Trace of Hare.

For All-Hallows Eve. Samhain. 31st October 2015.

 'Our Country's Animals' by W.J. Gordon with diagrams by R.E. Holding.

A post about ‘The Art of Bone Collecting’.  Detail from ‘Our Country’s Animals’ by W.J. Gordon with diagrams by R.E. Holding.

On a recent ‘forage’ to our local Asda – I was fascinated to see a range of home merchandise that included a ram’s skull and a feather ornament – mass-produced in resin of course! 

These are from my alternative collection…

Something about Dartmoor

Exmoor badgers - Something about DartmoorDartmoor Fox - Something about DartmoorBecause my home does already host an array of real feathers and a small collection of boney relics – I can see the instant appeal of Asda’s rustic range, but they are not really my thing because they have no soul.  One can even buy real animal skulls on Ebay and the like – but in my opinion – they are even less appealing because of it.  For me – the thrill is in the ‘unearthing’ – and of being outside at one with nature – it’s an experience that can’t be recreated in resin or bought secondhand from the Internet. 

Setting out with the intention of finding a skull though is in my experience doomed to disappointment – because wild animals seemingly disappear without trace after they’ve died. It’s been a strange truth in my life that it happens more by ‘accident’ than by looking. Having once found a suicide whilst riding off-road – I’m convinced it is a strange kind of providence not chance that determines the odds.  Of course, a love of roaming remote places has its part to play also.

My skull collection falls into two categories; some have been given to me as thrilling surprises by a friend – direct from his land on the edge of Exmoor – and the others I have found for myself on Dartmoor – all bar one.  It is a wild hare’s skull – and most precious of all.  And oddly, it wasn’t found in a secretive location but on the busy B3227 whilst I was driving home from work one day – 16th. June 2015.

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At the edge of the road I noticed a fatality – a sandy-coloured form that hadn’t been there in the morning – sadly it was a hare.  The stretch of road is fast, straight and long – ideal for overtaking – and on either side of the low hedgerows – the fields are large and flat and used for crops; ideal hare country. There is a dead tree that stands outstretched against the skyline and points to near the ‘spot’… 

Outstretched tree - South Molton Rd

As soon as it was possible – I turned the car around and went back to the dead hare.  As I picked it up – I wondered how many times we had probably crossed each other’s path over the years? It was a mature, male hare – and I was taken by how strong and impressive it was – and by its thick bracken-coloured coat and the poignancy of the grit still loose on its paws…Something about Dartmoor

I gently placed it in a gateway amid the long summer grass – and returned home saddened by its death. I hoped it had been a clean kill – but as there was only one visible injury to its hind quarters I was doubtful.  Later that evening – I was taken by an undeniable urge to return for the hare – to bring it home; a wild hare’s skull is rarer than a hen’s tooth – suddenly the opportunity had presented itself to procure one!

In the dusk – I returned to the gateway and picked up the stiffened hare now covered in a tracery of silvery trails. I brushed them away with my hand and lifted the hare into a ready box and transported it away.  In the cold fluorescent light of my garage – I looked into its sad, sunken eye and doubted myself – whether I’d be able to go through with the ‘act’ of procurement now that I’d brought it home?

Something about Dartmoor

I did though.  The hands-on process was strangely therapeutic and not messy or grisly at all.  The following day – I returned Hare’s body to the earth.  I placed the head separately under a protective wire cage in a suitably quiet corner of our garden screened by weeds.  Overseen by Mother Elder – I left nature to take its course. Throughout the warm months – I watched the flies go in and out the protective dome; a hive of activity yet otherwise undisturbed…Something about Dartmoor

After time – the head’s form visibly shrank and flattened – enriching the soil below – whilst the fur spread-out like a half-blown dandelion clock intermingled with Elder flowers. Just bone, fur and whiskers remained; the attendant flies, beetles and slugs had done a fantastic job. I decided that the next stage had come to soak the ‘husk of hare’ in water – to soften it – so that the skull within could be freed and cleansed.

I had expected this next bit to be slightly fetid but instead only a trace of Hare’s earthly existence pervaded.  As I peeled the ‘flesh’ from the bone – wafts that I can only describe as ‘evocation of hare’ triggered my sensory memory; of corn stooks and harvest – of wild grasses and hedgerow – of soft summer rain – of moonlight and shadow…

Corn stooks near South MoltonSomething about DartmoorSomething about DartmoorSomething about DartmoorSunset - Something about Dartmoor

Wild grasses - Something about DartmoorSomething about Dartmoor

Something about Dartmoor - moonlightMercifully, the exposure of the skull revealed that the hare had probably died instantly; its skull had sustained a violent injury to the side and rear. That the hare had suffered a protracted death at the roadside during the heat of the day, was something that had troubled me throughout the procurement process; suddenly I had peace of mind – and it didn’t matter that the skull was visibly perfect on one side only…

Dartmoor Fox South Molton Hare

To complete the curing process – Hare journeyed back through the land of its birth – and death – to Exmoor, where I entrusted it to a friend who gave it his tried and tested whitening treatment.  

Whether naturally bleached by the elements – or chemically whitened – all my skulls are displayed simply and head-on.  Hare was to be different though…

As only one side of its skull was intact – a profile display was my best option – so I set about creating a simple wire encasement that would protect the delicate structure, whilst showcasing it – and allowing Hare to breathe.  At the end of a summer-long process – a life-sized, light-footed embodiment of Hare appeared; the piece is suitably called ‘Trace of Hare’ and safely holds the relic within…

'Trace of Hare'

‘Trace of Hare’

Something about Dartmoor - Trace of HareIn the spirit of Hare folklore and time-honoured traditions – I have a fancy to decorate Hare with mistletoe and lights for Christmas and New Year.  And in that sense Hare goes on living – bringing inspiration and enchantment in his path – through the months and the seasons – and for years to come.

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With reference to an earlier disclosure – I assure you there is nothing remotely human in my skull collection! Along with Hare – there are three foxes from two Moors, a pair of inseparable newcomers (a pair of Exmoor badgers) – a Dartmoor crow and a Dartmoor sheep – plus two characterful Exmoor deer; one is a misshapen Roe and the other is a Red Deer prickett!  Though thinking about it…and maybe because it is the 31st of October – there is just one other skull that comes to mind!  Oddly it isn’t bone – but a stone – that I found under an ancient Holly – and it is the only one in my collection with a spooky vibe and it has to be said – it does possess a set of human-like gnashers!  

Something about Dartmoor

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(Thank you to Jake’s Bones – a fascinating blog by a young naturalist and bone collector – Jake McGowan-Lowe from Scotland. Lots of invaluable information for cleaning bones.)

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