (aka bucking)

You put the hide into a barrel with just the right mix of water and wood ashes, or water and lye. (If you're using lye, WEAR GLOVES. Don't ask me how I know.) After a few days, depending on the weather, the skin will swell slightly (in a non-stinky way) and the hair will start to come out. I can also attest that if you accidentally leave it for three years, the hide will literally dissolve. But then Coca-Cola will do that too, or so I hear.

 2. Scraping

What I do instead. That's not me though.
You lay the hide over a log or a PVC pipe, placed on a sawhorse or stump or something so that one end is up near your stomach. With a blunt metal edge of some kind (I used the handle of a long metal spoon), you scrape off, first all of the bits of flesh and fat from the side of the hide that used to contain, y'know, the deer; then you flip it over and scrape off the top layer of epidermis (and hair, but that's just a bonus) from the outside. (You can scrape the flesh earlier, especially worthwhile if it's freshly skinned, but the bucking mixture prevents rot, so you can afford to wait till this step.)

3. Braining

You blender up the brains with some warm water and soak the hide in them. Should I claim it's not as gross as it sounds? It's... well, it doesn't bother me, anyway. And what it does to the hide is fascinating.

What I'm told is: the oil coats the matted fibers that make up the core layer of skin, so that instead of holding tightly to each other, they begin to slip. You have a piece of hide (it's gray-white at this point and fairly thin) that used to be as unstretchy as canvas, and now you can grab its sides in two hands and double its width just by pulling. It doesn't spring back, it just stays that way. Then you can grab it in the other direction and double its height. (It doesn't just keep getting bigger; when it gains height, it loses width, etc.) It's kind of a magical feeling, like being a kid discovering a new material for the first time--mud, or play-dough, or water even...

Till you do it all day!

4. Stretching

You wring the hide out very thoroughly (there's a special technique) and then you start stretching it. You stretch it over and over, in every direction, till it's dry. You can do it solely by hand or stretch it around something--a cable, a post, even a small tree. This can take three hours, or it can take all day, depending on how thick the hide is and how dry the air is. It's kind of grueling. More than "kind of," if you've got a big, thick hide of an older buck. (I still have a hide in the freezer that I know I don't have the muscle strength to stretch, actually. It was, I forget, an 8-point buck? Maybe more. Even scraping it was hard.) I can only imagine how strong Native women used to be as a matter of course, doing this on the regular to clothe their families.

This part is where you hope you scraped all the epidermis off. Any pieces you missed will become little hard patches on your hide, like bits of it have been laminated.

If you've scraped and stretched it properly, on the other hand, when it's all dry it will be soft like cloth, mildly stretchy like a heavy T-shirt, and pale.

Then you smoke it.

5. Smoking

This "fixes" the tanning chemically in some way. If you don't do it, a good washing will undo your tanning and return your hide to rawhide.

Smoking's a bit complicated, and looks ridiculously picturesque--definitely the photo-shoot stage of buckskin tanning. You set up a little tipi or frame of short poles, and hang your hide from it, all sewn up (or, modernly, glued with tacky glue) into a sort of balloon shape that only opens at what used to be the neck. Under the neck you place a coffee can full of hot coals, and onto those coals you crumble dry punky wood, like you find in the woods in fallen logs full of dry-rot. It makes this lovely fragrant smoke, which goes up into the hide and out through its pores, "fixing" it and giving it its final color. The color is subtly different depending what kind of wood you use--from red-brown to dark brown to golden-brown.

(Although to be honest, I don't know what kind of wood I've used, as I'm not great at identifying rotting trees. At a guess it was probably oak, maybe maple, and as a great connaisseur of subtle color shadings I would call the color I got out of it... brown.)

I've never made buckskin clothing yet, having tanned all of three successful hides in my life so far, but maybe someday! I've made only small things, mostly gifts. My two favorite projects so far have been a pair of custom-fitted gloves for my mother and a pair of moccasins that were my kid's first real shoes. I've also made a couple of nice small purses.

If you want to learn more, a good intro page that includes both how-to and some interesting history is And here is the best series of forum posts I have ever seen on how to do wet-scrape brain tanning, with thorough science included.