On the Australia day long weekend, I did something more traditionally Aussie than snags on the barbie or sunburn on the beach – I tanned a kangaroo hide.
It was only in retrospect that I realised the poetry of it. And it was only after I had mentioned it casually to a friend on Facebook and received a reply message of ‘Ba ha ha – what a message!’ that I realised what a foreign concept it is for most people.
A few years since my last hide tanning efforts, it was feeling a bit foreign to me also as I unfurled the dripping skin from the lime bath it has been soaking in for a few days and flung it on the fleshing beam.
The hair half falling out, it was hard to connect it to the memory of the soft animal a friend and I collected from the side of the road in far north Queensland last winter. We had gone out early to the highway in search of fresh roadkillfor the purpose of demonstrating the skinning process to the students of a ‘wild living’ course and found a small roo, not long skittled by a car. The hide has been dried, salted and stored in my caravan since then, awaiting the day that I was ready to tan.
My shoulder muscles soon remembered with a groan the arduous process of turning a stinky hide into a piece of soft leather. All afternoon I leant against the beam vigorously scraping off epidermis (‘grain’) with a dull metal tool, to expose the silky innerlayers.
Prising off a long string of grain, I caught a glimpse of the fibres underneath – a matrix of small protein strands twisted together like DNA. Every strand woven randomly but connected to every other strand, each patch as unique as a fingerprint. This is what skin really looks like, so flexible and yet so strong. How incredible.
Less than incredible were the many holes I was creating, usually when distracted or rushing. The roo was starting to look like Swiss cheese.
My friend Michelle was tanning a deer hide from a nearby venison farm. A step ahead in the process, she emerged from the kitchen with a bucket of what appeared to be strawberry milkshake. Submerging her hands and hide within, Michelle looked up at me with a grin. “Did you know that every animal has enough brains to tan it’s own hide?”
Brains are the traditional ‘alchemist’ in tanning, the fats and chemicals making the skin soft and supple. We chose to use sheep’s brains from a butcher.
“I’m fine with the ick factor now, but the first time I did this I almost upchucked,” Michelle said.
Now a seasoned tanner, Michelle does a fashion parade in her buckskin bikini, skirt, cloak, and fish skin armband.
“I just love the craft of it, there-learning of what used to be such a part of indigenous life.”
“I also love the fact that I’m making use of something that would be otherwise thrown out, and turning it into beautiful, durable clothing that I can also throw in the washing machine.”
My hide emerged from the brain bath feeling like a cross between chamois, plasticine and a rubber mat. Rain dampens our plans to soften and smoke the hides (another long and tiring process), so I return mine to the freezer until a later date.
Perhaps I’ll make it an Australia day ritual, an honouring of a lost art that also honours the lives of our native wildlife.