Sunday, January 31, 2010

October Raccoon

Shortly after I'd decided to go ahead with the Useless Creatures project, Steph and I were driving home, probably from class, when she spotted something dead lying on the side of the road. Intrigued, we circled past the animal again, and saw that it was a raccoon. There wasn't a good place to park, but luckily, we weren't far from our apartment complex (and, besides, I needed to grab my camera). It was a sunny-but-chilly October afternoon, as they tend to be in the Upper Peninsula, and we both felt rather awkward walking down a street with no sidewalks, past gossiping teenagers, with the intent to photograph a dead animal.

The raccoon was freshly-dead, lying upon a bed of fallen leaves in the gutter. It was on its side, mouth slightly open, most of its face obscured by colorful leaves. It was beautiful. Wary of passing cars, I photographed the raccoon. I didn't take nearly as many pictures as I would had I encountered it today; at the time, I was very careful about photographing dead animals, especially in plain view of other people. It's particularly uncomfortable and awkward when doing so in a residential neighborhood -- and I'm still very cautious about it now.

I still can't get over how beautiful this animal was. I was especially interested in its feet, having never really viewed raccoon feet up-close before. The toes were long and furry, each with a curved claw at the end, and the footpads were dark, leathery, and hairless, almost human-like. The face was very whiskery; I'd never thought of raccoons has having so many whiskers.

October Raccoon was the animal that truly kick-started the Useless Creatures project. Prior to photographing it, I had found only April Deer and June Gull Chick, neither of which I'd photographed with the Useless Creatures mindset. After having found October Raccoon, I began finding an almost overwhelming number of dead creatures, especially in October and November.

About a week after photographing the raccoon, and after a week of watching the body languish on the side of the road, Steph took the extra step of moving it off the pavement and into the tall grass a few feet away. Right now, if it is still where we left it, the body is currently under a few feet of snow and ice. We are anxious to see what October Raccoon will look like in a few months, when the snow begins to melt.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

On Birds

Birds are incredibly hard to photograph, let alone see in detail. They are fast, usually faraway, and more often than not, tiny. There are a few exceptions to this rule, namely in the form of ducks and geese and other birds of the water, but they are in the minority. Unless one has a very long and fast lens to attach to their camera, or a pair of high-powered binoculars, we rarely get to see these fascinating animals up-close and personal.

Birds, in death, seem more peaceful than mammals. Recently dead, they are unnaturally still, but are beautiful, perfect, almost. In death, birds allow us to observe them as close as we wish, and to absorb all those details we cannot see when they are so lively and far away. For starters, birds are incredibly light. When I first picked up a dead bird, I was amazed by how seemingly weightless it was. It was like the tiny body in my hands had no mass; it was like carrying air. Birds are also very fragile-looking: they have tiny feet with even tinier hooked claws, and their feathers are perfect, so very perfect in the way they cover that tiny body. The plumage interlocks and shines, and those downy feathers are so incredibly soft.

In October of 2009, I spotted a dead sparrow lying in the road. It was a kind of rainy morning, and Stephanie and I continued on to the farmers market to buy our produce for the week. On the way back, the sparrow was still there. This time, I stopped, scooped up the small body, and placed it in my car. Later that day, after the rain had let up, I photographed the sparrow in a parking lot, before laying it to rest at the base of a tree. It was a tiny being -- and a common, hated one, at that. The bird was a juvenile house sparrow, detested in North America for stealing nesting sites from our native birds. I'd never held one before, or seen one so close -- and it was beautiful. The feathers were brown and gray, nothing flashy or fancy, but it was so undeniably perfect.

In Marquette, we have a deluge of gulls, both of the herring and ring-billed varieties. They flock over the dumpsters near the grocery stores and dormitories. In the spring, ring-billed gulls gather en masse on Picnic Rocks, where they make their nests. Dead gulls are regular finds on the beach, but I couldn't have prepared myself for what I found in June 2009.

There's a roadside park along Lakeshore Drive, and a few hundred feet out are Picnic Rocks, where the gulls are as thick as blades of grass in a field. Living near this park at the time, Stephanie and I were out for a late-afternoon walk, and I (again), did not have my camera with me. I was looking at the large rocks on the beach when I smelled the unmistakable stench of something dead. It took me a while to find the source, and when I did, I couldn't believe it. It was the tiniest little corpse, reduced almost to a skeleton: it was a dead gull chick. I returned the next day to photograph it.

