IN HER MEMOIR Deep Blue Home, Julia Whitty describes a near collision with a young sperm whale as she swims, helpless among human companions, in the depths off the Galapagos Islands. She wonders if she will die. Calm and curious about her fate, she watches as he approaches full speed ahead, “with all the energy and incaution of adolescence.” Instead of ramming her, “he jackknifes his huge head downward,” she writes, “and I can see the sheets of cellophane-thin gray skin peeling off his body — the constant striptease one of the means by which cetaceans reduce their drag in the water.” This image captivates me: an empty whale skin, perfectly formed, floating gently up as its former contents shoot down in the water, all strength and purpose. The ghost whale unfurling itself and pouring outward on the surface of the water. I have since learned that whale skin releases in prosaic strips.
There is a quickening in this scene, a flush of longing, envy, and terror not just from the Melvillian symbolism of the whale, or the arresting account of a near-death experience, but, too, from the proximity to a living creature so other and so enormous. Whitty’s description is unmistakably erotic: the young whale’s shedding is a “striptease,” the “sculpted angle of his cheek and jaw,” his “tensile strength,” and his “arching upright” tail towering above her before he slides down into the dark waters. She writes of touching him, and it’s thrilling.
It is the trace, however, that struck me most. The oxytocin to the dopamine rush of first encounter, the strip of skin is like a lover’s token: prophetic, ontic, memorial, foretelling life lived together and the ways in which it ends. For those of us who love it and observe it closely, we are locked on a fast collision course with our natural world, tempting its wrath, waiting for it to fall apart or duck us, reaching for an acknowledgement of our presence in it, and, above all, enamored of its tokens and talismans. We pick up a feather, pocket a sun-bleached crab shell, a bolt of whale skin brushes a foot underwater. Whatever the object, to handle and hold these fetishes in a life so digital is practically psychotropic.
The power of these material traces and the desire to preserve and touch them animates the lifeless menageries of Rachel Poliquin’s beautiful new study, The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing. The book tracks the history of whole animal and animal specimen preservation, particularly taxidermy, which refers to the stretching and mounting of the skins of vertebrates, from the seventeenth-century European explorers to the present, with a heavy focus on Victorian practitioners and collectors. From a technical perspective alone, this history is fascinating; it begins with piles of feathers preserved in spirits, smoke-dried in ovens, and inexpertly stuck together in approximations of natural forms, and ends with slowly freezedried “perpetual pets,” lifelike inhabitants of a particularly uncanny valley. A fascinating section describes the innovation of wet clay placed under skins of animals for precision molding and a feeling of fullness, vibrancy, and weight.
Poliquin gives shape to this history by exploring a range of “incentives” and characteristics embodied in taxidermy, which are grouped under the category of longing after Susan Stew...read more