Bone-Stones: Relics of Our Wreckage

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Two years ago, I began to collect them. Not out of a want, but out of an unease. They were punctuation marks in my daily life; when I found one on the sidewalk, in a median, or in a parking lot, I stopped. I looked. I gathered. The bones of chickens are, in many cities, among the common rubble of the urban landscape, as unremarkable as pebbles, cigarette butts, or plastic wrappers. But every time I found one, I would bring them to my house, dry them in my oven, take them to my studio, and crush them with a mortar and pestle. Having made paintings and drawings about factory-farmed chickens, I knew intimately the brevity and brutality of the lives that these bones bore. The gathering, the drying heat of the oven, the grinding of the pestle against the mortar—these comprised the gestures of cremation and care, but with an uncomfortable, irreconcilable aggression. Having spent time working at an organic meat farm for a project titled Kindling, I knew well the discomforting overlap between kindness and unkindness, and shuddered each time I brought the heavy pestle down onto the bones. They broke into smaller and smaller pieces, until they were ash. I added a paint additive to the ash and poured the mixture onto wooden boards that I had chiseled and sculpted in the shape of stones. I let the ash mixture dry, then rubbed it with sandpaper to smooth the surface. I could not have anticipated how stonelike the surface became.

Bone-Stones: Relics of Our Wreckage is a series of five objects and corresponding poem that memorialize the anonymous, factory-farmed chickens whose lives are considered dispensable and whose deaths all too common as to be mundane. Considering that a trace of the Anthropocene is the ubiquitous geological presence of chicken bones, these objects serve as artifacts of the past and of the future. They resemble blank stone tablets, unmarked gravestones, or fragments of concrete salvaged from a structure in ruin.

Aware of the invisible presence of animal bodies in art materials and artworks, I sought to enact a different ethical relationship to the remains of the creatures that alchemized into these stones. I felt that my labor of cremation was one of a decomposing, elemental energy, the way wind, water, and gravity shape stones in the natural world. The agency of the animal also lingered in the matter of the bones, which are physical, enduring memories of a life. It was uncanny how the surface of the dried ash resembled stone, largely without my doing. There was a slippage between living and dead, individual and multiple, human made and nature made, and being and nonbeing.

How do we grieve ungrieved lives? How do matter and spirit endure in this time of ceaseless, tragic death? How do we reclaim a reverence for vitality, in both its animal and its elemental forms? The stones ask these questions, and are silent, waiting for the answer.

For You

It is no coincidence: the rhyme of bone & stone.

Walking sidewalks & parking lots
my eyes strain to discern
                sticks from straw from cigarettes from styrofoam from 
                your bones.
But I find them 
in the margins 
                like small secrets kept forever 
                in the mouth.

grave           stone
tomb           stone
key-             stone
stepping         stone
they                 stoned her
he turned to            stone
stone         -cold
stone         -still

When I pick up your thin, hollow bones from the concrete,

                my own bones
                stir in recognition.

Say memory
is not only held in the brain
but retrained in the whole
of the body?

Your bones must remember
the weight they bore
of the briefest life:
                one that knew never
                sun nor shade,
                nor flight nor tree-branch perch
                only swelling of flesh
                past the skeleton’s edge,
                the ammonia air
                corrosive to lungs & eyes,
                the soft of the dead

These bone-stones were exhumed,
not from a quarry
but from the cemetery
of our sidewalks.

In my studio, I hold your bones
one by one in nest of my palms
as if they were ancient relics.
Because they are.

I bring your bones close and see
their micro-landscape deserted
as if a small bomb went off
& only the shells of cells remain.

I stroke your bones’ smooth surface,
bleached-coral white,
as if I could soothe you
too late.

The bones shatter along their fault lines
& the fault is mine—
                my biceps throb from pounding & pounding
your bones to dust.
                I wished for it to be another way—
                the form my care took.

When I watch a group of ants
swarm a dead worm on the sidewalk, I realize:
they are caregivers to the dead.

They loosen a body, knot by knot,

then cradle in two arms
the frayed fragments
to bring down
into the earth’s dark womb.

It is one the kindest acts I know

I pound & pound, pestle in hand.
Your bones fly out of the mortar.
Some groan or shrill like glass
for despite being as light as a feather
some were as hard as a rock.
No. No.
I heard it clearly.
I left those bones of yours alone.

                  1 an object that has survived the passage of time, especially one whose original culture                       has disappeared
                  2 a corpse remains
                  1 debris or remains of something destroyed.

All artists know how material— clay, charcoal, ink,
— has wants & tendencies.
But your bones
had the strongest of wills.
Your ashes knew the new form
they desired to take.
Wetted with water,
they settle & dry on the wood’s frame.
I rub & rub the rough surface with sandpaper,
until it is as smooth as skin.
Friction heats my fingertips & your bones
feel warmth again.
I am the elements— heat, pressure, compression,
— that weather & erode.
You are the body
turning to stone.

I listen: the bone-stones are as silent as dormant seeds.

In the years
after we are gone
I wonder if, from their hollow centers,
they will sprout
new life.

  • Linnéa Ryshke

    Linnéa Ryshke creates paintings, drawings, artist books, installations, and poetry that seek to restore the value of nonhuman animals as kindred beings worthy of our adoration, respect, and empathy. She received her BFA in painting from Pratt Institute and her MFA in visual art from Washington University in St. Louis.

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