Death and Taxonomies

The habit of humanity has long been to fix the natural world on the end of a pin, to arrange all flora and fauna into a museum of death and order.

Taxidermy workroom, National Museum of Natural History, with specimens from President Theodore Roosevelt's African safari, ca. 1911.
Taxidermy workroom, National Museum of Natural History, with specimens from President Theodore Roosevelt’s African safari, ca. 1911. [Smithsonian Institution Archives]

As winter set in, I found myself seeking out antique stores, and estate and garage sales, in search of a stuffed squirrel. It was not a deliberate search, at least at first. I simply felt a pull, a hope that I’d find some worthy specimen of the taxidermist’s art in some neglected back room; and so I also felt a vague disappointment whenever it failed to materialize. The cold had come suddenly to the Hudson Valley of upstate New York, the last of the fall leaves gone by December. On snowy days the clouds would filter out the color from the sky and the trees would appear blackened as if by some sweeping fire, leaving a monochrome landscape that made me feel as if I were moving through a photograph.

It’s not clear when ordinary animals, like squirrels, first became the subject of taxidermy. Embalming is an old practice, stretching back thousands of years; but taxidermy, with its emphasis on maintaining a “lifelike” appearance after death, is only a few hundred years old. Early taxidermy was rarefied, involving only animals with symbolic meaning, such as the shellacked crocodiles in the churches of Italy and Spain that stood in for the dragons defeated by saints George and Michael, or the horses of once famous generals that you sometimes find in the attics of old war museums. By the 18th century the field was expanding its purview and professionalizing its operations, spurred by European explorers who sought to preserve the natural specimens they’d collected in Asia or the Americas for the long journey back home.

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Fledgling taxidermists began to experiment with chemicals to protect skin and feathers from mold and insects, and in curiosity cabinets and amateur laboratories there was soon underway a strange, quiet race to discover the best means of preservation. Numerous solutions were tried, to varying effect, until finally, around 1740, a French ornithologist, Jean-Baptiste Bécoeur, perfected a stable preparation that arrested decomposition. Bécoeur had experimented with some 50 different chemicals before settling on a mixture of camphor, arsenic, potassium carbonate, soap, and calcium hydroxide, which became known as “arsenical soap”; after his death, in 1777, his recipe was discovered, and soon became the primary means of preparing birds and mammals, allowing the art of taxidermy to flourish throughout the 19th century.

U.S. Government Building, Louisiana Purchase Exposition, St. Louis, Missouri, 1904.
U.S. Government Building, Louisiana Purchase Exposition, St. Louis, Missouri, 1904. [Wellcome Library, London]

Natural History Museum, Bergen, Norway, 2012.
Natural History Museum, Bergen, Norway, 2012. [Christopher Goss]

For the most part the early European taxidermists were interested in exotic fauna — strange birds and charismatic mammals from distant continents which were too delicate or dangerous to be delivered alive to the menageries of European aristocrats. The lowly quotidian squirrel could claim no proper place in these collections of curiosities. In the earliest manual on the subject in English, Taxidermy, or the Art of Collecting, Preparing, and Mounting Objects of Natural History (written by the illustrator and naturalist Sarah Bowdich, and published anonymously in 1820), the only mammals discussed are monkey, bat, lemur, hedgehog, hare, beaver, anteater, armadillo, deer, seal, dolphin, porpoise, bear, elephant, whale, and human — though of this last species, Bowdich admits that taxidermists had to date “only produced misshapen hideous objects.” 1 But by the mid 19th century, taxidermy as a field was advancing. No longer were its specimens — or “mounts” — destined for curiosity cabinets that sought to demonstrate the ingenuity of God by showing His most marvelous works; now they began to populate the new natural history museums that aimed to represent the natural world in its entirety. And so the humble squirrel began to appear, alongside the bird of paradise and the rhinoceros, among the subjects of taxidermists, worthy of being preserved, stuffed, mounted, and displayed.

Museums of natural history are dedicated to display; but the field itself has a more fundamental purpose — it is rooted in nothing less than the human desire to order, to taxonomize, the natural world in all its complexity. Not only do taxidermy and taxonomy share the same etymological roots: taxon, from the Greek, meansto order”; either skin, dermis, in the case of taxidermy, or knowledge, gnomos, in the case of taxonomy. Both are also born of the same impulse: to categorize and classify all living things, to submit the plants and animals of the earth to the rigors of a logical arrangement.

