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A sweeping historical narrative of the life of Carl Akeley, the famed explorer and taxidermist who changed the way Americans viewed the conservation of the natural world
During the golden age of safaris in the early twentieth century, one man set out to preserve Africa's great beasts. In this epic account of an extraordinary life lived during remarkable times, Jay Kirk follows the adventures of the brooding genius who revolutionized taxidermy and created the famed African Hall ...
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A sweeping historical narrative of the life of Carl Akeley, the famed explorer and taxidermist who changed the way Americans viewed the conservation of the natural world
During the golden age of safaris in the early twentieth century, one man set out to preserve Africa's great beasts. In this epic account of an extraordinary life lived during remarkable times, Jay Kirk follows the adventures of the brooding genius who revolutionized taxidermy and created the famed African Hall we visit today at New York's Museum of Natural History. The Gilded Age was drawing to a close, and with it came the realization that men may have hunted certain species into oblivion. Renowned taxidermist Carl Akeley joined the hunters rushing to Africa, where he risked death time and again as he stalked animals for his dioramas and hobnobbed with outsized personalities of the era such as Theodore Roosevelt and P. T. Barnum. In a tale of art, science, courage, and romance, Jay Kirk resurrects a legend and illuminates a fateful turning point when Americans had to decide whether to save nature, to destroy it, or to just stare at it under glass.
"Kingdom Under Glass reminds me of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo—a mesmerizing, true story of a magnificent obsession."—Sylvia Nasar, author of A Beautiful Mind
"One might say that an author who stumbles across the story of a man who wrestles a leopard to death, stuffs the first Jumbo for Barnum & Bailey, and perfects the art of mounting dead gorillas really can't go wrong. But Jay Kirk has created such a boisterously good-natured account of the life of the great taxidermist and conservationist Carl Akeley that a tale already well-nigh-incredible becomes in his hands just wonderfully sensational. This is a true gem of a book, well worthy of its extraordinary subject."—Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman and Atlantic: a Biography of the Ocean
"A jungle adventure story into the heart of Africa, at first, and then, what might seem like the campy world of taxidermy and those great museum dioramas but, ultimately, Jay Kirk is telling the story of the man who taught America how to see nature."—Jack Hitt, author of Off the Road
"Until reading Kingdom Under Glass I didn't think it was possible to use the words "fascinating" and "taxidermy" in the same sentence (at least not with a straight face)...but much of the book is about preserving dead animals, and fascinating it certainly is. This is thanks to gonzo narration by Jay Kirk, who has also written on travel and true crime. His prose is daring - sometimes even a bit wild - and he worms his way convincingly into the minds of his subjects."—The Washington Post
"With a scholar’s relish and a novelist’s narrative flair…Kirk conjures the life and exploits of early 20th century taxidermist Carl Akeley."—Mother Jones
"A genuinely rip-roaring read!"—Booklist
"A beguiling, novelistic portrait of a man and an era straining to hear the call of the wild."—Publishers Weekly
"Kirk skillfully illuminates an era that saw ‘a dawning of sensitivity to the plight of wildlife’... The author shines in his reanimation of Africa’s inherent dangers as Akeley risked his life on safari battling ravenous leopards, charging elephants, five-hour hikes without rations and debilitating fevers—including the one that would take his life in 1926. The feral escapades of a creative wunderkind stitched together with novelistic zeal." —Kirkus Reviews
"In Kingdom Under Glass, Kirk strives for the same liveliness that Akeley imparted to his creations, writing with such specificity, color and drama it appears he's looking over Akeley's shoulder."—BookPage
“Akeley is immortalized in Kirk's account as the man who forever changed not just taxidermy but also the way Americans saw nature..."Kingdom Under Glass" is an epic display of one man's life…The closing scene is emotional, real and incredibly detailed, a final meaningful diorama in a book full of them.”—San Francisco Chronicle
"In painting Akeley's lifelong passion for preserving rare animals and tying it to modern-day conservation and environmental goals, Kirk brings together Victorian and modern ideas about nature and humankind in smart, sensitive ways."—The Boston Globe
"With novelistic details, Kirk's book re-creates the adventures of a brooding genius who went big-game hunding with Theodore Roosevelt and invented a new camera that revolutionized photography and film."—USA Today
Lively biography of an award-winning 19th-century taxidermist.
Carl Akeley (1864–1926) began his career as a nature-loving natural-history museum apprentice in New York "skinning birds" for ladies' hats. He soon became disillusioned after being viewed as a loafer, repeatedly sabotaged by others in his field or fired. Kirk (Creative Writing/Univ. of Pennsylvania) skillfully illuminates an era that saw "a dawning sensitivity to the plight of wildlife" as Akeley went relatively unnoticed until several of his best pieces were being sold at premium prices by the same museum curator who'd terminated him. His ascent to greatness began to take hold in 1886 when, after relocating to Wisconsin and then Chicago, Akeley exercised his burgeoning technical skill by creating an exclusive habitat diorama using cement casts, wooden pedestals and iron rods. He also developed a particularly rare skill with papier mache, used to fashion even more "eerily lifelike" exhibits. With footnotes and photographs, Kirk steers his consistently entertaining narrative away from Akeley's in-house work to focus on the taxidermist's many years spent adventuring on safari in the African jungle with dignitaries like Theodore Roosevelt. These tantalizing expeditions challenged Akeley, who seemed drawn to working with elephants and gorillas, but never prepared him for the dangers of the call of the wild. The author shines in his reanimation of Africa's inherent dangers as Akeley risked his life on safari battling ravenous leopards, charging elephants, five-hour hikes without rations and debilitating fevers—including the one that would take his life in 1926.
The feral escapades of a creative wunderkind stitched together with novelistic zeal.
Kingdom Under Glass
WINTER, 1883. BROOKLYN
WAS THIS REALLY IT? BEFORE HIS LIFE HAD EVEN BEGUN, TO BE cast out and condemned to sit day in, day out in this basement dungeon before a great pile of dead birds? It was like a bad dream. The pile, heaped on the table, never got any smaller. He might think for a while that it was shrinking. He'd work his way into one corner for a while, skinning birds in one particular quadrant, digging a small cave, chipping away at the side of the mountain one dead bird at a time, but then another plume hunter would arrive in his muddy hip boots with a sack over his shoulder, stinking of gunpowder and bird shit. Then Wallace, the ogre who owned this dismal chop shop, would step out of the shadows to negotiate a price, and another sack of terns and egrets and robins and warblers would come tumbling out on the table, and the work would be just as daunting and endless as before.