This gull chick, very likely from a nest at Picnic Rocks, was in a state of decay I'd never seen before. Looking at the photograph, it's haunting, almost, with the darkened eye socket and useless-looking wings and legs. The body almost doesn't look like it could possibly be from this earth -- and yet it is. The process of decay can be mysterious and bizarre.

The gull chick wasn't the last dead gull I encountered. Later, in October of that year, we discovered the wings of a gull that had washed up on the far side of Presque Isle (once more, I did not have my camera with me, and I had to drive to the other end of the city to retrieve it). The resulting photograph was far more ambiguous than anything I'd taken before:

In November, I found the body of a recently-deceased juvenile ring-billed gull on the beach near the working ore dock. Like the house sparrow before it, the gull, so mundane and dull-colored, was so perfect and beautiful, even in death. Its head was tucked peacefully under its body.

Marquette also has a decent-sized pigeon population. They flock in large groups, both downtown and in the neighborhoods. I've seen their flocks evade eagles and hawks, and it's fascinating to watch so many animals move as one. Earlier this month, as I was driving to Presque Isle Park, I spotted something protruding from a melting snowbank -- the wing of a bird! I decided I'd check it out later. On my way back from the island, I parked, illegally, and quickly removed the bird from the snowbank, not having the time to look at it. I found a parking lot further down on Lakeshore Drive, the one next to the working ore dock, and I decided it'd be a good place to photograph the bird.

I soon realized it was a pigeon. The body was eviscerated, likely by a bird of prey, and it was missing its head, left leg, and tail. Despite the gore, the pigeon's body really was quite striking. Its feathers, a dull gray, shined in the sunlight, so much that I had to photograph it in the shadow cast by my car. Its remaining foot was fascinating to look at: it was pink and scaly, and the claws looked relatively sharp.

The next time you find a dead bird, don't turn your eyes and nose away. Take a closer look; touch it, if you dare. Even the most common of sparrows is an animal to be revered.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

In the Beginning: April Deer

This is a story I've told at least three or four times. I never get tired of it, but every time I recount this tale, I feel a little sadder in the end.

The night before April 5, 2009, I had a very bizarre dream. I won't describe the entire sequence, as it was quite long, but the dream involved finding the skeleton and hide of a deer, in a very dead-looking forest. It wasn't a good dream. And though that nightmare-forest was as still and as quiet as can be, simultaneously, there was a single track of music playing through my head: The Barn Tapes, from Andrew Bird's (at the time) recently-released album, Useless Creatures.

I took this dream as a sort of sign, something my secular self rarely does. After I'd woken up and thought more about it, I went for a walk through what would later be my home base of operations for much of this project -- Presque Isle Park, in Marquette. The bog there has a trail and boardwalk; in the summer, it's very green and lush, but it being early April, the long grass from the previous year was still very dead and trampled.

An important thing to note is that white-tailed deer thrive at Presque Isle Park. The park, which is within city limits, has an area of 323 acres. A census taken in 2001 counted 100 deer, a number which the island could not support, and it resulted in a cull. Today, the size of the herd stands at around 50. The deer thrive so easily on the island because, with the exception of a coyote or two, there are few predators. The winters in Marquette are notoriously bitter, especially around February, and the subzero windchill and lack of food lead to the deaths of many animals -- except, it seems, for the deer on the island. People roll down their car windows and toss carrots and potatoes for the deer to eat, ignoring the signs that plainly state that feeding the deer is illegal.

In the end, because of over-population on such a small piece of land, the deer die anyway, and in great numbers, as I have found, in just the last year. Though there are still far too many deer inhabiting the island, their numbers seem to be hovering at the same level -- still, at the expense of the rest of the wildlife living there.

Returning to the afternoon of April 5, 2009, I was walking through the bog, off the trail -- because nothing interesting ever ends up on the trail -- when I found April Deer. First, I found her hide, somehow ripped whole from her body. Several feet away was her skeleton. Everything, save for the legs, was picked clean by whatever creatures had found her first.

