To begin the story at the beginning, read "Part 1: Post 1: Beginning Again," published in January, 2013. To consult a description of the campus, read "Part 1: Post 14: The Greening of Campus," published in March, 2013.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Year 4: Part 1: Post 4: Deer Students

It's weird having Ebony and Rick and Andy gone. I don't mean to imply that I'm grief-stricken, except maybe in a very mild and technical sense--I'll see them again, after all--but campus feels quite different without them.

I do still have friends on campus, though, and there's a whole flock of yearlings to get to know. I'm not socially isolated by any means.

In the meantime, I've been taking apart deer.

Rick was in the habit of patrolling the main road for roadkill. He often ate it himself, or offered it to the campus dogs and cats, if it was a little past fresh, and he and Charlie used a lot of animal parts in their art. Other students do the same still, so I don't know if someone else is going to take up roadkill duty, but I don't think anyone has yet. Anyway, before he left, Rick found and brought in two deer carcasses but he didn't have any immediate use for them. They've been in a box in the barn, frozen.

A few days ago, Charlie thawed them and used them in an anatomy workshop which I attended. Curiously, the workshop wasn't open to yearlings, only to senior students whose primary masters invited them--handling roadkill can be dangerous and Charlie wanted to make sure that everyone involved could be serious and could work quickly, so the meat would not spoil during the dissection. Besides me there was Raven G., Eddie, and Oz, an animist who works in the library and wants to become a large-animal vet.

What we did was dissect the deer, first one and then the other. Workshops have four three-hour class meetings, by definition, and each carcass, one male and one female, as it happens, occupied us for six hours.

What we did was a cross between a scientific dissection and butchering game. We skinned each animal and removed its digestive system, then removed its other internal organs, then stripped the meat from the bones--bit we took the time to name and examine each organ and to note its place in the body and we did not disarticulate the skeletons, nor did we slice through any muscles. We removed each muscle or muscle group whole by cutting its tendons. We also took the time to dissect some structures that didn't actually need it, such as one of the eyeballs. Charlie used an electric bone saw to cut the heads in half, rather than shattering the skull to access the brains (Charlie prefers to brain-tan hides). It took a long time, although not quite as long as a full gross anatomy course would have. We did both carcasses, one after another, so we'd remember more.

Mostly we avoided speaking, except about the work itself (open mouths gather no blood spatters--we wore safety glasses and gloves, too), but there were some lighter moments and some digressions. When Charlie cut open the first of the skulls, Oz said "yum, yum!" and we all laughed.

"My family used to eat sheep's heads when I was little," Charlie commented, mildly. "On special occasions. Cut in half, almost like this." He said the dish was called "kaboo-ootz," or something that sounded like that. It obviously wasn't an English word.

"I thought "head" was capo," said Raven, who knows Charlie's family is Italian. "Or does it being a sheep's head make a difference?"

"I don't know," Charlie said, sound distracted. Then he sat back on his heels and answered Raven more fully. "You're thinking Florentine Italian. Most Italian-Americans aren't Florentines. There are, or were, actually a lot of different Italys, and a lot of different Italian languages. When Italy was unified, Northern Italy, including Florence, was dominant, culturally and economically, which was why so many Southern Italians emigrated. They took their versions of Italian with them. I'm not fluent in my grandparents' dialects, though. I don't know if that word meant sheep's head or just head in general. I learned Florentine Italian in school."

"How many languages do you know, Charlie?" asked Raven.

"I'm fluent or nearly so in five--in French, Italian, Spanish, Latin, and English. I can read Greek and a little Irish."

"That's impressive," said Oz, who doesn't know Charlie that well. He doesn't take compliments gracefully.

"Not really," he said, after staring at her for a few seconds. "There's no reason or excuse for American monolingualism," and he gestured that we should get back to work.

All of us have taken Charlie's "Disassemble a Woodchuck" talks multiple times, and we had to do a lot of preparatory reading before dissecting the deer, so it's not like we went into the experience without a background, but there was a lot to learn and we learned a lot. Typically, he never told us why he was teaching deer anatomy, though, never explained what it had to do with our regular studies. Oz, at least, would be able to use the information in her planned career, but Eddie wants to train service animals, Raven wants to stay in horticulture, and I don't know what I'm going to do, but I have a hard time imagining deer anatomy will have much to do with it. But he always has a reason and on some level we all knew it because we'd all willingly taken the workshop.

At the end he had us all sit in silence for five minutes, which is an extremely long time to just sit there not talking, it feels like eons, and then he asked each of us to say how we felt about the deer and what we'd just done.

"Sad," said Raven, without hesitation. "I don't feel bad about dissecting them or anything, but it's sad that they died. I just feel really sad for them as animals that they had to die this way."

"Excited," said Eddie, though his voice sounded a little puzzled. "I'm not sure why, but all this was fascinating."

"Gross," said Oz, and laughed. "I shouldn't say that, I'm going to be a vet, but this whole thing was just icky."

"I don't know what to call my feeling," I admitted, and they all looked at me. I tried to explain it as bodily sensation and thought, the way Allen taught me when I was a yearling. "My body felt excited but...quiet at the same time. I don't know. I want to know this stuff, it feels like a duty or an honor or something. I don't feel sad or disgusted or...I just feel like it's important to witness this, to understand. It's...beautiful or...something."

I was not at my most articulate and it kind of embarrassed me, but when I was done talking I looked over at Charlie and he was looking at me. His eyes were shining.

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