He had really flubbed his one great chance to have ended up here. One day you've got your whole life ahead of you; the next you're condemned for an eternity to keep pushing yourself back up a mountain of dead birds. It was the most barbaric work in the world, skinning birds for ladies' hats. It was a world away from the future he'd been promised at Ward's Natural Science Establishment in Rochester, New York. There he might have eventually seen his own handiwork end up in the world'sgreatest natural history museums. But then there'd been a kind of misunderstanding. He'd been too ambitious. He'd been too careless, and yes, possibly even arrogant. Mistakes were made. And then Professor Ward—the great maestro—had gone and cast him out of the only Eden he'd ever known. He'd been fired.
And now Carl Akeley was a virtual prisoner in this dank basement of a moldy warehouse below the Brooklyn Bridge, where he could barely hear his own gloomy thoughts over the screech of tugboat whistles and the drone of the oil barges and naval vessels that crowded the East River. The sickening stench of the workshop, lit by the sallow light of gas jet lamps, was ghoulish. John Wallace was a short, intense man with a cockney accent often thickened by beer as he lorded it over his underground realm, dealing brashly with the hunters who brought him birds by the sackload daily, and the boys who worked for him, turning the flightless lumps of feather into cash.
Carl and several other young men came in the morning before sunup, hung their coats by the door, and sat on wooden benches around a large table heaped with the day's work. The hunters came in from the rookeries on Long Island and the forests of New Jersey, bringing in as many as four hundred birds a day. They were dumped onto the table—bluebirds, sparrows, grebes, waxwings, all mixed together in a welter of beaks and bloodied plumage. Carl would reach into the heap, where it was sometimes still warm in the center, take hold of a bird, skin it, quickly shape it into something that might look chic on a lady's head, and then move on to the next. The boys' fingers were nicked and scratched and bled from the sharp talons and sewing needles. Loose feathers dusted the floor in drifts. At best, the work was a sort of assembly line: One boy skinned a bird, passed it along to the next, who wound tow for the body. Another bent wire for the necks; another cleaned wings with turpentine. Another might poison skins all day long. In the end they were dried, boxed, and shipped off to the milliners in the fashion district of Fourteenth Street, where they were affixed to ladies' hats for J. Gurney & Son, the New York Millinery Supply Co., and others. Given how this peculiar fashion was at its absolute zenith, Mr. Wallace had earned a reputation as the most prolific stuffer of birds in the long and sordid history of taxidermy. He always had need for skilled and semiskilled boys.
Akeley had had no trouble getting the job.
To sit before this avalanche of dead birds that would never grow any smaller—this was his punishment for having had the temerity to try to make something of himself. The worst part was the stinging regret that never went away, that never got smaller, that stared back at him out of a thousand cooled eyes. If only Professor Ward had given him a chance to explain himself! Working at Ward's Natural Science Establishment had been the closest he would ever get to serious museum taxidermy. His only crime had been youthful ambition. Well, that, and falling asleep on the job; but Carl felt certain Professor Ward would have been kinder if only he'd known about the late-night experiments he'd been conducting, if he'd only bothered to ask before giving him the boot. If only whichever envious snake hadn't destroyed his experiments before he'd had the chance to show the professor. He'd actually thought he was on the verge of reinventing the art of taxidermy. How stupid he'd been. There was nothing artful about this work. It was brutal and disgusting. He was no sculptor, like he'd boasted. He was a nobody. That was all there was to it, and all that was left was to accept the fact that he'd been sentenced to a lifetime of utter insignificance—skinning birds for ladies' hats.
Things could have turned out so differently! He thought of all the countless hours he'd spent as a boy cloistered in his room, studying the spattered copy of the taxidermy manual ordered from the back of Youth's Companion—he'd passed right over the ads for the Velocipede and the Reading Machine, even if he did go in for the adventure stories where explorers faced off against rabid panthers and savage Indians, the serialized features like "Cast Away in Japan"—the ad had been right there between the flexible rubber mittens and a kit for becoming a licensed telegraphy operator. Price one dollar. As small as a chapbook of poems, the book was bound by a dark brown cloth cover with gold embossed letters that read, simply, Taxidermist's Manual. The author was a Professor J. W. P. Jenks. Taking heed of the manual's first and primary admonition to work in secret so that "none may know the mysteries of the art," he had hidden himself in his room to begin his experimentations. Under his bed and crowding every free surface, splayed on sheets of newsprint, were the victims of his education. On his window ledge rested the frail skeletons of chipmunks, robins, and defleshed wrens bleaching in the sun. His desk was littered with awls and thread and scissors and pins—much of which had been pilfered from his mother'ssewing basket. In the summer, flies thrummed outside his open window but seemed to know better than to light on any of the still lifes inside; however tantalizing they may have looked, the poison that preserved the illusion of life had a tendency to ward off intruders.
To 1/2 pt. of 60 per cent. alcohol add an ounce each of arsenic, camphor, alum, and two drs. strychnine. Shake it well and let it stand 12 hours. It is then fit for use.
Label "Poison," and keep the bottle well corked.
(Ingredients easily obtained from Bishop's Drug Store)
To Carl, this was more than a hobby. It was liberation. An escape from the pall that hung over the house, cast by the ghosts of his three dead infant brothers and his mother's grief, which kept her trapped in its dark weeds. Something "unnatural" had happened to this house, to this family. A friction had grown over the years, and his mother, more and more, put the blame on Carl's father, turning all her bitterness toward him, castrating him for failing to give her a life as good as her well-to-do and puritanical sisters'. Even though it had been she who refused to go west, as her husband wanted, to make a better go, to be free of their "clay slab" of a farm. But she did not want to leave her sisters, her family. She'd already lost enough. Blaming her husband only got easier once he'd lost his nerve and made the foolish mistake of paying another man a thousand dollars to go fight in the Civil War in his place. The substitute survived the war and lived long enough to collect interest on the debt for many years, further sinking them into poverty, and each season the farm grew more crabbed and worn-out.
Perhaps his mother had become so numbed by her own melancholy, which now trailed from her pores like a noxious gas, that she didn't notice the stench that had taken over the upstairs of her home. But at some point one of the sisters, Carl's aunt, who lived just down the street, became alarmed at the way the boy was turning into a pale, unwholesome thing, and how his mother was doing nothing to stop it. A thirteen-year-old shouldn't spend all his time hiding in his bedroom, she said, doing God knows what to those poor animals. Young Carl had heard the whispers, eavesdropping at the top of the stairs, while his aunt conspired to rob him of his chief pleasure in life. It was an unnatural obsession.A disgusting habit. Other children taunted him now for his queer hobby. Did she know that? Yes, his mother knew, she knew, but what could be done?—the boy's father would not lift a finger. Well, of course not, her husband had no backbone. (This was not said so much as it hung in the air: his father's failures commingling with the odor of the child's playthings.) The aunt was scared for his future. Frightened for his soul, too, since the boy didn't even have the decency to quit his unholy labors on the Sabbath. The county insane asylum was only half a day's buggy ride from their hometown of Clarendon, New York. Surely, there, the boy might be cured of his morbid whims.
