The other day I mentioned to someone that, when we were children, my older sister had a pickled bat in her bedroom. Now I know that sounds totally wacky out of context but, for my teenage sibling who excelled at Biology, the obvious thing to do with a dead (but otherwise perfect) pipistrelle that had been found in the garden was to preserve it in formaldehyde and keep it in a jam-jar in her room. It then formed part of a display that would have been at home in any scientific laboratory or natural history museum. If my memory serves me well the pickled numbers included a fish eye and a chicken’s foot, which were given space alongside various dried butterflies, a sheep’s skull and a tank full of (thankfully alive) African aquatic toads. It may sound like something out of the set of a horror B movie or even some strange herbal medicine emporium but as she was my big sis it seemed normal to me, and nurtured a keen early interest in all things natural.
Well, if only I had realised the value of drawing such things from life then rather than just drawing characters from my imagination, I could have sneaked into her room and filled a sketchbook with studies of these fascinating objects too. But I think perhaps it did spark a rather subtle fascination for bones. Now, I’ve no desire to see or find any human bones, although I did like looking at the repro human skeleton we had hanging up in the art-room at school, but I do rather like it when I’ve been digging in the garden and come across a tiny bone from a small rodent or perhaps a bird. They are so fragile and yet so strong, so insubstantial looking and yet so robust. When you look at a bird’s skull, a casing so fine that it seems more delicate even than eggshell and the connecting bones as thin as a thread of cotton, it is a wonder that the bird itself could ever have been so strong and so unbreakable to get through its life at all.
It’s with some embarrassment that I recall using bones to make my own jewellery. It seemed right at the time – listening to music that was part tribal, part goth (Southern Death Cult being favourite) – to accessorise with perhaps strange ancient or ethnic objects, especially anything that could be found for free. So, my mum boiled up some chicken bones from a roast dinner, and a friend from college brought in some of his dog’s old teeth, and I strung them together with some wooden beads. This is a drawing I did at the time of the necklace I wore daily (usually teamed up with some earrings I’d made from the smaller bones).
And here are a couple of birds’ skulls that I found in recent years. Proof that my fascination with natural history has remained is evident in the fact that I felt compelled to keep them (although not in my bedroom). I think the small one is from a goldfinch and the larger one from a starling. Whilst I would always prefer to see these wonderful birds alive and well in my garden every day, I sometimes look at these skulls just to remind myself of how amazing these delicate little creatures are underneath their beautiful feathers. And if I were ever to find a dead bat in the garden, I might just be tempted to pickle it as well.