Why I use animal products in my jewelry work.
I recently received some hateful comments on one of my necklace photos on Facebook. It had a piece of kangaroo fur featured in it. The comments claimed the use of kangaroo fur in particular was unsustainable, cruel, unethical, and even against Aboriginal culture. I realised I had not been clear in the description about where the fur had come from, and edited it to say that in fact, the fur had been purchased when I was in Brewarrina for a corrobboree tour where we experienced five days of First Nations and environmental learning, looking at the health of the rivers from Walgett to the Menindee Lakes. We learned about relevant dreaming stories, songs and dances, and shared food like kangaroo and emu as we travelled. Hundreds of people were involved. I wrote about the experience in my book Belonging to the Earth: Nature Spirituality in a Changing World. When we passed through the town of Brewarrina, a friend of mine who I had met on the tour, and who happened to be Aboriginal, suggested I support the community there by buying a kangaroo fur and I did. That is where the fur came from.
Yes, this kangaroo died for the fur to be made available to me, but I believe using it is ethical and sustainable, and to me it is also sacred. I eat a lot of kangaroo meat. Hoofed animals do a lot of damage to the Australian landscape. They churn up the topsoil which creates erosion and damages deep rooted native plants that help prevent drought and sandstorms. Many hoofed animals also excrete high amounts of phosphorus in their faeces which can pollute the rivers and oceans. Kangaroos, on the other hand, are light footed. They don’t cause erosion or damage the native plants' root systems. In fact, in areas where they are farmed the land is often very healthy as a result of their presence, with native plants and wetlands returning which increase biodiversity and can potentially reverse the effects of climate change. Eating kangaroo meat is effectively good for the environment bceause the land improves in areas where they are being harvested. Using the furs that come with the meat is a way of further making sure that the resource is sustainable and there is less waste.
It should be noted that my leatherwork is not wasteful the way that commercial leather work can be. I don’t ever waste anything, and I am careful to use each pelt or hide as much as I can so that the least lives are taken. This one kangaroo pelt will probably last me for the rest of my jewelry making career. For the last 12 years I have been making jewelry with a single half hide of cow leather that I purchased back in 2012. If I were to purchase all the leather of that animal it would probably be enough to last me until the end of my career too. I am not wasteful with it. When I cut out a larger piece for a bag or belt, the left-over smaller pieces are saved to be used for earrings or necklace pendants. Every single piece of the leather is used. Nothing is ever wasted.
I know about sustainability with meat and its byproducts because it’s in my family. My grandfather was a butcher in Yorkshire, and so was his father, and his father, back through generations, who knows how long. He ran a small butcher’s shop with a small abattoir in the back of the shop. They got the bulls as a bartered payment from the farmer who kept animals in their field at the back. The bulls needed to be culled anyway as they would fight or be dangerous. Most of the cattle you see in fields are cows. The shop was out the back of the house where my grandparents lived. My uncle and his family still live in that same house though the shop is no more. I remember visiting the shop as a child and being shown the abattoir room and having it explained how it all worked. It wasn’t a big room, and it wasn’t used all the
time. One bull can provide over 1400 meals, so they didn’t need to be slaughtered often. At one time, that was enough to feed the whole village for a week. I also remember my grandfather making sausages by hand, and cutting the meat for the display. The leather went to the tanner, the bones to the glue factories or for dog food. Every single thing was used. That’s the mindset I’ve been brought up with and it’s how I approach the use of the animal products in my work.
For me, it’s also sacred and a part of my Pagan practice as a nature-based spirituality. To me, eating an animal’s flesh or wearing its fur is a sacred act, and a magical one. In Irish lore there is a story where a ritual called the Tarb Feis is enacted. In this ritual, the Druid or magician will eat as much bull flesh as they can, then drink as much of the bull’s broth as they can. They then wrap themselves in the hide of the bull and sleep in order to dream a divinatory vision. One of the stories that mentions it is called The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel, in which the divination is used to determine the future king. In this story we can see how the eating of meat and the wearing of the hide or fur is used in the magic of divination and is particularly sacred. Feasting and the sharing of meat was also important, with cattle themselves being the most important symbol of wealth, good fortune and trade.
