HOW I CAME TO BROWNING
Because of the accident of training as an actor, when I came to Browning, Montana, I was able to see that taxidermy is misnamed for a bad historical practice — poisoning skins to preserve them — and also that there is not normally blood or disease involved. I had no prior convictions about taxidermy, not even from seeing old English movies that featured the poisoned and twisted trophies of the English empire that they kept in glass cases alongside fine art.
New to town, I walked into the Scriver Studio for the first time — quietly — and was met by Bob Scriver skinning a long animal hung for convenience. I thought it was a monkey, because I didn’t know cats without their fluffy fur look like monkeys and did not reflect on the unlikelihood of a monkey being in Montana at all. Nor did I reflect on the ethics of a dead animal. I was simply aware, not naming or judging. It was like taking off a jacket.
There was no blood. I saw that each bundle of muscles was wrapped in thin silk-and-silver tissue and that they were arranged in symmetry, pairs of muscle bundles that ended tapering to white cords that attached to white bones. The shallow tensile curves of the exposed mechanism of a bobcat écorché* held extraordinary potential strength and leaps. I was naive and so did not interpret what I saw, just looked. There was no blood because there were no viscera, only a cavity where they had been.
All living creatures are enfolded in a skin that separates the animal from what is around it. Various mechanisms allow penetration of sensations to the inside of the envelope and action of the animal itself in the world outside the skin makes the skin bulge and cling to suit the changes of the muscles and what the governing bones and joints will allow.
As far as we know, only humans can reflect on both inside and outside the skin. We call this logic and reasoning, a capacity that appears to be mostly located behind the forehead. But the entire brain is formed through gestation, birth, and early life, arranging the evidence into systems, frames, paradigms of the remembered sensations of sight, sound, smell, and all the unnumbered rest of the single cell perceptions into a version of the world. This does not mean that there is no reality, but only that it is so gargantuan that we can only accept it in pieces, selections.
The acting training I had was derived from Stanislavski (1863–1938) and his system derived from an outstanding career in Russia as an actor and producer of plays. He was specifically interested in an actor’s ability to recall and use sense-based memories from his or her past to create a small reality on a stage. This training was developed by Alvina Krause (1893–1981), my professor, whom I was surprised to learn came through Garrett Theological Seminary to the interpretation department of Northwestern University on whose campus it was built. This developed into the acting course of study which was based on one’s own sensory life, the major patterns of sociology and history around the world, and self-possession in the interest of expression. It was called “the Method” but was not directly related to “Methodism,” a Christian approach to managing one’s life.
From the first moment I came to Browning, newness of what I was exploring overcame my thoughts about why I was on a reservation, who the “Indians” were, and how humans interacted with other animals than themselves. In conversation with this solid middle-aged man in khakis and a long rubber apron, who was skinning a bobcat, I discovered that both of us knew and loved the Hall of Man as it then existed at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. For a moment both of us were in two places together, the shabby little improvised workshop and the echoing space where monumental bronze figures stood, known to us as individuals. At that time I nearly consciously chose this man, Bob Scriver, to be my point of attachment and interpretation.
Even before we moved into intimacy, I absorbed him, his surroundings, and the ecosystem that stretched out around us to the Rocky Mountains. Snob that I was, I had hoped to find someone I could talk to about things I cared about. Here he was. But it was not a matter of logic. He was an entity of power and energy, and I was as écorché as the bobcat.
His patterning of the world was not literary: it was music and hunting. (Not a child’s “Peter and the Wolf” which we both knew.) And it was work-based towards a personal goal. Though he was a trained and gifted teacher and conductor of big bands and orchestras, his heart was with his cornet, that sobbing, soaring, brass horn amplifying the human cry.
That winter we built on the molds and castings of plaster with our growing understanding and control of bronze casting. We were acutely aware that this had been the beginning of the human bronze age, watching the metal change color and state until it was a white-hot liquid. The wary inhalation of fumes, the char and crud of the crucible, the roar of the fans, the intense heat, all saturated us with sweating pride and fear. This was entry into something primal and vast. Making money had nothing to do with it.
The intensity of these moments drew us close together, sometimes including Carl Cree Medicine, our unreliable but capable “hired man.” No promoters or customers or even other bronze casters, understood except maybe Charlie Beil in Banff, the person who taught us. No one can teach an experience.
Hunting included me, because I was useful. It was meat-hunting, based on awareness of the interaction of animals in their ecosystem of terrain and vegetation. Trophies had nothing to do with it. Set the intensity of this against the sweep of the land we stalked as hunters.
Up Blackleaf Canyon we nearly died on a high twisty ice-coated road with our overload of two horses. Then in the sub-zero snow and thin air of the Rockies, we stopped, stepped out and saw a doe’s head poke up from behind an outcrop. Reacting instantly by instinct, Bob shot her in that curious head. He knew exactly how to cut from chin to tail, reaching into her steaming entrails to pull them out, scarlet on the snow, orderly but now irrelevant. Briefly life, then food.
I didn’t think about it. I felt it. The smell of her bright blood, the glaze of her eyes, the symmetry of her bones and feet. This is what it meant to be a creature, a living entity defined by skin, to be taken into us in an intimacy beyond sex. This is how the high prairie entered me.
* a painting or sculpture of a human figure with the skin removed to display the musculature.
Mary Strachan Scriver is a retired Unitarian minister. She lives in Valier, Montana.