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The road of tanning is as complex as it is difficult... Welcome to my blog!

The road of natural tanning is as complex as it is difficult. Either that or I’m the worst tanner who ever lived. For, as quick as is my mind, as resilient my spirit, as rich and teeming my creative nature, and as willing is my body, tanning forever gets the best of me. It grinds me down into nothing, breaks my heart, and leaves me guessing for answers to why the grievous and the unexpected has occurred, again and again and again.

Domestic rabbit fur hide naturally tanning with winged sumac leaves, Rhus coppalina, vegetable tanning
The amazing pink color of a rabbit hide after a day in red sumac leaf solution (Rhus coppalina). The pink and purple colors that can happen in the earliest days of a tanning hide are so magical, and one of my favorite parts of the process. This magic is missed if all you see is the final finished brown leather. <3 <3

It’s hard. And it is beautiful. If it were not beautiful, if it did not move me and possess me to my bones, then by now, after years of constant heartache and lessons learned in a steep and uphill way that challenges my endurance for loss and confusion, I would have simply walked away and gotten involved in something else. Instead, I’ve stayed. I’ve stayed despite my doubt, and despite persistent thoughts that I might do better to give of my time to something more practical, to a craft that produces fruits in much greater proportion to setbacks.

Domestic rabbit skin membrane
Partially tanned membrane scraped from the above rabbit skin. Skin is colored and patterned like the cosmos to me, so often. I nearly always pause, taken aback by the beauty of each raw skin I scrape. Leather can never come close to this perfection!

I tend to think of myself as spiritual, and of tanning as a spiritual practice. And yet, time and again I find myself trying to hide my frequent “failures,” the embarrassingly large amount of time I put into this work relative to the finished “products” I produce, and how little I truly know about this infinitely complex, infinitely variable art. I throw up a false image to the world, in order to look good and hide the ugly, and to make myself feel more legitimate in the world. Sometimes I feel like I suck at tanning. Sometimes I feel like an idiot and a fool. And sometimes I feel like a master and that I am resting right in the perfect Zen-like mindset. These waves fluctuate endlessly, and none of them are the truth. Tanning is a spiritual practice for me because it ferociously temps my small, limit-minded, fear-minded, self-conscious self to roar to the surface and frantically try to show the world something sexy and something “useful” in the limited, material sense of usefulness, when I am feeling anything but.

Community tannery, off-grid
Me in the community tannery area at Chestnut Hill, where I am most days, in the Western NC Appalachian mountains. We have endless spring fed water for hide tanning which pours from the mountainside, forests of dead & dying hemlock trees, & hillsides of sumac. We boil tanning solutions mostly over small fires (pictured far left in photo), buck with wood ash, and tan in many many plastic buckets & bins. And yes it's pretty much always a total mess! (Photo by Madison Moore)

The way that I do tanning is not practical, and it’s not useful, if I look at it from the material perspective alone, without the spiritual perspective. If I look at it from the spiritual perspective it is absurdly rich. This blog is a way for me to be more public and more openly naked about all the aspects of my tanning practice that I often wish for others not to see, in my daily dance between fear and love, reacting and softening.

There is of course some absurdity in this arcane craft of working animal skins. It is absurd, because I am starting as would a child or a fool. Gone gone are the old secrets, coveted and guarded and arrived upon through hundreds or thousands of years of refinement and mystical devotion, of the tanners’ guilds. How foolhardy to expect to make good leather, of the efficiency, longevity, skill, diverseness, and artistry of these old lovers of the material, who themselves stood on the shoulders of countless lineages of skin workers before. All this wisdom, deeply rooted into each ecology and place, wiped clean, or nearly so, like chalk on an ever evolving slate, in just the most recent handful of generations.

Despite or perhaps even because of this absurdity, I have remained over the years strangely wedded to hide work because somehow I continue to believe in crazy medicine. Somehow it makes just enough sense to me to believe in a path and a practice that demands that I keep first surrender, and value transformation above product, in this world where emotional resilience may be the most important skill needed in the present and in the coming future.

So let us appreciate the insanity of the world as it today is, and in particular this one aspect, of the ghostiness of humankind’s oldest and dearest crafts, these long love affairs of human hands with the earth, such as tanning is one of them. I am just a wanderer, going by way of some odd muse, and engaged in the very basics of what the woods and the hides themselves can teach me. I learn slow, and the learning comes in piles and heaps!

This wider conversation, in blog form, I have begun in order to be open and helpful about my findings, triumphs, questions, and blunderings in working with the hides. My hope is that those others who are also engaged in this strange love affair with leather, or those seeking to begin, may glean from my own experiments and experiences some inspiration, assurance, or usefulness! It’s my hope that natural tanners worldwide will come together more, begin talking amongst ourselves more unselfconsciously, with more joy, wonder, generosity, and trust, and less need to hide our shortcomings, and together weave a new shining web of knowledge, that the sacredness of tanning skin may have a place in the continuing human story, and in the villages of a future earth.

May it be so!

<3 <3 <3

~Victoria, August 2018, Sodom Laurel NC

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