Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Working with bones

There is a definite stigma with bones, an association with death, and as a society I feel we have lost our connection with that which has gone beyond.  There is a rising number of young people who don't know where their food comes from, who dislike the idea of seeing meat that looks 'like an animal' (as opposed to a packaged, ready to use piece of meat from the supermarket).

I was raised with a very open attitude towards food, and in some ways death.  Whole animals were not uncommon, in fact they were often considered a treat.  We ate almost every part of an animal, and that idea is something that I hope I have continued on with my son (who is a very adventurous eater, and hasn't shown signs of being bothered by eating non-standard cuts of meat).  I don't feel like I was raised to be disgusted by death either.  Open casket funerals were something I remember, as well as Graveyard Day (a Chinese custom of sharing food at the grave and burning paper offerings).

Bones have always fascinated me.  I think they have a unique beauty, and the fact that they were once a living being makes them even more special to me.  I feel that by honoring and using bones, I am showing my respect for the animal that used to inhabit them.  Especially an animal that may have become my food, but also bones that were 'found' or bought.

I have bones that I acquired when I was a child, around grade school age.  I had a grandmother who was very interested in all things desert, and at that time, rattlesnake stuff was very popular.  I have a rattlesnake vertebrae that came with a snakeskin bracelet I bought as a souvenir.  I also have a skull that we think was either cat or rat.  My grandfather found it, he used to find all kinds of things in the woods and bring them back to his storage houses and clean them up.  I loved the skull and he let me have it.  It takes a place of pride on my Samhain altar each year, and lives on my bookshelf the rest of the time.

Since then I have added to my bone collection.  My current athame has a bone handle, which I was so very pleased to find.  As soon as I saw it I knew that I wanted it.  I spent years carving runes into bone staves for my very own rune set.  I occasionally save bones that I like from our dinner table. 

There are a few good lessons I've learned about working with bones along the way.  It is much easier to clean them when any clinging bits are not dried, so soaking them in water helps soften the meat so you can clean it off.  An old, stiff toothbrush works really well for small bits.  I know that if I am making chicken soup, the bones pull away from the meat really easily after cooking (and if you want to split them for any reason, it is much easier when they are soft like this).  But, actually boiling the bones pulls the fat and marrow out from the center and gives them an oily feel.  I did this with a lamb bone before I read up and found out that it is recommended to clean them several times in simmering, but not boiling water.

There are other ways to clean bones as well.  One way, with larger bones, is to put them in some kind of wire cage (where the holes are smaller than the bones) and leave them outside so insects will clean them.  There are also chemicals you can use to help clean bones (though bleach is not recommended)...I haven't done any of this, so I can't say what works well or not.  You definitely don't want to use vinegar on your bones as soaking them in vinegar will leech out the calcium and make them rubbery...unless that is your intention!

I also learned a lot while carving my runes in bone.  I had some old bone staves that I was using, and they were very hard.  I also had some dental tools which is what I was using to carve.  It was very tedious work, basically using the metal tools to scrape my lines over and over until they achieved some level of depth.  There was a delicate level of force too hard, and it was easy to loose control of the tool and scrape where you didn't intend to (or stab your leg or hand!) but don't press hard enough and you don't leave any mark at all.

What I found very helpful was to wet the area of the bone I was working on slightly.  I used saliva though you could definitely use water if you don't feel comfortable with saliva (I feel the extra connection between me and the bone rune staves was a desirable thing though).  I would wet the area and let it sit for a minute or so, then scrape with my tool.  I also would use a pencil to darken in the area so I could easily see the marks I was making.

One other warning I found, while reading up on bone carving, is that the bone dust is very harmful to your lungs, so you always want to make sure to work in a well ventilated area and/or wear a mask.  This is especially important if you are carving actual figures or items, but is a good idea to do even if you are just etching symbols into bone.

Many small bones are easy to come by, especially if you are a meat eater.  These smaller bones can be excellent for bone staves, divination sets, small tokens or charms, inclusion into spell bags or use in jewelry.  But you may also want larger pieces, either to carve into statues or pendants or to make tools out of. 

You can sometimes find larger bones at the grocery, I have seen sections about five inches long sold for soup, and leg-in roasts or large hams also have larger bones in them that you can clean and use.  If you are lucky enough to have an actual butcher near you, it is possible to speak with them about getting or buying bones.  Another source of bones is the pet store, where they sell bones for dogs to chew on.  Some of these may need more cleaning as they may have smoked meat on the bone still.  And you can find a lot of bones now on-line, sometimes in lots, often already cleaned.

There are a lot of ways to use bones, and once cleaned, they shouldn't have an odor.  Becoming more familiar with bones, especially in the foods we eat (again, I am a meat eater!) helps bring us closer to our food sources and helps bridge that disconnect that many people feel when it comes to the food they eat.  Even if you don't eat meat, you may find a unique connection with animals by working with bones.  I think that it can be a profound experience, and help us find that spiritual reverence our ancestors had with the animals they shared this world with.

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