Who knew? Perhaps he'd have more freedom to do as he pleased in an asylum. At the very least, he would have escaped, like his father had tried. Carl resented his mother for what she had done to his father. For the constant nagging. For wanting his father to suffer for his poor choices. For destroying his morale.
His mother did not suffer the shame of her husband's cowardice with grace. But still she wasn't going to ship her son off to an asylum. Truth be told, she was fond of the white rabbit Carl had mounted for her birthday. It was perched on a stump in the front yard. His aunt would soon enough change her song, too, after the boy worked his magic on her pet canary—this, after she'd forgotten to put the drape back over its cage one freezing winter night.
In any event, he'd been happy to finally move away from home. Lucky to get away.
He could still remember the first moment he'd seen the outside of Ward's Natural Science Establishment; it was as if he'd arrived at his true home at last. He'd learned of its existence from his first employer, an interior decorator named David Bruce, who managed to earn quite a tidy living off the current nature craze, painting wildlife murals in the parlors of Brockport, New York's most well-heeled citizens, the sort who spent their leisure time chasing butterflies with silk nets, collecting snails at the beach, or stomping through the woods in high-button shoes in quest of the latest fern de rigueur for their terraria. The obsession with collecting, some might have said, fit the country's growing acquisitiveness. Bruce happened to live just a few miles down the road from Carl's family's farm. Before hiring Carl as his assistant, he had taken him out for an oyster dinner, but as the shells piled up on the older man's plate, he could see the boy was only ravenous for information aboutthe business of stuffing animals and whether it was true a person could make a living doing something so much more edifying than growing potatoes. He could see the boy had an almost feverish air about him, as if he had a true calling. After a few weeks it was clear Carl had no knack for mixing paints or cleaning brushes or sketching starfish or seashells—or anything for that matter that didn't involve a flensing knife. On the other hand, whenever the chance arrived to stuff a bird or chipmunk for one of the cabinets Bruce assembled for his clientele, the youth's display of talent far surpassed that of his employer's. Ultimately, Bruce had had to let him go—the kid was never going to make it as a decorator—but in so doing suggested he might look into getting a position at a place in Rochester called Ward's Natural Science Establishment.
That would mean moving away from home. Rochester was twenty miles away from Clarendon. But he was almost eighteen, and at Ward's, he would be working for the country's premier supplier of specimens for the new natural history museums popping up everywhere. For a young aspiring taxidermist, it would be the equivalent of enrolling in the École des Beaux-Arts. There, Bruce assured him, he would meet other young men similarly afflicted with his zeal, and he would earn a good dollar doing what he really loved.
So there he'd found himself, standing outside the jawbone of a blue whale that served as the front gate to Ward's Natural Science Establishment, trying to screw up the courage to knock on the door. To walk off his nerves, he'd wandered around Rochester, pacing along the busy Erie Canal, and up Buffalo Street where the deafening steam-powered flour mills, whirring and grinding, generated a mist of pulverized flour, which hung in the frigid air like fine snow. (If he had wandered along the canal long enough, he might have taken notice of a skinny young man just a few years older than himself by the name of George Eastman, who was conducting his own dubious experiments with odd-looking glass plates that glistened with a transparent chemical skin.) Finally, Carl ended up back outside the whale's jawbone. It was an all-or-nothing moment. This was the only place where he conceivably belonged. But to think: that he could knock on the door, and this man whom he'd never met, this Professor Ward, could take one look at him and snuff out his young life by simply saying no.
For one afternoon in a person's life to have such freight. Everything until now had been mere preparation for this moment.
After lingering for what seemed like an eternity on College Avenue, gaining and losing his courage with each passing carriage, he finally built up his nerve to walk under the looming jawbone. Inside the courtyard was like a peddlers' village, or the campus of a New England preparatory school, if stranger. There were fourteen white frame buildings in all, adjoining an orchard. One had a moose skull dangling from the gable. Where you might expect a weather vane on another building was what appeared to be a giant gastropod shell, or maybe a prehistoric snail. Skeletons and bleaching bones were scattered on the ground outside what was evidently a converted bowling alley.
When he stopped to ask a man carrying what looked like a stiff, giant anteater where he might find Professor Henry Augustus Ward, he was directed to the building where a stuffed ape sat propped on the front porch. Above the door was a sign. COSMOS HALL. A distracted-looking older man answered his knock and acknowledged, after Carl's stammered introduction, that he was indeed Professor Ward, upon which Carl mutely presented the handmade business card he had hastily prepared the night before.
CARL E. AKELEY ARTISTIC TAXIDERMY IN ALL ITS BRANCHES
The professor was a balding man with a trim silver beard, a noble alert face, and oddly squarish ears. He took the card and looked it over, while his free hand rummaged in the pocket of a well-worn Prince Albert frock coat overflowing with newspaper clippings and crumpled letters, and, amid the rustling, Carl could have sworn he made out the sound of metal bits jinking about. He later learned that the professor had the habit of picking up and pocketing stray nails off the shop floor, a custom which caused his wife endless grief, given how it mangled his clothes.
As disheveled as he may have seemed, Professor Ward was a highly esteemed man who'd helped many of the country's best natural history museums get off the ground. He had no interest in the spiritual or religious view of nature—the prevailing belief at the time that if only man peered deeply enough into Nature, he would see its inner Design, and how the divine watchmaker had precision-engineered all of creation to benefit humankind and its works (a belief echoed from the pulpits andfrom most best-selling natural history authors)—but believed that all of the major fields of science (geology, paleontology, mineralogy, botany, and zoology) were interconnected and revealed the true nature of existence as a sort of interdependent mechanism. That there existed a kind of fragile wovenness between the world of organisms to the spheres they inhabited. An animal was not separate from his habitat but was in fact part of a larger relationship. This was a fascinating new concept. It had even spawned a new term: ecology. Part of the reason this notion was taking root, no doubt, was that some people were gradually waking to the realization that what they had formerly perceived as limitless—namely, that is, America's supply of natural resources—was finite indeed. Wilderness was the one commodity the nation had always believed it possessed in inexhaustible abundance. It had shaped America's image of itself. Defined the boundaries of its potential—that is, there were no boundaries. But by the mid-1880s not only was the frontier conquered, it was closed. The world had become smaller. Yet inside that smaller world everything was tied together in a fragile union. This ecumenical philosophy would ultimately become the model for all museums and was reflected in the arrangement of Ward's cabinets, whereby the spectator could move from one realm easily into the next: stones, birds, trees.