King Phillip Came Over From Great Spain. Kids Playing Chicken on Freeways Get Smashed. Kangaroos Play Cellos, Orangutans Fiddle, Gorillas Sing. Driving along the back roads of Dutchess County, I would run through these old high school mnemonics for remembering the Linnaean classification system —Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. Stopping in small towns, drawn by a scattering of shops along a sleepy main street, I continued the hunt for my stuffed squirrel, which had become a strange sort of obsessive quest.

Natural history museums are dedicated to display; but the field is rooted in the human desire to order, to taxonomize, the world in all its complexity.

I’d already come to assume that the squirrel would be in some state of mangy disrepair, its fur patchy, its glass eye no longer snug in its socket. In their effort to preserve the organic matter of the dead animal — or what’s left of it — from decomposition, early taxidermists were especially focused on preventing insects — especially moths — from chewing fur and feathers. The moth has, of course, long been a symbol of rot and impermanence (“Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt,” Jesus tells his disciples), and in the workrooms of the taxidermists, “moth-eaten” is not a metaphor but a constant threat. In contrast, squirrels have little symbolism or deeper meaning in human culture; scampering about in parks or fields, on the periphery of our vision, they simply exist, ordinary and forgettable. They are popular taxidermy subjects because they are not endangered and their corpses are easy to find — good practice for a beginner.

I had begun to think about squirrels because of their fleeting appearances throughout W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz. The novel, the author’s last before his untimely death, in 2001, is filled with depictions and discussions of a variety of animals — from the nocturnal creatures in the novel’s opening pages, trapped in the Nocturama of the Antwerp Zoo; to the homing pigeons of Jacques Austerlitz’s childhood friend Gerald, uncanny in their secret knowledge; to the herd of deer in a different zoo that prompts one of Austerlitz’s companions to remark offhandedly that “captive animals and we ourselves, their human counterparts, view one another à travers une brèche d’incompréhension.” Indeed, it is this breach of incomprehension that defines the relationship between animals and humans — a breach that can only be overcome momentarily and randomly.

Austerlitz, who traveled from Czechoslovakia to Wales on the Kindertransport that rescued Jewish children from Hitler’s Europe in the months before the Second World War, learns of his earlier life only much later. Returning to his homeland, with no memory of his native language, he traces his mother’s route to the concentration camp of Theresienstadt, where she was murdered. Walking through the deserted town of Terezín, he comes upon a window display in an antiques store, where he sees a “stuffed squirrel, already moth-eaten here and there, perched on the stump of a branch in a showcase the size of a shoebox, which had its beady button eye implacably fixed on me, and whose Czech name — veverka — I now recalled like the name of a long-lost friend.” But just as this moment of naming the squirrel in his mother tongue offers a brief connection to the past, so it is quickly dispelled. The taxidermied creature remains a cypher. “What … was the meaning of veverka,” Austerlitz asks himself, “the squirrel forever perched in the same position,” stranded amongst the other trinkets and curios, “objects that for reasons one could never know had outlived their former owners and survived the process of destruction,” objects lost in time and oblivious to the history of the nearby crematorium?

“The catacombs of nature”

The winter of searching for the stuffed squirrel was the same winter I spent watching the birds of prey that would take up fleeting residence around our house. Through the leaveless trees, I spotted  hawks and falcons as they cut through the forest and came to rest on the limbs of the sugar maples that mark the boundary between our backyard and the forest beyond. It was not unusual to see a hawk perch on the bare branches, sometimes moving its head slightly, scanning the sky and ground, other times remaining motionless, disappearing into the landscape, before exploding once again into flight across the white skies.

But no sooner was I entranced by the beauty of a bird than I would feel compelled to try to identify it. Fitted out with binoculars and guidebook, my wife and I would set out to determine: was the horizontal banding an indication of a Cooper’s Hawk, or could this be another species of raptor altogether? I learned to define birds by these sorts of simple and seemingly arbitrary descriptors, reducing each animal to a set of colorations or geometric shapes: the peregrine, with its telltale dark patches beneath the eyes; the sharp-shinned hawk with its banded, square tail. As if that was all there was to know, as if by locating some defining feature, abstracting identity into a few distinguishing marks, one could name the creature and thus have some kind of mastery over it.

Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, 2012.
Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, 2012. [Wikimedia Commons]

How does one go about deciding which aspects of an animal are most relevant to its taxonomy? In 1836, Henry David Thoreau’s brother John and sister Sophia began to keep a notebook cataloging the bird species they saw in the woods around Concord, Massachusetts; in short order they began looking for the taxonomical categories by which they could differentiate the birds of North America. But as Branka Arsić writes, in her exploration of birds and Thoreau, “the notebook testifies to John’s increasing frustration with scientific methodologies of classification.” 2 As one pages through the volume, his growing displeasure becomes palpable. First John attempted to organize the birds according to migratory patterns, and then to the seasons in which they are likely to appear, and then by a strict alphabetical order. All of which methods he abandoned, as he again and again came to the hard conclusion that any taxonomical system does damage, arranging together unlike creatures for the sake of some putative order, all the while denying other affinities which might not be scientific per se but which may nonetheless have sharper, more revelatory meanings.

At times, in his notebook, John referred to specific birds — “May 17 ’37 An adult male; upon ‘Chesuncook’ in company with the males of last season whose lighter plumage contrasted pleasingly with the brilliant dress of this more advanced specimen” — as if to indicate the degree to which taxonomy, by highlighting generalized traits, inevitably fails to account for individual variety and difference. “What interests him,” Arsić concludes, “is what no nomenclature, however invested in nuance, can offer: the particular and the relational (how a particular Oriole contrasts with others in the observed group), the that.3

Ultimately John Thoreau’s impulse is to mistrust the rigors of taxonomy, to pause before the process of abstracting an animal species from its habitat and situating it within a contrived hierarchy. Such schematization often demands a figural killing; sometimes even a literal one. John James Audubon, the great ornithologist and illustrator, recalled how, as a young boy, he killed a kingfisher in order to be able to draw it; he described how he’d “pierced the body of the fishing bird, and fixed it on the board.” “At last — there stood before me the real Kingfisher,” the immobile subject for what Audubon triumphantly called his “first drawing actually from nature.” 4

Specimens of taxidermied birds at Mrs. M. A. Maxwell's Rocky Mountain Museum, ca. 1875.
Specimens of taxidermied birds at Mrs. M. A. Maxwell’s Rocky Mountain Museum, ca. 1875. [Boston Public Library]

The more famous Thoreau, Henry, rejected the taxonomical imperative altogether. “I hate museums; there is nothing so weighs upon my spirits,” he writes, in his Journal. “They are the catacombs of nature. … They are dead nature collected by dead men. I know not whether I muse most at the bodies stuffed with cotton and sawdust or those stuffed with bowels and fleshy fibre outside the cases.” 5 Thoreau saw that once a specimen is brought into a museum, arrested for study and catalogued for posterity, it has already lost its substance. And in fact, for all its benefits to knowledge, taxonomy has always harbored and even condoned acts of violence, of domination. As the murderous Judge Holden explains, in Blood Meridian, “Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.” In Cormac McCarthy’s bleak and violent novel, the Judge captures and collects natural specimens. “These anonymous creatures … may seem little or nothing in the world,” he says. “Yet the smallest crumb can devour us. Any smallest thing beneath yon rock out of men’s knowing. Only nature can enslave man and only when the existence of each last entity is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be properly suzerain of the earth.”

Thoreau saw that once a specimen is brought into a museum, arrested for study and catalogued for posterity, it has already lost its substance.

Our obsession with taxonomy has long had its darker side. Linnaean classification has been used to bolster the pseudo-scientific theories of 19th- and early 20th-century racial biology — to justify pre-existing beliefs that Africans could be differentiated from Europeans, that if you measured enough noses, brows, and jawlines, you could rationalize racist politics and colonial pursuits. The era that saw the advancements of science, in which Carl Linnaeus sought to understand the natural world by organizing it into kingdoms, phyla, and families, was at the same time an era of imperial conquest in which millions were subjugated, enslaved, and colonized. In this view no naturalist’s work — nor museum’s display — can be understood as truly disinterested.

“All the memory of the world”

That winter I was making only occasional trips into the city. The train from the Hudson Valley would cut through the woods and wind along the wide river, before approaching the Bronx and northern Manhattan and then descending into the tunnels that terminate at Grand Central. By the time the train has arrived, and you file out with the masses of commuters and tourists, the country with its dark forests and snow-glutted rivers seems a distant memory. I’d walk through the marbled halls of the great station and out into Midtown, the snow hardened into black and gray ice and piled into embankments that narrowed the broad sidewalks. Channeled into these grim paths, I found it hard to wander the city, and so I wound up, as often as not, just a few blocks away, on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, at the New York Public Library, offering my bag’s contents for a security check.

