I SCRAPE, RINSE, lift, fold, and stretch. I squeeze and twist. The colors, tawny and bluish, swell. I feel the thickness of the neck, the holes. The smell clings, musky and a little sweet. Inch by inch, I am learning where her skin is thinner, where her hair is lighter, softer. I am skin to skin with the hide of a deer.
She lived in Pennsylvania, somewhere between my uncle’s house, a cornfield, and a Walmart, a humble spot on the edge of town. She was hunted by my family members—brother, uncle, cousins. I was there too, on that hunting day, collecting research for a book project. Afterward, someone took this whitetail’s meat to fill their freezer, and I asked for her hide. Now, months later, I am getting to know these other parts of her.
Humans have long benefited from the gifts deer provide. Meat, of course, to eat fresh or smoke and store for later. Bones for tools. Hides for clothing and shelter. Historian Dan Flores writes that the skulls of Neanderthal women show tooth wear from where they gripped hides in their mouths during the tanning process. Although I wasn’t sure how, I wanted to do something deliberate to dwell with this animal, even it just meant laying down the hide in a quiet spot of woods with a few words of thanks.
A YEAR BEFORE the hunt, I’d felt real buckskin for the first time when I watched a museum interpreter tan a hide, loosely reenacting something that must have happened for centuries on the Monacan land where I live in Virginia. The tanning process, which employs the animal’s own brain to soften the skin, transforms rough hides into beautiful, pliable leather—traditionally used for dozens of daily items, from moccasins to toys. During the colonial era, Native hunters were paid to bring in hides and Native women to process them. Thousands of hides crossed the Atlantic, and buckskin became a popular material in Europe, used for footwear, saddles, breeches, and gloves. Meanwhile, the deerskin trade, much like the fur trade before it, drove traders and settlers farther and farther west, decimating Indigenous communities and deer populations. Economically, it all collapsed during the American Revolution. Ecologically, the deer continued to decline, in spurts of false abundance and terrible bloodletting, until the turn of the twentieth century.
I’d been amazed by the fineness of that velvety museum buckskin and the transformation inherent in the process. This was a thorny history to join, but nonetheless I decided to learn how to tan a hide. With no live teacher easily available, I turned to Deerskins into Buckskins, by Matt Richards. I read the whole thing twice, absorbing the basics, although nothing could have prepared me for the experience itself.
THE WEIGHT of the hide surprised me right away as I lifted it from the chest freezer. It was studded with odd knots of flesh, rippling with a heavy winter fur. I wedged a thick piece of PVC between the twin trunks of a birch tree at the edge of my yard and draped the hide over it to thaw. Using a makeshift tool, I began to scrape the skin in short downward strokes, peeling away any remaining flesh and fat, scraps for the chickens to peck.
I next made a solution of water and wood ash in a plastic tote, using a shovel to stir it into a gray-brown broth. The book said to gauge the solution’s strength with a floating egg. If it sinks, add ash. Mine floated sideways, telling me the solution was too strong, and I added more water until it floated upright. I lowered the hide into this chunky mixture and let it soak and swell.
It was as if the animal was still there, as though I was touching a living deer—though with every stroke of my hand, some of the long white tail hairs came loose and drifted away.
Every time I lifted the lid during the several days of soaking, I was arrested by a tuft of hair protruding from the liquid’s surface. That shock of fur covered in flecks of charcoal felt like an animal waiting, a presence speaking back. I laid the sodden hide on a grassy hill to rinse it with a hose. As gravity and water carried away the smut, I watched the hairs settle back into the way they grew, transforming into something smooth and lovely.
Back at the PVC beam, I used the scraper again to remove the hair and first layer of skin underneath. The hide made a snapping sound when the tool moved over its toughest parts, now bluish where I’d scraped. I marveled at each hair, how it shaded from white at the base through light brown, then dark brown to beautiful red at the tip, so much like the color of the fallen leaves around me. Long hairs collected in a weightless pile at my feet.
As I made my way around the hide, I learned how it differed near belly versus spine, shoulder versus haunch. The skin around the bullet hole was bright red, and when I scraped there, blood spilled out and immediately turned brown, as though dying in the air.
The scraping phase was a long and grueling process, and my hands began to shake with the effort of it, my mind wandering under the dull repetitive sound. A sadness slowly descended. Fur is so structured, so determined by evolution and place, to remove it felt somehow like a small domination. Yet when I found my hand lingering over the still furred length of hide I had yet to scrape, the touch felt affectionate, familiar. It was as if the animal was still there, as though I was touching a living deer—though with every stroke of my hand, some of the long white tail hairs came loose and drifted away. Stroke by stroke, disintegration, breakdown. When I folded the hide and placed it in a bag, it seemed to again move away from the animal it had belonged to, evolving into a simple material. Still, I had the sense it retained the possibility of coming alive once more.
Later, there came more soaking; then the hide spent an evening and night underwater at the bottom of a creek bed, weighted down with stones. Then more scraping, more rinsing. Because I hadn’t been able to take the deer’s brain, I cracked a dozen eggs as a substitute to mimic the traditional slurry used to lubricate the skin’s fibers, and let it soak some more.
I spent most of a day softening the hide as it dried, pulling and stretching it with my hands, again and again, polishing the surface with a small pumice stone. And finally, I built a smoldering fire, hung the supple skin over the coals where the smoke could waterproof and preserve what was at last a gorgeous, baby-soft swatch of buckskin.
IN THOSE LONG hours of stretching and softening, I asked the hide for cooperation. It was often reluctant. My body grew tired; my hands were no match for the strength of this skin. I shouldn’t have been surprised; deerskin is incredibly tough. This is what makes it so useful to humans. Our own skins are flimsy by comparison, needing protection to rove across the landscape. A deer’s thick hide allows it to roam where it will. Yet more than one hide tanner I’ve talked to has mentioned that when tanning deer hides, they often find long scratch marks along an animal’s spine, likely from squeezing under barbed wire.
The world has changed utterly since the long millennia when Indigenous women spent so many seasons tanning leather, though of course, both humans and deer remain on the land. My ancestors are the people of barbed wire, the people of settlement, more likely to have been buyers than tanners of buckskin. Though I used natural materials as often as I could in this process—the ash, for example, from our cooking fires, instead of purchasing hydrated lime—the question of authenticity in my process remains unanswered.
I only know that the project led me to the deer’s topography and ecotones, to her particular hues and pelage. It allowed me to learn her scent. The encounter invited me toward the black-hole radiance of her animality—showed me how, within the small space of her body, she held such large meaning.