Whether you were a geologist who wanted a rare gem, a paleontologist in need of a Glyptodon skull, or a museum in need of a Megatherium, Professor Ward was the dealer you sought. His business prepared exhibits representative of every natural kingdom—animal, plant, and mineral—and he had agents and collectors working for him all over the planet. As a young man he'd gotten his start collecting specimens for Louis Agassiz, who was then still cobbling together his Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, but as natural curios became increasingly in fashion Ward quickly realized he could make a killing selling prepared fossils, gemstones, and mounted animals to private collectors, colleges, and the upstart natural history museums. There were great profits to be made. To meet the demand, he had traveled to Persia to collect meteorites, climbed Mount Vesuvius for volcanic rocks, collected mummies and inscribed scarabs in Egypt, and had even brought back the skeleton of a Siberian mammoth. He had gone in search of fossils in Abyssinia, minerals in India, and skins in Zanzibar, Java, Japan, Borneo, New Zealand, Patagonia, and Zululand. When he was twenty-five years old, on a collecting expedition along the Niger River, he'd comedown with blackwater fever and was left to die on a small island by his riverboat crew. He was taken in by a native woman named Calypso, who nursed him back to life in the idyll of her grass hut, and for a time tried to make a husband of the professor, but once he'd regained his strength, he left the heartbroken Calypso to continue his life of rock collecting. By the time he was twenty-seven years old, in 1861, he had the best geologic collection in America. The truth was, Carl was lucky to have found the professor himself actually on the premises. He was a man in perpetual motion, constantly dashing off to one corner of the world or other to track down an exotic fish skeleton or to purchase the meteorite collection of a Russian noble.
The company he kept was as legendary as his travels. He had hobnobbed with David Livingstone, even given the older man advice on how to proceed up the Niger, having made the trip himself before the famous missionary. Darkest Africa had given Professor Ward a peculiar and priestly aura himself; it was as if he'd visited the mythical center of the earth and returned to tell about it. A missionary of divine curiosities. He counted among his friends Buffalo Bill and P. T. Barnum, a collector of natural wonders himself, even if many of the showman's artifacts were as unnatural in the extreme as his Feejee Mermaid or his Elephantus-Hippo-Paradoxus. Barnum's most recent and favorite acquisition, however, had not been a hoax, but an African elephant named Jumbo. Ward had promised to mount Jumbo, the largest Loxodonta africana in captivity, in the event anything ever happened to the circus impresario's biggest crowd-pleaser.
By the time Akeley arrived, in 1883, Ward's emporium had become a virtual assembly line to the museum world, and an Ivy League training camp for all types of naturalists, many of whom would go on to become among the most prominent curators and scientists in the field. Frederic Lucas, the future director of the American Museum of Natural History, had himself started at Ward's skeletonizing pigs. It was foul and backbreaking work, and the hive of resurrectionists Ward kept busy filling his orders for the new "temples of science" were vulnerable to a host of diseases like anthrax, rabies, sarcoptic mange, even the bubonic plague—just a few of the occupational hazards faced by those who played with dead animals for a living. Arsenic powder was stored in barrels like cake flour. The lethal yellow motes swirled in the shafts of sunlight that fell on the studio floor.
Nonetheless, Professor Ward was used to turning away eager young men with trilobites in their eyes. Yet when he looked at Carl's little homemade card, foremost in his mind, no doubt, was the enormous contract he was now in the middle of fulfilling to supply the American Museum of Natural History with a specimen of every known bird and mammal in North America. That would have been enough, but then a second contract had followed to supply the museum with a specimen of every known monkey in the world. More than fate, Carl Akeley had the luck of good timing on his side.
Ward absently pocketed Akeley's card, where it was swallowed by the other detritus, gruffly let him know that "anything he might already know about taxidermy would be more of a liability than an asset," and, fiddling with his clumsily knotted black silk string tie, told him that he would report at 7:00 A.M. sharp, work a twelve-hour day, earn $3.50 a week, minus room and board, that there were no holidays and no sick days, and upon penalty of being stuffed and mounted himself he was to refrain from smoking in the studios. Ward had already suffered one fire in 1869 and lost every damn last thing, so smoking was strictly verboten. And so was sleeping on the job. Therefore, when Carl was discovered six months later taking a nap on a pile of skins in the attic, he was called back down to Professor Ward's office and promptly fired.
IT WAS THE tedium of the Brooklyn dungeon that would kill him faster than all the arsenic in a herd of elephant skins. At Ward's at least there had been a splendid variety of animals. Here the monotony was as rigid as each stiffened little wing. Carl himself might skin a hundred or more in a single shift, though he couldn't help but put as much art and care as possible into each bird. Hunched over the table, bluebird firmly in hand, he would first press his thumbs under the armpits to dislocate the wings, snip off its feet, and then pluck out its eyes—stuffing cotton into the empty sockets, its beak, and, using a small pair of forceps, its miniature cloaca to prevent unwanted leakage. Drawing the tip of his blade from its breastbone to its tail, his ankles crossed beneath his chair, concentrating, careful to push, rather than pull with his thumbnails, he degloved the bird, dropping its rib cage and innards in a pail. Every few moments he stopped to daub away with a damp rag a spot ofblood that had seeped onto the feathers. Despite the gory nature of the work, he tended toward fastidiousness.
Once a skin was scraped clean, he sprinkled it with the camphor-scented arsenic powder, rubbing it liberally into the feathers, in and around the intricately hinged and interlocked quills and carpal joints of the wing, fanning out the secondaries to work the poison into every barb and vane.
The last thing he did before handing it off was to sever the bird's head, scoop out its little dollop of brain, and stuff the hollowed cranium with cotton before impaling the skull on a short stem of wire. The next boy—or Carl, when he worked this station—then unspooled a length of medium-gauge wire, the full length of the bird plus a third, bending back and curving the wire so it conformed to the contour of the bird's body: a dipper-shaped armature around which twine was quickly wound until it resembled (roughly) a flaxen tuber with the dimensions of the original bird. The skin was then affixed with sewing pins to the string manikin, stitched on, and then passed off to the last boy, who pierced a thinner-gauge wire through the bird's shoulders, carefully lacing on the wings under the coverts, bending them into the semblance of flight. Then the pins were removed, stray feathers straightened to hide the artist's hand, arsenic brushed off, and glass eyes glued into the empty sockets. When Carl worked this end he tried his best to give the eyes a look of believable consciousness. Even if his own were blunted dull by the repetitive nature of the work.