Growing up as a child of Science, I've always been fascinated by bones and skeletons. Starting from when I was very young, I'd accumulated a large skull collection, treasures I'd found on the beach or in the forest. I've also always admired deer. It'd been a long time since I'd found the full skeleton of much of anything, and I realized I had to take that skull with me. I inexplicably did not have my camera around my neck, but I did have a knife, and I soon left the scene with April Deer's skull in my car, which would quickly be placed in the freezer and left there for the next month. I returned with a camera, ready at last to photograph what I saw.

Other photographs of April Deer can be viewed here.

Now, all of this really got my mind going, mostly because of the link between the dream I had had and the discovery I had just made, but I was astonished by how interesting and, yes, beautiful some of the pictures I had taken were. I was far more excited about the bones than the photography, though, but I decided that I would watch, and photograph, over the next few months as nature attended to the skeleton of April Deer.

Sadly, I never got the chance to see this fascinating process. A few weeks later, I was informed that the local rotary club, which cleans the bog walk on a regular basis, had dragged the skeleton of April Deer out of the bog and left it on top of a nearby dumpster, as trash. Stephanie, my girlfriend, pulled the skeleton off the dumpster and hid it underneath a pine tree, with the hope it wouldn't be re-discovered by any alleged "nature lovers."

A week or so passed, and April Deer's skeleton vanished, this time for good. I'm convinced it was thrown back into the dumpster. Somewhere, her skeleton is in a landfill, unnatural as can be, crushed beneath many tons of trash bags. There was only one part of her left, and that, as it turns out, was her skull I'd so hastily removed, the skull which now sat, wrapped in a plastic bag, in my freezer. It still had a lot of decomposition to go; the brain was still there, as was the lower lip, and as much as I was itching to put it outside for the insects to eat, apartment life doesn't allow for such luxuries. When Stephanie and I drove south to Ann Arbor in May to visit my parents, we took the skull with us.

Upon our arrival, one of the first things we did was put the skull in a live trap, a caged one with openings large enough for insects, but small enough so that gnawing rodents couldn't reach the bone. Almost immediately, flies and burying beetles and ants flocked to the skull of April Deer, and I thought to myself, This is what it would be like had she not been thought of as useless, unsightly trash.

When my parents visited Marquette in November for Thanksgiving, they brought with them the skull of April Deer. It was very clean, and mostly white, with little spots of green where moss and algae had started to grow. And it occurred to me that this skull, though removed prematurely and probably disrespectfully, then stowed in a freezer for a month, had been allowed to go through the natural process of decomposition that the rest of April Deer was denied.

By late November, I'd already flung myself into the Useless Creatures series, but it was April Deer who had inspired me to do it.

Monday, January 18, 2010


Hello, everyone! After much deliberation, I've decided to create a blog centered around my Useless Creatures series, as well as my thoughts behind it.

The Useless Creatures project, officially started in the September of 2009 but unofficially started in April of that same year, is a photography project that concerns dead animals. That's the simple explanation, anyway. In reality, there's a lot more to the project than photographing every dead creature I see -- and this will become clear as I continue to post. Not only will I be using this blog to publish my photography, I will be examining our society's interpretation(s) of dead animals, as well as the importance of creature corpses in the ecosystem.

I know there will be questions, concerning everything from the name of the project to my own character and any ulterior motives, so I will address some of them right away:

Q: Useless Creatures is the name of an Andrew Bird album. Were you aware of this?
A: Yes. This project is named after that album for a number of reasons, which I will post about soon.

Q: You describe yourself as vegan. Are you using this project to protest the killing of animals?
A: Not at all. For reasons I will discuss in the future, every animal that I choose to photograph was either killed unintentionally (for example, hit by a car) or died in nature. In addition, for this project I will not be photographing any deceased domestic animals (pets or livestock), but I certainly will discuss the differing attitudes toward dead tamed creatures.

Q: What happened to Michigan Architecture?
A: It's on hiatus (again). To put it simply, I've photographed as much architecture as I can in Marquette (and much of the Upper Peninsula). I've had little to no inspiration lately, but if I find something to blog about, I will.

With all that said, welcome. I'll try to keep this blog updated regularly!