Inquiry Desk, New York Public Library, 1923.
Inquiry Desk, New York Public Library, 1923. [New York Public Library]

For more than a century the library has been hailed as one of the city’s great democratizing institutions, the place where everyone, rich and poor, can come and access its massive stores of knowledge. The imposing flagship building, with the entrance flanked by stone lions, “radiates triumph and glory when you walk inside,” in the words of Bob Dylan, who frequented the library in his early years in New York. I would spend winter afternoons in the egalitarian grandeur of the Rose Reading Room, with the carved wooden tables and brass lamps, the high ceiling adorned with gilded rosettes and a mural of billowing pink clouds. I’d sit at the end of one of the tables, surrounded by locals and tourists, to my left an offering of reference books — The Industrial Revolution; the four- volume Nations and Nationalism, Europe 1815-1945; A Historical Dictionary of European Imperialism — while I’d read about the ill-fated Danish Arabia expedition to Yemen, Marilynne Robinson’s arguments for Calvinism, or Stefan Zweig’s final days with Joseph Roth in Nazi-occupied Europe.

I had been suppressing an unwelcome thought: that the New York Public Library, with its chilly marble and vaulted corridors, can feel at times like a mausoleum.

Yet after a while I began to feel a creeping sense of doom. At times the New York Public Library can seem less like a library than like the idea of a library, one whose books are almost all hidden from sight, buried beneath its giant edifice in an inaccessible warren of stacks. Amidst the magnificence of the place I couldn’t help but recall the mood of warmth and generosity that characterizes so many smaller, humbler libraries, where you are surrounded by the books themselves. Gradually I recognized I had been suppressing an unwelcome thought: that the New York Public Library, with its chilly marble and wide staircases and vaulted corridors, can feel at times like a mausoleum. Or at least like a monument — a monument to books, to learning and memory. In his 1957 documentary on the Bibliothèque Nationale, in Paris, Toute la Mémoire du Monde, Alain Resnais captures the grandeur of the state library, and also the very madness of the enterprise. Resnais films the librarians as they receive, document, and catalogue the incoming books and periodicals, toiling joylessly as they work to organize the never-ending supply of new information. “Because he has a short memory, man amasses countless memory aids,” the narrator intones. “Faced with these bulging responsibilities, man fears being engulfed by this mass of words. To safeguard his freedom, he builds fortresses.”

Stacks, New York Public Library.
Stacks at the New York Public Library. [Published in a 1911 issue of Scientific American]

Among bibliophiles it is dangerous to suggest that the library is a site of madness and despair; that it is an institution — like the natural history museum — dedicated as much to arresting as to serving the knowledge of the world. But it is not unintentional that Sebald draws dark parallels between the library and the concentration camp. In the novel, Jacques Austerlitz searches for information about his missing father at the Bibliothèque Nationale, just as he sought for clues about his mother at Theresienstadt. In the closing pages of the book, he realizes that the library does not house toute la mémoire du monde; rather it is where memory is actively obliterated.

It is not unintentional that W.G. Sebald draws dark parallels between the library and the concentration camp.

Austerlitz recalls an encounter with a librarian named Lemoine: “We began a long, whispered conversation in the Haut-de-jardin reading room, which was gradually emptying now, about the dissolution, in line with the inexorable proliferation of processed data, of our ability to remember.” And yet Austerlitz finds in the library some promise of life; in the heart of the vast building there is an enclosed courtyard, and here, says Austerlitz: “I sometimes felt as if I saw circus acrobats climbing the cables slanting up from the ground to the evergreen canopy … or as if, always on the edge of invisibility, I saw dodging now here, now there, those two mythical squirrels said to have been brought to the library in the hope that they will increase and multiply, founding a large colony of their species in this artificial pine grove to entertain any readers who look up from theirs books now and then.” A lowly creature without symbolism or history, who stubbornly persists in this labyrinth of knowledge, always just on the verge of dropping from view.

“What hath God wrought”

As the snow finally began to melt, and the roads cleared, I once again could drive further and further away from home. But it was quite close to our house that I discovered the Akin Free Library. One night, lost on the way to a friend’s place, my wife and I stopped at an intersection in the middle of an empty road and saw in the headlights a sign pointing to the right, indicating that here in the countryside there was, unexpectedly, a natural history museum. I returned the next day.