It was devoutly uninspiring. Oh, how he missed the exciting buzzy atmosphere of Ward's. Whenever he pictured his old workstation, or his first tour of the maze of studios, through rooms filled wall-to-ceiling with shelves of lizards and fetal pigs afloat in jars, the workshops where men assembled cabinets resembling alien dollhouses filled with ammonites, mollusks, and cephalopods; the Invertebrate Rooms; the Zoological Museum; the osteology shop, where beet-faced Germans stood over vats of boiling bones; and, of course, the taxidermy studio itself, which shimmered with saws, cleavers, and fleshing knives—that chaos of brightly colored feathers and furs and exotic beasts in various stages of disassembly and reassembly that filled his heart with joy, oh, how it stung to remember. How he missed the giant snakeskins that hung like kites from the rafters! The skins of colobus and chimpanzees, golden monkeys and vervets slowly leaching out their essence in great moundsof salt on the floor. He had been right there, one of the young men in a leather apron, one of Ward's boys, surrounded by a reeking halo of preserving alcohol, ankle-deep in crimson blood-soaked straw. In his memory all of it was as sparkling as the gems below them in the Mineral Department, from which now and then through the spattered floorboards came the sharp whine of a steam-saw cutting sections of a meteorite.
Not that after a while he hadn't noticed a certain lack of artfulness in the taxidermy done at Ward's. When it came down to it, no matter how happy he had been there, he'd still been disillusioned to learn how crude the art of professional taxidermy really was. There was hardly much more to it than what he'd learned in the manual out of Youth's Companion. The work primarily consisted of turning a skin upside down and unceremoniously stuffing handfuls of sawdust into its deflated pelt until the animal resembled a clownish effigy more than the living thing it had once been in the wild. It required hardly any knowledge of anatomy whatsoever. The misshapen, lumpy monsters, literally stuffed like empty bags, embarrassed Carl. The salt and alum tanning left the skins stretched and uneven and generally so distorted they almost looked immoral. The blank-eyed corpses were no more expressive than parlor room sofas. In truth, the art of taxidermy was still indistinguishable from the craft of crude upholstery.
Dissatisfied with the limitations of his trade, Carl had begun independently studying anatomy in his spare time and conducting experiments at night. He thought he might have a few ideas for bringing their craft into the modern age. But because Ward didn't want employees using company time in pursuit of pipe dreams, Carl had to stay late to develop his new techniques, using the studio after hours, sacrificing sleep and meals to save money to buy his own lantern fuel and supplies.
He wasn't the only one at Ward's who had ever tried to improve on the old methods. William Hornaday, who'd left a year before Akeley's arrival to become chief taxidermist for the United States National Museum in Washington, D.C., had created, in 1879, a family of orangutans cavorting amid the canopy of a durian tree, using clay to render more realistic, natural attitudes. Others had tried excelsior as a substitute for muscle, and even Charles Willson Peale, who had built the very first natural history museum for the public in Philadelphia back in 1786, had experimented by carving the musculature of his manikinsout of wood. But these were the most significant advances since the discovery of arsenic, and since Ward frowned on wasting time, taxidermy had not progressed much further within his august halls.
Before he began to tinker around with the manikins underneath, Carl was determined to attack the problem of removing the skin itself. If only it could be done in a way that the finished mount didn't look like a wharfside indigent stitched together by a hasty and tremulous coroner. He had been thinking a lot about sculpture. How materials like bronze or clay could be used by a sculptor to capture the animal's true spirit—its deeper animal essence beneath the skin. Why, then, did they, who worked with the animal's actual skin, do no better? A true artist would no sooner butcher the skins the way they did than a painter would mount his canvas with roofing nails. His first experiment was to see if he couldn't peel the animal more discreetly and harvest the skin intact. Or more nearly intact, with a minimum of incisions. It was not an easy challenge and called for his deepest stores of patience. Using a zebra he'd shanghaied one night, and working on it through dawn, he had carefully removed the zagged skin, laboring to make his cuts less conspicuous.
He would trick it out of its skin if necessary.
Without resorting to a single extra incision, he had managed to slowly inch off the leg skins, working with the patience of a Zen monk—shoulder-deep in its belly, his clean-shaven cheek resting against the zebra's bristled haunch, only dimly aware of the sound of its hoof clopping against the floor—until he had finally slipped each off like a stocking. Once he had the zebra husked, it truly looked as if the animal had stepped out of its skin voluntarily, and he hung it to dry. But when he returned the next day, his eyes yoked with dark circles, he found that his work had been cruelly sabotaged! Slashed from leg to abdomen, his perfect skin hung in ribbons.
Indeed, someone seemed to have it in for Carl. No doubt, some of the others had begun to think of Akeley as nothing more than a loafer. After working all night he tended to spend his days at his cluttered desk staring into space, making weird sketches of vivisected animals, and overzealously studying anatomy textbooks. Repeatedly he was sabotaged. Each time he'd get so far, he would find his skins cut to ribbons, or his molds of the animal smashed and left in the trash heap out back. Certainly he wasn't the only one who saw there was room for improvementat Ward's. But the issue turned moot the day the foreman found the young apprentice asleep on a pile of tanned hides in the attic, exhausted from his nights spent spelunking zebra carcasses, and went and finked him out to Professor Ward. If only he'd been able to make Ward listen! On the other hand, maybe he should have just kept his daydreams to himself. They were what had got him exiled to Brooklyn. Even if he knew taxidermy could be done better, now it was too late. He would never have the chance to prove himself. Each of the little birds mocked him for having flubbed his one chance at greatness.
KINGDOM UNDER GLASS. Copyright © 2010 by Jay Kirk. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
BELGIAN CONGO. NOVEMBER 5, 1921
He felt heartsick when he saw the gorilla start its death tumble. It was coming right for him. Three or four hundred pounds of silver-backed ape slumping down the bright green jumble of vegetation in joyless somersaults. Rolling like a rain barrel, long arms flopping, ass over applecart, a furry black hogshead headed straight for the chasm below. Nothing was going to stop it now from hurtling into the void. Even if it ran him over first. Even if it took him with it. A skinny sapling was the only thing between him—between Carl Akeley, the world's greatest taxidermist—and the three-hundred-foot plummet. He leaned into it, rifle still pressed to his shoulder. The recoil alone would have knocked him off the mountain without the little tree wedged into his spine.
