One of my favorite seasons is autumn when the leaves ratchet up their color palette just before falling. And, as I mentioned last week, this fall seems to be a particularly dramatic one. It all happens because changes in temperature and the time the sun spends in the sky trigger the trees to stop their food-making systems. Chlorophyll begins to break down and trees’ green heads turn to other sleepier thoughts.
Meanwhile, the chickens stop laying. Storms begin spinning. And, in response to the shifting seasons, our human bodies change too. It’s not just an emotional change-over — though some of us with seasonal affective disorder (SAD, which I’ve always thought is one of the sillier made-up acronyms) do tend to curl up in fetal position from time to time on gloomy days. But docs say that our blood is actually altered too.
One website states that “Summer veins [what?] contain more fat-burning, body building and water-retaining hormones.” On the other hand and conveniently, just when cold and flu season starts, “winter blood contains denser immune responders.”
I wonder if this means vampires prefer winter blood: yummier, thicker and healthier? Could it be that the arrival of winter is timed perfectly with both hordes of hungrier vampires and Halloween with its ghoulish, grisly ghosts and goblins?
All Hallows Eve, which means hallowed (holy or blessed) evening, was originally a pagan celebration called Samhain in which people dressed as saints. The Celts thought that during this time of year the veil between worlds — our day-to-day mundane one and the world of spirits — was at its thinnest and most permeable; so people could return from the dead, which could be spooky if they were coming to make trouble.
Immigrants from Scotland and Ireland brought this holiday to the U.S. where we, of course, took no time in commercializing the heck out of it. (Even Goodwill brings out racks and racks of costumes.) At any rate, now what we have is a great holiday to dress up and be someone else, for the adults — and the ingredients for an amazing, parent-sanctioned sugar high for the kiddos.
Closer to home
For those of you who might want a taste of something different, though maybe still a tiny bit ghoulish, I recommend a thought-provoking exhibit at the Timberland Library in Ocean Park. A dedicated collector (who wishes to remain anonymous) has prepared and arranged a fantastic display of skulls and bones that they’ve has brought together over several decades.
I spoke with this collector last week and here is some of our conversation. “It all started when I was about 20 years old. I was in the Navy in Virginia and our base was next to a wildlife refuge. So I could just take off and go walking in the woods any time I wanted. Because a lot of the roads had barriers, they didn’t want people driving there, I could walk down through the forests and not see anyone else. But there were a lot of animals.”
“I found raccoons and possums and a lot of smaller animals, and deer. There was a huge population, herds of Virginia deer, and I got a high-powered [I was waiting for that to be followed by ‘rifle,’ but instead this collector said] flashlight. I’d walk around at night and shine my light into the woods, and I’d see a couple dozens pairs of eyes glowing in the dark. The deer were just lying there out in the grass in the fields. It was after all of that that I got interested in wildlife and natural history.”
I’d like to note that this individual has never killed any animal in order to add another set of bones to their 35-skull collection.
“I started coming to the beach in 1973 when my mom put a vacation cabin here. I’d find bird skulls sometimes up at Leadbetter. One time I found a couple skulls in the dunes. I also lived with my mom awhile on 20 acres of farmland near Salmon Creek in Vancouver. I’d go out on the beaches at the Dalles or near Arlington. Sometimes I’d find cow skulls. Every two or three or four years, I would add another skull to my collection.”
Toil and trouble
What if you find a skull with flesh still on it? Those Macbeth witches stirring their big cast iron pot come to mind: Double, double toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble!
Thus our collector continues, “One time on Sauvie Island, I found a whole dead raccoon on the beach. Now this is a little grisly because I had to separate the head from the body and put it in a big pot on a camp stove outside to render it in boiling water with a little bleach — that really sounds like Halloween doesn’t it! I had to peel the hide off. That’s how you get the skull and the jaws together though because mostly when you find the skull it’s not with the jaws… scavengers spread the bones around.”
In the library display case you’ll see, among others, a cow skull, a female elk, even the skull of a horse. One of my favorites is the dolphin skull about which the collector says, “I found this in the wet sand right on our Peninsula beach at Midway. That skull was hard to identify. At the time I was living in Portland so I ended up taking it to a Portland State University science building and asking a biologist to look at it. He said, ‘That’s a dolphin. Come with me!’ And we went down to the zoology and anatomy classroom and they had a fully articulated dolphin, the entire skeleton, hanging from the ceiling! They had some kind of big cat, maybe a lion. And they’d just gotten in a hippopotamus. And if you think some of my skulls are big… that skull was just massive and these big teeth!”
“For me, that was like going to Disneyland!”
“The biggest skull I’ve got is a bison — unfortunately that won’t fit in the display case. The smallest skull I got out of a barn owl pellet. I think it’s a little mouse. I have a dog skull a friend gave me — it looks like a coyote but half the size.”
Tips from the collector
The collector has some tips for those who might be budding bone collectors. “When I walk I am always looking. Don’t forget to look down. Here on the beach and even back in the woods with all the green and brown foliage — sometimes you just might see part of a bone or a skull sticking out. It will stand out from the natural vegetation.”
“A lot of people would just walk right by. Some are not the least bit interested. But I find skulls fascinating — everybody’s got one you know!”
The display runs through the end of October — just a couple more days — so take the kids to see some spooky bones.