Bone Collecting in the Pinelands

buena-new-jersey-08There is no real determinate point in time where I consciously decided to become a bone collector – my first find was a skull, several ribs and a few other pieces that were uncovered in the backyard last Autumn when we raking leaves.  Inspiration was almost immediate, and the skull found a home nestled on top of a fascinator covered in feathers, which became part of the costume I wore for some Halloween performances.  My husband gifted me with a pair of chicken feet for one of monthly countdown-to-a-year anniversaries that I had a great desire to turn into either earrings or hair clips, and then someone hit a deer right in front of the house.  Well, it was more like in front of the mail box across the street from the driveway, but that’s close enough for it to have been dragged into the woods.

Knowing I would have to wait awhile for natural decay to take its course, I turned to the all-knowing Google search and started reading articles on how to clean and care for your bones.  One thing I learned right away was how not to destroy them with bleach or peroxide solutions that were too strong, and I knew that boiling was safer but still carried risk of damaging the bones.  Cold water maceration became my new favorite phrase, and it is a simple process of soaking the bones so that any tissue, skin or whatnot attached to them will soften and float away.  This way, there is no worrying about precise measurements or temperatures though admittedly it is a slow process which requires a bit of patience.

buena-new-jersey-09Walking through parks – particularly those with heavily wooded areas – was now accompanied by keeping an eye out for bones.  It seemed as though any that may have been around were picked up to maintain trails, and these are not the type of woods one wants to be wandering through without proper protection and navigation.  However, we did find a pair of wings and a skull attached to a spine lakeside at Parvin, some sort of sea-bird that likely met death by way of a hungry predator.  This brought me back to Google and reading articles on preserving wings since I knew absolutely nothing on the subject but realized it was much different from cleaning bones.  Since then I have successfully preserved both those wings and a pair clipped from a little bird I found dead in the driveway, as well as the feet and tail, which I will likely use for jewelry and hair accessories.

Up to this point I had been fairly fortunate in finding bones that were already devoid of rotting matter, many of them needing nothing more than a gentle scrubbing with warm water.  Then we found a deer skeleton along the outskirts of Estell Manor and I asked my husband if we could take it home; it took two trash bags and one of those extended grabber things to collect it.  Now there have been many times where the unpleasant scent of roadkill wafted through rolled down windows when driving along country highways, but being right next to a skeleton that is sitting in a pool of hair and still has some fleshy bits stuck to it is a whole other level of stink.  We agreed to never pick up anything like that again if it wasn’t close to the house, but that is how I got my first full deer skeleton so I can’t really complain too much.

buena-new-jersey-10Then again, my husband has been doing most of the gross stuff which included sawing the head off a deer that had been hit on account it was too messy to bring back to the house but I still wanted the skull, dragging a young deer into the woods after it had been hit in front of the house, and picking up a freshly killed raccoon that was down the street.  Here I would like to mention how utterly important it is to wear gloves when handling dead animals and bones since there are all sorts of bacteria and other things that could potentially make you very sick.  It would also be a good idea to wash your hands after doing so and wearing a specific set of clothes when collecting and cleaning, removing them in the laundry room or garage to avoid spreading germs all over the house.  The one thing I did not read up on was what to do with fresh kills to strip them down to the bones, so we just stick them in the woods and wait.  While this requires a good amount of patience, I do enjoy the fact I get to watch vultures come out of nowhere and spend a few days doing what they do best, which also gave me a few feathers that I greatly cherish.  It should also go without saying that this generates quite the stench, particularly on a hot Summer day, and living in the woods gives us the advantage of not really having to deal with neighbors being bothered since they probably think it’s just roadkill.  Plus we get to be those weird people who have the smell of death surrounding their house and frequently make jokes about it.

Earlier this week was the first time we actually set out with the express purpose of finding bones, taking our dog Candy [rescued from the local SPCA] for a walk as well since I want her to become more socialized and whatnot.  It was surprising to find a poor butterfly lying stiff in the grass, likely as a result of flitting in front of a vehicle, especially since I found another one shortly after.  My grandfather used to collect them and put them in a frame with pressed flowers, so I stored them in a cigarette box that was also in the grass.  We collected more glass bottles than bones but still had a great time getting a more intimate look at the community we live in.

buena-new-jersey-12Further searching throughout the rest of the yielded pretty decent results considering we have yet to go further than a 20 or 30 minute walk from the house.  We found a small skull [possibly a raccoon], a deer skull and some bones, a nearly full deer skeleton that was curved around the trunk of a tree [kind of bummed we didn’t see the skull] and assortment of other bones, as well as half a dozen butterflies.  Now that I have a pretty decent stock, I am going to start sorting and cleaning everything, then determine what I want to use for my projects and give the rest to my husband.  Details of what my plans for them are being reserved for the moment, but I do hope to be able to have something to show for my efforts by October, and in generally I am really happy my husband and I can share this weird but rewarding hobby.

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