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Taxidermy and Needles

Wednesday, 19 Feb 2003
written by Teresa

Dead Donkey If you ever find yourself on the brink of taking up amateur taxidermy I would urge you to reconsider your plan. Look closely at this fine piece of work, the result of loving attention to a favourite pet, and you may want to ruminate on the possible results had it been an arbitrary animal found dead on the roadside. Then picture your house scattered with the contorted, stuffed remains of various mammals and think carefully about whether you could really face them every morning. If you have any continuing doubts, it may be an idea to visit the World Famous Hole N” The Rock. It will help clarify things for you.

Now I can hear you complaining about my atrocious use of punctuation, but I assure you that I am merely mirroring what I have seen. Punctuation While most of us probably dozed off during the occasional English language class, not many of us have the opportunity to demonstrate our resultant lack of knowledge in such a large and public manner.

The Hole in question was blasted from the rock by Albert Christensen, creating a fourteen-room home for himself and his wife, Gladys. The windows let in a gentle natural light that permeates the space while the year round temperature remains at about seventy degrees. As cliff dwellings go, it is quite sophisticated, with electricity, running water and bathroom but the interior décor is enough to make your eyes water and toes curl. The venture is operated commercially as a memorial to Albert and Gladys and presumably it is this perspective that dictates the sombre and respectful tone in which tours are conducted. Doll Collection The completely serious and hallowed presentation of the dead animals, atrocious amateur paintings and twee doll collection reminded me of the reverential voices of tour guides in the National Gallery explaining a particular Rubens, Degas or Constable. While the operators may not have noticed the intrinsic difference between the qualities of the artwork they are displaying and that found in many of the worlds galleries, I cannot believe that their hapless visitors have not. Nevertheless, the group took its lead from the guide, looked perfectly straight faced and made suitable noises throughout. It was about this time that I started wondering about my grip on reality and struggling to contain the laughter that was in danger of getting out of control.

It puts me in mind of a visit to a provincial museum in small town northern France some years ago. The place was deadly quiet and full of displays of stuffed animals. The primary culprits of the piece were my brother Vinny and his partner Aileen who for some reason developed uncontrollable giggles, quickly deteriorating into hysterical laughter that echoed loudly around the mausoleum of a building. It makes me wonder whether it's a genetic reaction to the art of the taxidermist. Maybe Aileen has been affected by association.

And then there's the walrus in the Horniman museum. To say it was stretched beyond belief is an understatement. You may recall the revolting scene from The Meaning of Life where the wafer thin mint is the undoing of the tuxedoed diner. The walrus in question must have been a close relative. The museum explains its appearance by the fact that the unfortunate animal was shipped to London by explorers at the turn of the nineteenth century. The taxidermist had no idea of its natural appearance and so stuffed it until it was completely full. It is a little on the rotund size and there is not a wrinkle in it's perfectly smooth skin. Anyway.

Sand Flats Mist Living in a shoebox is fine when the weather is good and we're out and about a lot. When it rains non stop for over twenty-four hours, it can begin to seem a little on the small size, especially when we're parked out of sight of civilisation, with it's distractions of restaurants, cinemas etc. The Sand Flats Recreation Area outside Moab is where the much-revered Slickrock Trail is to be found. Mountain bikers come many miles to try their wheels on this demanding course and while our bikes and technical skills are not up to the task, we went out to camp in the Flats with the hope of doing some walking. Being desert, you might expect dryness but for the two nights we were up there it did a very good impression of a maritime climate, suspiciously resembling Wales with its rain and mist. There was no walking but plenty of wistful looking out the windows. We moved on.

I sometimes wonder whether it's better to know in advance that you're going to face your fears or to remain ignorant until the event. Hiking in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park is a demanding business and in hindsight, guaranteed to bring me face to face with my nemesis - fear of heights. The trail we chose was a circular route crossing from one canyon into the next. It was this crossing that presented the first challenge and resulted in me doing a crustacean impersonation on the descent, whimpering occasionally and reminding myself that the worst that could happen is that I'd plunge down the rock face making a mess on impact. Since I'm writing this now, you know I survived but let me tell you it was a close thing and the worst was still ahead. Extremely narrow rock ledges and bottomless chasms kept the adrenalin pumping and proved exhausting. The entire experience is of course a very personal matter, and Sterling might well be more inclined to describe our jaunt as "a little walk in the park", but when the fear of falling gets a grip it's a hard thing to deal with and one that I've struggled with. On returning to the camper, I read the following description in the trail guide:

The route between the canyons climbs steep grades that are dangerous when wet and may make people with a fear of heights uncomfortable.

Burgeoning Prickly Pear Now, had I seen that before we set off, I might very well have thought twice about it, thereby missing the incredible views, the beauty, vegetation, quietness and sense of achievement. Maybe it's better not to know in advance.

Having said that, I have twice attempted to face this fear head on. Once by doing a parachute jump for charity and some years later by learning to paraglide. Unfortunately, neither banished my fear but I did prove to myself that I could survive it.

MoonLit Fire The rest of our time in Needles was a lot less traumatic. The moonrises were spectacular, bringing out a character in the rocks hidden in daylight, the beams bathing us as we sat round the campfire. The quiet so intense that a raven's wing beat reached our ears as it passed several hundred feet overhead. The temperatures so mild that we sat and watched the sun go down. The weather so kind that we woke to a light dusting of snow on our final morning. Even on the death-defying walk, the vegetation in the washes combined the familiar yet incongruous smell of rotting autumnal leaves with the first signs of spring burgeoning from the prickly pear and pussy willow.

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