Technically, it wasn't a straight three-hundred-foot drop. Directly behind Akeley, crumbling just under the heel of his Silver & Edgington hobnail boot, was a sheer twenty-foot drop, and below that a sharp fifty-foot slide—and then the big straight two-hundred-foot plummet. Chances were if the gorilla kept its momentum and made it over the first drop, it was going all the way, leaving Akeley with nothing to show for the thousands of miles he'd traveled to collect it for his greatest work-in-progress.
That is, if the gorilla didn't collect him first.
His Watusi guides and gun bearer were still clinging to the steep bank, where they had frozen at varying angles after spotting the black shaggy head thirty feet or so above them. They'd first seen it from across the canyon, a black speck minding its own business, and they had spent the better part of the morning getting from the one ridge, down the canyon, and back up the other side to the crest of this one just to see if it was indeed what they'd hoped. For hours, nothing but the sound of machete. The climb alternated between strictly vertical and almost vertical, and he had to repeatedly beg the guides to stop so he could catch his breath. It was grilling work, and quite honestly he wondered if he would survive it at all. To look at him was to wonder the same thing. Here was a white man clearly done in. He was gaunt and rattle-eyed. Feverish shadows cast by the brim of his pith helmet burrowed into the crags of a face that looked as if it were literally aging by the hour. He had felt the onset of the fever before he'd even penetrated gorilla country. Despite the cool moist climate he was a man on fire. By the time they'd got to the other side of the canyon, hauling themselves up by the mutinous nettles and thistle stalk—and then out along the crest of this narrow ridge, the terrible drop just beneath—he had had almost no strength left at all. Barely enough to stop for a smoke.
Leaning against the solitary sapling, he had got an upward bead on the gorilla rustling about in the vivid welter of greenery. His gun bearer clung to the slope with his right hand, like a whaler hanging off the mizzen shrouds, holding out the second rifle if Carl needed backup. The guide who'd spotted the ape had then lain down on the ground before him, naked but for his goatskin, and waited patiently for bwana to take the shot. The explosion was only a residue now. All dead quiet except the crumpling whoosh of vegetation as it parted in the wake of the gorilla's fall.
Carl Akeley nearly sank with relief when the gorilla passed cleanly between him and the terrified guide. But then dread immediately filled in the relief when the gorilla catapulted over the first ledge.
Before his mood had given way to dread that he would lose this most rare and dear prize, the taxidermist had been filled with an almost childlike sense of awe and glee. That he was actually seeing a gorilla in the first place! That this most unknown and mythical creature was actually just up there, looking down at him, with an expression of passive curiosity. Its face was ugly and mild. It looked as if it were rethinking through some small but persistent self-doubt. Part of Akeley's sense of disbelief, certainly, was caused by the great heat boiling his flesh, the fever that cauterized everything passing before his eyes. He should have started taking the quinine earlier. Now, along with an evil headache, everything was distorted with an aura of unreality. It was an eerie beauty of volcanoes and misty ravines, of crooked trees dripping with moss and silvery lichen. He half expected to see fairies springing out of the lacy chest-high ferns.
Really, like a boy, he had had to pinch himself when he had seen the first knuckle print in the mud. He'd held his hand over the four impressions, curling the back of his trembling fingers above the larger mold. Then, after scrambling farther along on all fours in the ruck and jumble of vine and bamboo, they'd come to several footprints in a slick of mud. They were enormous. All but human. It was then he felt his faith slipping, and he switched from the Springfield to the double-barreled elephant gun.
Theoretically, he told himself, he did not fear the gorillas. He had even composed a sort of creed against this fear: how he had spent too much time around wild animals to believe in monsters. He knew they weren't looking for trouble. But now he felt almost excited to a painful degree. That was how the first white man to encounter a gorilla, Paul du Chaillu, had put it right before he'd blown the "hellish" creature straight to kingdom come. Akeley had gorged himself on these early sensational narratives before coming here. Du Chaillu believed the gorillas were so powerful they had driven out the lions and elephants from this region where they lived. Excited to a painful degree, though, was exactly how Akeley felt, even if he had tried to convince himself ahead of time that the brutes could not possibly be half as ferocious as their popular image: that of a demonic beast capable of snapping a rifle in its teeth, or ripping the head off a man with one hand, and with a penchant for abducting human females for purposes of unchaste cavorting. But when he saw the print in the mud, he'd been all too eager to hold the rifle. Then when he had finally come upon this one sunning itself on the upper slope of the canyon, it seemed a benign and gentle beast. Crouched on a mezzanine of dense vegetation, doing nothing more than regarding the day. Akeley had waited for it to charge, or to beat on its chest, as he had read in accounts, but it did nothing of the sort. It merely barked at him, like a seal. And on the fourth bark Akeley had pulled the trigger.
The truth would still bring people to the museum in droves. If only it didn't vanish into the chasm first.
After the first bounce the gorilla stopped abruptly at the very lip of the canyon. Snagged at the last moment by a wiry tree. A miraculous save, against all odds. Saved by an even scantier tree than the one Carl had used to brace himself for the shot. There it dangled, wrapped around the little tree, creaking heavily, a four-hundred-pound silverback, suspended over the very brink of the eastern Congo.
Its body was still hot.
He had only a jackknife to skin it. The guides had discouraged him from bringing any of his scientific paraphernalia. The climb was too steep to carry anything extra. He had left behind his motion picture camera as well, and he had no porters. While he roughly skinned and skeletonized the gorilla where it lay, the others held on to it where they could, and on to the American as well, clutching hold of his boots to keep him from slipping over the edge.
Wouldn't Mickie have loved that? Wouldn't that have made life easier for his soon-to-be ex-wife? End all the wrangling. Send home the lawyers. No more need to come up with epithets to call him in the newspapers. A "cruel caveman" and all the rest. No need for her to invent more malicious lies to drag his reputation through the mud.
As he tugged away at the animal's skin, he tried to keep his focus. This was no time to think about marital troubles. And yet, if he did somehow slip, if the branch suddenly snapped, and he fell to his death in the embrace of this half-skinned grizzled old ape, tumbling together through space before being smashed to bits, wouldn't Mickie have had the last laugh then? She'd be singing the hinky-dinky, parlez-vous. No doubt about it. He'd had to play all sorts of stupid games just to keep her from sabotaging this latest expedition. Lying about the date of his departure, for example. He was sure it incensed her that he'd come back to Africa without her. That all the glory was his this time around. But what if he lost his balance in the slippery blood? It would be in all the newspapers: Carl Akeley, the world's most renowned and redoubtable taxidermist, the explorer, inventor, resurrection artist, flenser of elephants, tailor of the integument, sculptor of the dermic membrane, had fallen to his death, pulled over the brink in the embrace of a four-hundred-pound gorilla. How sensational! Even if it paled in comparison to the sordid stuff his lawyers had told him Mickie was prepared to release to the papers.