Left: Taxidermied squirrel, Olive Gunnison Collection. Right: Akin Free Library, Quaker Hill.
Left: Stuffed squirrel, Olive Gunnison Natural History Museum. [Colin Dickey] Right: Akin Free Library, Quaker Hill. [Rolf Müller]

The Akin Free Library is located in the hamlet of Quaker Hill, named for the same sect that founded the library. The area was once home to a grand resort hotel, and at the turn of the 20th century the library was built to serve the community and the well-heeled city dwellers who’d traveled north in search of fresh air and relaxation. It was in the basement of the three-story stone building that I found the Olive Gunnison Natural History Museum. Born in Massachusetts, in 1888, Olive began collecting specimens as a young girl; her early bounty included a horned toad and a tarantula, and a piece of red organ pipe coral. In college, Olive studied zoology, botany, and geology, and continued to amass objects of all sorts throughout her life. “In times of prolonged illness, misfortune or sorrow,” she wrote, “there is no question but that hobbies do help make life more bearable for everyone concerned and I speak from experience.” 6

The collection grew to contain numerous birds, moths, and insects, and so many geological specimens that they filled an entire room of Olive’s house. There were stranger curiosities, too: a lizard embedded in amber, a jar containing an ear of corn covered in fungus, a shrunken human head, bot fly larvae embedded in a horse’s stomach. Eventually Olive and her husband, Raymond Gunnison, built a separate building on their property to accommodate what Raymond called Olive’s “Chambers of Horror.” Friends would return from their exotic travels with yet more trinkets and oddities for the diligent collector: an extinct heath hen, a fan made from passenger pigeon feathers, tiles recovered from the ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In 1960 Olive donated her entire collection to the Akin Free Library. At the same time she decided the collection deserved a motto, and chose “What hath God wrought” — a passage from Numbers 23:23, and also the first words transmitted by Samuel Morse across his new invention of the telegraph, in 1844.

Olive Gunnison Natural History Museum.
Olive Gunnison Natural History Museum. [Colin Dickey]

Today the collection seems largely forgotten, and it is slowly deteriorating. The insect specimens are ragged and in various stages of disintegration. The formaldehyde that once preserved the larger specimens is evaporating and exposing them to air. The rocks are collecting dust while dehumidifiers struggle to remove the damp. But no matter; it was here, in the basement amidst Mrs. Gunnison’s treasures, that I found what I’d been seeking all winter: a squirrel, preserved and stuffed, perched on a birch log, an acorn in its forepaws, half-turned as if caught in the act of foraging. And much like the rest of the old collection, visibly worn: its body lumpen, the tail frayed, the nose eaten away and the mouth disfigured, the stitching and glue now visible.

What indeed is the meaning of such a squirrel? Whose presence in such a place seems not so much to display what God hath wrought as to demonstrate humanity’s ability to collect and taxonomize and so to dominate. Here was a squirrel whose inevitable decomposition, once arrested with arsenic and straw, was now again advancing; a squirrel whose half-decayed presence reveals neither divine nor human wisdom but rather the mandibles of moths and beetles, small creatures at the edges of our awareness yet always ready to reclaim for Nature all that we’ve labored to preserve, to hoard and organize. The habit of humanity has long been to fix the variegated natural world on the end of a pin, to arrange all flora and fauna into a museum of death and order. Yet it is the lowliest of creatures that are constantly thwarting this overweening pursuit and allowing the slow work of decomposition to proceed — and so enabling the great reanimation of all things.

I returned home late that night to find that my wife had left on the light by the front door; and I knew that it was truly spring, for waiting for me were dozens, perhaps hundreds, of moths, all gathered around the glow, fluttering slightly, newly alive to the world once again.

Editors' Note

This article was made possible by a grant from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.

  1. Sarah Bowdich, Taxidermy, or the Art of Collecting, Preparing, and Mounting Objects of Natural History (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1820).
  2. Branka Arsić, Bird Relics: Grief and Vitalism in Thoreau (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016), 144.
  3. Arsić, 150.
  4. Quoted in Christopher Irmscher, The Poetics of Natural History: From John Bartram to William James (New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 1999), 218.
  5. Robert Sattelmeyer, editor, The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, Journal, Volume 2: 1842–1848 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 77.
  6. Olive Mason Gunnison, “The Quaker Hill Museum of Natural History” (Pawling, New York: nd.)
Colin Dickey, “Death and Taxonomies,” Places Journal, July 2017. Accessed 02 Oct 2023.

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