September 21, 2024

Back to My Roots


Spending the weekend back home with the parents can be very boring. I grew up in the middle of Bumfuck, Northern Minnesota, so when the sun goes down the darkness closes in. My parents go to bed early, and I'm used to being a night owl on the weekends. Just me and the brush wolves, so there's not much to do but wander the darkened roads, watch the trashy films my sister ravenously collects (she has, like, all the Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen movies, but hey, I'm not complaining), or read. On Saturday night I discovered my old photo albums in an end table and came across some photos of me from my 4-H days. They've been on mind ever since my harrowing trip to the State Fair last month. I took two photos back with me to Minneapolis, as skeptic friends have questioned my earlier incarnation as a country bumpkin 4-H nerd. Yes, folks, I did collect mammal skulls. Proof after the jump...


Herewith the crowning achievement of my pre-teen life--Grand Champion at the Minnesota State Fair for my mammal skull collection, meticulously assembled to represent the entire Class of warm-blooded breast-feeders this fair state boasts. There was the beaver, graciously given to me by a beaver trapper friend of the family, the moose skull a friend of a friend had discovered in a field, the graceful mandibles of a red fox, the razor sharp teeth of the wily (and rare) pine marten and the piece de resistance, an eight point buck skull I discovered myself while snowshoeing in the woods behind our house, brought down by a pack of timber wolves. I considered it amoral to kill an animal to get its skull (still do), so I relied on the DNR and locals and my own treasure hunting. One memorable story involves my mother, who was very supportive of my skull collection. We had gotten word through the grapevine that a black bear had been struck and killed by a car on a nearby road. My mom, bless her, slid down into the ditch with a machete and hacked off the black bear's head. We then wrapped it in newspapers and plastic bags for the ride home. What a mom!

Collecting skulls requires a bit of a stomach, I do admit, but for a country kid like me, who grew up raising and butchering poultry (and determining the sex of peking ducks, which, well, that's the subject for another post), the practice came rather natural. I was always the kid who ran off into the woods to poke at dead things. Of course, finding the mammal skull is only the first stage. They don't turn all bleachy white on their own.

You can't just lay it out in the woods and let nature take its course, because scavenging animals will likely haul it away. For small skulls like beaver and pine marten and fisher, I wrapped them in window screen and anchored them down on to a red ant hill and let the insects do a wonderful job of picking the skull clean.

For larger animals, you have to boil them. This breaks down the flesh and is quite stinky. Imagine mom's face when she came home to find me cooking up a white tailed deer stew on the stove one day. Even for the littler skulls you'll want to boil them to soften up the brain matter so you can tweeze it out.

To get them clean, I soaked them in bleach for forty-eight hours or so. Beavers never brush, so I always gave their teeth a good scrubbing and flossing before putting them on display.

Look at that photo of me! Certain particulars deserve to be pointed out...the little mounted weasel skeleton in the corner was painstakingly assembled with a glue gun. Notice the purple ribbon on the card there in the center--grand champion! Notice as well my early 90s hockey hair (I was about twelve or thirteen in this photo) that would eventually coalesce into a jaunty little rat tail. My arms and face are tanned from weeks in the sun, cavorting like a heathen. And don't miss the salmon-pink shorts.

Posted by Jason at September 21, 2024 09:35 PM

I think I need witnesses for this story. I mean, come on, your mom hacking off a bear's head??? What is this? Alive?

And that kid doesn't even look like you.

Really, though, Grand Champion with your mammal skull collection. How will you top that?

Posted by: Aaron at September 20, 2024 10:33 PM

No really, this is amazing. Growing up in Texas, I never thought one of your kind then would turn into one of your kind now. Well done!

Your mother sounds dreamy.

Posted by: Brian at September 21, 2024 11:30 AM

On my old college campus there was a big scary biology building, and deep in its bowels there was something called a "beetle box." I guess they would put carcasses in there, lock the door, and let a bazillion flesh-craving beetles go at it for a few days so they could get a squaky-clean skeleton. As a researcher, my ex-boyfriend had a key to the building and the beetle box. After I dumped him he got a little crazy, so I told my friends, "If I just up and disappear some day..."

Posted by: couchmobile at September 21, 2024 10:40 PM
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