In The Skinning Room

In the old barn down the hill from the ranch house where I grew up, there is a room that once, a long time ago, was used to milk cows.  The floor is concrete and has a long low trough that runs down the length of the room to a drain, so that everything could be hosed down after the milking was through.  Along the side of the room there is a row of stanchions, which were used to lock in the heads of the cattle as they were milked.  

But it has been fifty years since a cow has been milked here.  These days the stanchions serve as a convenient rack on which to hang several years worth of deer antlers, and the trough has, for as long as I can remember, only drained blood from the many bucks my family has skinned here over the years.

In my family you could say that deer hunting isn't so much a tradition as it is a rite.  Some ancestor of mine has been hunting the hills of northern California ever since my great-great-great-grandfather first came over from Kentucky in 1840.  And similarly, some member of my family has been skinning bucks in the disused milking room of the old barn since the early 1940s, when my grandfather first came to live at what is now our family's ranch.

So, when I grabbed my camera the evening after my older brother shot this forked horn, I knew I wanted to try to capture something of the timelessness that we feel when we set about skinning a buck and getting it ready to butcher.  It's hard, dirty work, but it also feels natural.  At least, it feels natural to me.  

There is something primal in the act of skinning an animal you've just killed--something bloody and horrible but also necessary and correct.  Every year that we kill a buck and bring it back to the skinning room my dad tells us how, when he was still too young to hunt and his father and uncles would bring home a buck, he'd run to the skinning room and start skinning the buck for them while they had drinks up at the house.  I can remember myself standing in the skinning room as an eight year old, watching in awe as my older brothers peeled the skin from off the deer, transforming it from animal to meat.

With these photos I wanted to show that this is what my family has done for generations, and we continue to do it year after year.  It is something that I can count on, something that connects me not only to my past, but also to the natural world that I live in.  It is the liturgy of the California Deer Hunter.