Not all Pagans share the same beliefs around food. Certainly there are many people on the Pagan path, and in Druidry who choose to be vegetarian or vegan. Iolo Morgannwg himself was a vegetarian. But it’s not everyone’s choice. What we do seem to share is a view of the importance of the environment, of sustainability, of reducing waste, and of seeing our acts as sacred.
I have always considered myself an ‘ecotarian’. I eat meat, but that’s not what defines my consumption choices. I weigh up my decisions based on what is best for the environment, as best as I can with the resources I have. I do my best and when I can make a choice that is better for the environment, I do. For me that means I do some of the following:
I try to prioritise meats that are not harmful to the environment. I eat kangaroo and free range chicken mainly.
I eat vegetables and fruits that are home grown, from the community gardens, locally grown or at the very least in season, so they don’t have to be stored.
I choose foods with little to no packaging, or packaging that can be reused, burned in the fire pit, or recycled.
I buy in bulk if larger packages are available to reduce waste – eg. 20kg rice bags
I forage locally for mushrooms and apples which I dry and store for the year
I grow my own herbs
I make jams, chutneys and sauces from scratch to use less packaging
I avoid soy bean products like soy milk or tofu that use huge amounts of glyphosate that pollutes waterways and kills native fish.
Similarly, in my jewelry work I have some ethical rules that I follow as much as I can:
I purchase my fur directly from hunters, or in ways that will support communities that need financial support.
I generally use small amounts of fur or leather so that one pelt or hide lasts many years.
I purchase fur of animals that are “culled” anyway or are invasive, such as deer, foxes.
I purchase fur of animals whose management through harvesting benefits the environment, such as kangaroos.
The boars teeth I used were rescued from being taken to landfill and were given to me as a donation. I have enough to last a long time. Boars are also culled in Australia.
The bone beads I use are from the beef industry and are also a landfill save. I bought them in bulk at a second-hand craft market.
I rescue and reuse items used in my jewelry as much as I can.
I use gemstones that are semi-precious rather than rare – so they occur in abundance in the world and acquiring and processing them creates minimal impact. I think I have used less stone in my work over the last 13 years than there would be in any driveway or single wall of any home we live in. I do not waste the stones. I use everything I purchase.
Sometimes I fossick my own stones and cut and polish them myself, or I purchase from other people who do the same. This way has even less impact on the environment and I do it as much as I can.
Ethics are really important to me. When I talk about connection with nature or Earth Healing I'm talking about expanding our consciousness towards other species and their needs, to plants and trees and to the Earth herself; I am talking about our spiritual connection, but I am also talking about practical considerations such as how to consume sustainably and without waste. I have made my decisions about what works best for me, and what I feel I can do with a clear conscience. I hope that you will find your own way to your own decisions about what that means for you. I hope your choices will be as good for the Earth as they can be, because yes, this Earth does need healing. It needs more people who consider their actions carefully, who don’t make assumptions about others and their choices, and who work towards creating less waste, mor sustainability, and more awareness that every act should be sacred.
If you don’t agree with me and the position I've come to on this, that’s fine. I respect our differences and am glad you’ve found your own way. I’m going to continue using the leather and fur I have already purchased in my jewelry work. I doubt I will ever need to purchase any more. I'm going to continue eating meat. And I'm going to continue seeing both as sacred acts, particularly when they are done with consideration, and without waste. If you don’t like leather or fur in your jewelry, then maybe my page isn’t for you. That’s ok. I do make a lot of jewelry that has no animal products in it, but if you don't like seeing those that have it, I hope you find something that suits your path better. Let’s all work on doing what we can in our own way, helping each other to learn and move forward with greater respect for the Earth. If you'd like to respond, perhaps you can write a blog about it yourself? Many blessings to you and thanks for reading to the end.