I am always on the look out for feathers. If I wore a bumper sticker on my butt it would say “I stop for animal parts.” I have piles of feathers. My altar is decorated with not only feathers but also a clump of squirrel fur, deer fur, horse hair, antler tips, an actual rack of alters, leather, hide, teeth, bones and skulls. The newest editions to the family are a full crow’s wing and feet.
Animal parts make up a large portion of my ritual and magickal tools, to quote a friend of mine; “There are dead things on that altar”, enough that it’s a challenge to teach my young cat to stay off. My response to my friend was that she also has dead things on her altar; sticks, leaves, decomposing plant matter, dried flowers, acorns that will never become trees. She insisted that it is different to have a branch from a tree than a bone from a bear.
At a talk given by Judika Illes a couple of years ago she pointed out that tomatoes don’t want to be ripped from the vine. It’s just that we can’t hear them scream, unless you really try, unless you’re really attuned to the Land and that tomato plant. Of course, if you are that attuned, you’ve probably made sure to give the appropriate offerings and thanks and have explained to the tomato plant why it must be this way.
When I gather deadfall from a tree I give offerings and thanks. When I gather a shed feather from a bird I give thanks and offerings. When I cut a branch from a tree I know that I cut through living flesh, that sap is lifeblood … yet it is different than when I cut an animal. Removing the feet from a crow found dead is a different experience, even if it is not nearly as bloody and gore-filled as one might think. This point is driven home as I slice through sinew and nerve endings, causing the claw to open and close as if the bird is grasping at me. A bee might fly into my face as I gather wild chamomile in a vacant lot, but wild flowers are not going look at me with dead eyes.
When I gather animal parts there is also a methodology, just as when I gather leaves or flowers.
First and foremost, one must know the laws of the land. Depending on where you live it may be acceptable to gather from found dead animals, while in other regions it might not be. In some parts of the world even keeping an eagle feather that you found laying on the grass is breaking laws. In others you’ll need a permit or a hunting license or be a Native American. It varies a great deal. There are also laws regarding what you may sell, trade, give as a gift or what can cross borders.
When you wildcraft, garden or gather plants material there are also rules and laws to consider. Folks who choose to go the route of guerrilla gardening or planting on public spaces are running the risk of waking up one morning to find the city has destroyed their work. National and provincial/state parks often do not allow you to take so much as a pine cone. Vacant lots and other semi-wild urban areas might be sprayed with nasty pesticides or chemicals, something you will want to know about before walking into the place looking for some nice Queen Anne’s Lace for a natural dye.
Some people may choose to knowingly break these laws, for religious purposes or as an act of civil disobedience. It can be a hard pill to swallow; knowing that poor road killed deer may be unceremoniously dumped in a landfill by city workers. Especially when you yourself would honour it with love and in ritual, keeping a small piece so that it’s memory may live on. This is an ethical choice each must make, a risk that you must choose to or not to accept. But do so with full knowledge of the laws and the consequences of breaking said laws. While we may resent and question the laws and the law makers, keep in mind that often these laws are created to protect the Land. As a Pagan, Witch or Heathen, is it in your personal code of ethics to violate laws set forth to protect Mother Earth and Her creatures? Even if you find the laws to be unfair to you? Is it worth sneaking a pretty piece of quartz from a national park?
Secondly, consider what you are going to use the gathered parts for. Will it be a fetish for a familiar spirit, a devotional piece, or mere decoration to pretty-up your wand? Do you really need yet another oak leaf on your altar, would it not be better left to decompose with the rest of the leaf litter?
Most of the feathers and occasional bits of fur that I collect never become tools. They spend a period of time upon my altar, honoured and respected guests, before they are returned to the land. I honour the soul of the animal that it came from. I do this because it pleases my god and my spirits when I do so. It is a selfless act, I give up time and energy, I give blessings and offerings and then I send return them home. There is nothing for me to gain from this, other than pleasing certain entities who charge me with the job.
That horse hair? Plucked from the fencing that surrounded my mother’s horse pasture. The horse who the hair came from died as a result of a bear attack last year, the hair is now kept upon my altar for remembrance of a dead friend.
The bones and teeth in my divination set come from kill sites. Found while walking in the woods or whilst driving down a highway and encountering the remains of an unfortunate animal. The sticks and stones in that same set were primarily gathered much in the same way, found while on a hike or gathered from the family farm. Each piece was taken with love and respect … reverence even … offerings of energy (and possibly something more tangible, such as water) given in exchange.The pieces in this collection, the spirits attached to the physical objects, willingly joined my casting collection. They happily provide insight and are used to communicate with the spirits, gods and the dead. In exchange they receive energy, love, time spent soaking up the sunshine and a useful existence. Don’t we all want to be useful?
I do not need a new staff for ritual workings. Not when I already have one. It maybe be something of an embarrassment to me, made years ago and over done. I jokingly call it my “Fluffy Bunny Staff”. Yet, I do not need to cut another branch and start anew. Why do so when I can simply sand the poorly researched markings from the old one and make it new again?
Ask yourself this:
How great is your need? Many Witches of simular ilk as I share a motto: do as is needed (not as is wanted).
What do you offer in return?
What are your personal ethics in relation to the laws of man and the land?
Have you ever considered applying the Three Rs to your ritual, magickal and working tools?
How well do you know the landscape from which you take pieces, both animal or plant? How strong is your relationship with it?
Are there dead things on your altar (animal, fossil or plant)? If so, why?
Wikpedia entry on the Eagle Feather Law
Canada’s Migratory Birds Convention and Regulations
List of protected bird in Canada
Wikipedia entry on the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (North America)
Please forgive me for only listing North American regulations, that’s where I live! A quick Google search should help you find out what the rules are where you live.