Once again, he tried to focus on the task at hand. Carefully cutting out the gorilla's heart. Handing it to one of the men to wrap in leaves so he could preserve it in formalin later, back at camp. Ditto with the brain, liver, and specimens of skin around the pubic region—all specifically requested by the museum biologists—all the better to read into the story of their nearest living relative. He looked up at the volcano, Nyamlagira, in the near distance, near enough it made a low rumble in the air. It all looked like something from a Jules Verne novel. Who knew if at this very moment he held in his hand the skull of the "missing link"?
His boss, Henry Fairfield Osborn, president of the American Museum of Natural History, of course scoffed at the idea of any such link being discovered in Africa. In fact, he was about to send off a million-dollar expedition to Central Asia, where he was positive he'd find it.
Carl had heard some of the foolish yarns about gorillas as a guest of the White Fathers, whose mission sat at the foot of Mount Mikeno, and from where he had started his climb and got his guides as well. Shortly before his arrival a gorilla had evidently come down into a nearby village. When the men went to chase it from the banana groves, it had killed one of them, torn the man limb from limb and ripped off his head. Carl wasn't really inclined to believe the story. These Belgian friars had settled here after being expelled from Uganda. They were not entirely reliable. A day before reaching the mission, he'd passed a small cemetery where eleven Belgian officers were buried, killed during the war, the graves enclosed by elephant grass, marked with moldy wooden crosses, piled high with rocks to keep away hyenas. It was the war that had given Mickie her chance to get away from him in the first place. The Great War had replaced all their former adventures. How many years had it been since they'd stood back-to-back in a standoff against a charging dust storm of elephants? What pure exhilaration to feel her small shoulders pressed into his back, quivering with each kick of her rifle. But those days were long gone.
The White Fathers Mission was a small compound of low whitewashed buildings, dirt floors, thatched roofs, and windowless shutters. (In the nearby village of Gisenyi, the local doctor used spent photographic plates for windowpanes.) At the mission the White Fathers grew vegetables and tobacco and roses. They taught the local Watusi children, conducting the spiritual salvation of the savages, and put them to work making cigars and bricks for the cathedral they were erecting here in the wilderness. The White Fathers, as overseen by Père Supérieur von Hoef, had made themselves somewhat of a welcome hostel to gorilla hunters. Most recently, Prince William of Sweden had shot fourteen. This was the same prince rumored to have divorced his wife just a few years earlier for being a Russian spy; but then it turned out the princess had simply deserted him and refused to return to cold Christiania. Now he intended to prove himself as a big-game hunter and to give his fourteen ape skins to the museum in Stockholm. The prince had taken along le Père Supérieur, who, in his long white robes, stiff cape, and fulsome beard, looked like that other mad monk Rasputin. Le Père had shot one himself and dismissed Akeley's claims that the gorilla was in danger of extinction, believing that the mountains were populated by thousands. Carl doubted there were more than a couple hundred.
This particular one he was now expertly skinning with a jackknife seemed to him like a worthwhile sacrifice—if only to preserve a likeness of what would be lost forever if a few more Prince Williams ever made their way up this mountain. Even so, doing the museum's bidding this time around made him feel like a plain murderer. He had never felt quite as sick about his job as he did now. But still, as civilization continued its rapid march across the last of the earth's hidden worlds, there was really nothing else he could do but preserve a snapshot of this near relict.
If only he'd been able to preserve what he'd had with Mickie. It was the grounds of cruelty that really ticked him off, he thought, as he severed the gorilla's head. He kicked aside the pile of innards and watched them slide down the grassy slope. That he had tied her to their bed and turned on the gas in their Upper West Side apartment. Threatened to cut her throat with a razor. Abandoned her to die of blood poisoning after her infernal pet monkey had bitten her on the leg and damn near cost her her life—of all things, that he had abandoned her. Well, she had deserted him first. Not the other way around. They were all stinking lies. It was outrageous, especially now that he had found out the truth. That she meant to ruin much more than his good name. That all along—or at least in the end—it was she who had planned to murder him.
Or at least that's what the psychiatrist said.
She was batty. Completely insane. But, still, if she was prepared to go public with her mad ravings, it wouldn't just be ruinous to his reputation but would besmirch the museum as well. He pried off the finger- and toenails one at a time with the blade, carefully numbering each like a rare beetle, tucking them into his breast pocket.
He felt incredibly weak and tried not to think whether he'd be able to get back to camp on his own. His fever radiated around him like a box. He could have lain down right here and fallen asleep; but he would rather do anything than resort to the humiliation of having his men carry him back like a child. He was far too old to be doing this kind of work anymore. The sapling bowed under the weight of the half-skinned gorilla. A vulture floating out over the canyon banked an invisible current. Even if Akeley didn't fall to his death, Mickie might get her way regardless. He could tell by the troubled looks of his guides that he must have appeared grave indeed. More like a sickly seventy-year-old than a man three years shy of sixty. By his own estimate, he'd lost twenty pounds in the last three weeks. His clothes barely hung on his frame. He looked like the first draft of one of his own manikins.
He worked till the point where his fingernails felt sore and loose—a hazard of the trade; arsenic made it all but impossible to keep one's fingernails.
After they had skinned the gorilla, his guides packed up the bones in their baskets, and with Carl following behind at a determined limp, they began the march back down to the base camp.
Somehow he made it on his own before dusk.
As he prepared a batch of plaster to make a mold of the soles of the gorilla's feet and the palms of its hands, the mist shuffled through the trees and wrapped around the camp. His men were busy cleaning its skeleton, and he kept a close eye on them while they worked; he had already taken all the necessary measurements and preserved the organs in jars of formalin for the trip back to New York. One of the men was attempting to build a fire. In this weather, in the constant fog and rain, it was a struggle, and everything—tents, guns, chop boxes—was covered by a green spidery mold. Just to protect the unexposed film for his motion picture camera, each reel was kept in a sealed tin. Five reels then went in a larger tin box with the lid soldered on. Then four of those packages were sealed inside a corrugated cardboard carton and packed in a tin-lined cedar box. The whole shebang was carried in a galvanized iron box just heavy enough for one porter to manage on his head (while keeping his balance with a spear).
