A Meditation on Taxidermy and the Breath that Binds


The walls had eyes. Literally. The cabin was a veritable monument to taxidermy. Every spare vertical inch was adorned with a head that gazed upon our group for the weekend. Bighorn, moose, elk, caribou, deer, antelope — if it had horns, it held space. Enormous chandeliers hung pendulously with the weight of assorted antlers. Flat surfaces were covered in furs and hides culled from feline, ursine and musteline mammals alike. Reanimated pheasants and grouse were frozen in the perpetual motion of fleeing their pursuers

We hung our coats on 40-calliber bullet casings pounded into juniper posts, and each of us took in the scene with varying degrees of awe and aversion. The cabin had been booked sight unseen. But death and dominion be damned, this would be our sacred space. We circled up in the great room, beneath the unwavering stares of onetime beings, and began the silent practice of stalking ever-elusive peace.

We meditated amongst the hunted.

Over the course of the weekend, as wild minds sought refuge from silence in myriad mundane distractions, each of us met the wall’s once-wild gazes in our own time and fashion. Some of us were saddened or startled — excellent fodder for interior work — and some were bemused by the irony of a group of vegan-eating meditators following the precept of nonviolence while inside a wildlife mausoleum.

It is the stuff of which B-rated comedies are made. And it is this stuff — where we see the sublime is the ridiculous — that reminds us all to take none of it too seriously. A humorless world makes one’s presence within it difficult.

Though the container was seemingly incongruous to the event — like shoving a square peg in a bullet hole — upon later reflection, it was unassumingly appropriate. While I own a gun to obtain meat, not trophies, I am familiar with the hunt that landed all these animals on the wall. And it is not so different from meditation.

Hunting is an exercise in singular awareness and absolute presence. It requires silence of being and attention to the smallest details — noticing the ground textures that amplify footfalls, spotting the faint hoof-prints of traveling animals, finding places providing vantage and refuge, water and food. It necessitates a state of not so much thinking as feeling. And just like meditation retreats, hunting requires greeting the day before dawn.

In its purest state, I think the hunt can be a celebration of existence and all that sustains us, honoring what it is to be human, connected to other beings for survival and meaning. Such practice should feel familiar to any soulful, seeking being — even vegan-eating retreat-goers searching for the ground of existence in an unexpected space.

As my mind wandered that weekend — despite my best intentions — I wondered at how a convergence of hunters and hippies might look in this cabin: southern Utah natives uncomfortably perched atop cushions while more-recent imports sat uneasily underneath a taxidermist’s dreamscape. What might we say to one another? Would conversation ever take us beyond the realm of superficial incongruities to that place where we both find meaning? Would we uncover a common language related to the presence and pursuit of something greater? Perhaps not. It could be a very awkward dinner party. Or a great screenplay.

But I have a vague sense for that shared space beneath it all. I’ve felt the same quiet calm, the same openness, on retreat as I have hunting. Insights have arisen during the rare mind-silences both opportunities provide.

As Rumi wrote:Ancient drawing

I … have seen the two worlds
as one and that one call to and know,
first, last, outer, inner, only that
breath breathing human being.

The walls had eyes. And we met their gazes — as breath, breathing human beings. Because that’s all we can ever do. That’s all that we ever are.