He held the gorilla's head in his lap, studying its face, as he stirred more plaster for a death mask. The gorilla was an older male, no doubt in the twilight of its peaceable life, even if, in death, he could see the vague indentations of worry in its dilated creased face, its uncertain eyes. It was deeply unsettling to recognize such distinct character looking back at him. There was no other word for this quality. This old ape had had its own dilemmas. It made him feel like a murderer, not just because in a distorted way it looked humanish—and no doubt that distortion was caused in part by the fever—but because, unlike a zebra or hippopotamus, it had that vaguish quality of personality. Zebras had fierce spirit, but they did not have individual character.
Akeley poured the white gloop over its face, letting the plaster seal in all the inscrutable furrows, concealing, for now, any doubts about what he had just done.
Later that night, to the utter disgust of the native guides, out of some irresistible curiosity, he would cook and eat some of the flesh of the old gorilla. He was depleted and ate it for strength. The unmarinaded meat was surprisingly sweet. It did not taste taboo. But then, in the middle of the night, he woke in a cold sweat, convinced he had hallucinated the entire thing. The trip across the sea. The hunt. The terrible climb. The reality of the gorilla. He could not be convinced otherwise until he stumbled out into camp and saw the old male's skin hanging there, flapping in the cold wind.
Its skeleton creaked at him on the rack.
He could hear a hyrax in the trees, making its eerie screech, just like a child shrieking in pain. However pitiful, the cries of this strange shrewlike creature did nothing to elicit the sympathy of its enemy the leopard. The cat's tracks were visible on the ground around their tents come morning. In the distance the cauldron of Nyamlagira was spitting lava and glowing under the scud of clouds drifting across the night. In a way he envied the old gorilla. He would have gladly exchanged roles. Given it his steamer ticket back to New York, let it deal with his wife, the lawyers, pick up his god-awful lecture circuit. Just leave him here to die in peace. Let the volcano be his funeral pyre.
But then, he would never have lived long enough to give the gorillas reason to thank him. For truly, even these ones here, the dead and dismantled, would have risen from their vats of formalin to thank the taxidermist if they could have seen what he was about to do. His next act. Even if he didn't know yet himself, it would change everything.
Excerpted from Kingdom Under Glass by Jay Kirk
Copyright 2010 by Jay Kirk
Published in 2010 by Henry Holt and Company
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
Excerpted from Kingdom Under Glass by Jay Kirk Copyright © 2010 by Jay Kirk. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted September 7, 2011
An amazing read. Well researched and annotated, this book brings to our attention the life and career of Carl Akeley.
The author uses many resources to deduce what most likely transpired on Akeley's journeys and gives the reader a fresh look into the story. You can almost feel as if you're traveling along in search of elephants, mountain gorillas and experiencing it all yourself.
Looked at today as the father of modern taxidermy and display design, Akeley was a complex man, not without significant warts, that make him all the more intriguing. His pioneering work on Jumbo the elephant, of P.T. Barnum fame, along with development of the painstakingly accurate natural displays to house the specimens he collected. allow us to look at a time when killing of wild animals to put them on display in museums in glass walled dioramas to allow the common man to experience their majesty was acceptable scientific practice.
But that's not all. Later in his life he was instrumental in the establishment of a nature preserve in the Congo to preserve the mountain gorillas and became an advocate to preserve nature in the wild and not in museums.
He also invented a movie camera that that was better than those of George Eastman (of Eastman-Kodak fame) allowing the capture on film of the natural worlds wonders.
A man of many talents Carl Akeley's life and adventures offer insights into nature preservation and turn of the century America.
Posted November 8, 2010
This edge of your seat read captures your mind and desire to explore. Jay Kirk manages to create a wonderfully depictive portrait of one of America's most unknown, dynamic and interesting sons. A must read for any adventurer, conservationalist or nature lover.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 5, 2010
Disclaimer: I got this book for free.
Kingdom Under Glass" by Jay Kirk is a historical fiction - biography tale, set in the late late nineteenth - early twentieth century, about the great taxidermist & conservationist, inventor and sculptor Carl Akeley, his wives Delia "Mickie" Akeley and second wife Mary Jobe Akeley.
Akeley is a legend, I'm surprised I haven't heard of him before this book. On a jungle expedition he killed a leopard with his bare hands, somehow survived an elephant attach, stuffed Jumbo the elephant for P.T. Barnum, was an acquittance of Teddy Roosevelt, invented a movie camera, used his fame to prompted King Albert of Belgium to create the world's first wildlife sanctuary in the Belgium Congo (Virunga National Park) and I'm not even going to detail his scientific and artistic achievements.
The book is divided into four parts:
Prologue: where we meet Carl Akeley in the African jungle hunting a silverback gorilla to add to the museum's collection. At this time, the gorillas are considered almost a legend.
Part One: The Resurrectionists - we are introduced to a cast of characters, including Carl's friends and wife. The narrative flows as we follow Carl from his childhood interest in this seeming morbid preoccupation, to dead end jobs.
Part Two: Ahab the Veldt - Convinced that most animals will soon be extinct, Carl & Mickie go to Africa to collect animals for the museum. By "collecting" they mean killing the animals for the museum's exhibits; if the animal they killed is not to their satisfaction, they will lay it aside and go after the perfect specimen.
Part Three: Life in the City - After several years living in tents in Africa, adjusting to the luxurious life in New York City is not as easy as it sounds.
Part Four: Under the Volcano - Carl goes back to the Congo to find his gorillas, this time taking his new wife Mary. Not getting George Eastman to commit anymore money to the life work at the museum puts Akeley in a foul mood.
Jay Kirk has done the impossible, he made a book about a taxidermist not only interesting, but entertaining as well. Jay Kirk's prose is beautifully written, brilliant, smooth and striking, however it is not for the faint of heart as there are intimate descriptions of the process of taxidermy - starting with the tracking of a perfect specimen.
The research that went into this book is amazing. At the end notes Mr. Kirk reveals his sources, from personal journals to published books and his thought process about making such assumptions as "Akeley thought...".
A refreshing change from many other books is that Mr. Kirk is unapologetic about the attitude of the time - deep racism, impenitent colonialism and cataclysmic conservationism are par of the course. This type of narrative is very effective and sometimes even shocking.
However, the author never make such assumptions, criticizes or strays from the narrative - but let the deeds and words of these men speak for themselves. Both Akeley and Roosevelt believe that extinction is inevitable.
The author breathes life into the characters in a masterful way, with superb writing, an eye for detail and nuances which make us all individuals.
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