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Excerpt: ‘Kingdom Under Glass’

“Kingdom Under Glass” is the epic tale of Carl Akeley, the taxidermist-artist who created the famed dioramas in the Hall of African Mammals at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. This excerpt describes one of his first “eureka” moments that would lead to the revolution of natural museum exhibition. Ultimately, on a 1921 expedition to collect mountain gorillas, Akeley would have an epiphany that would lead to the creation of the first wildlife sanctuary in Africa, saving the mountain gorilla from extinction, and making Akeley one of the great conservationists of the 20th century.

For more: Jay Kirk talks about Carl Akeley, taxidermy and the modern field of natural history.

One night his friend, and boss at the Milwaukee Museum, William Wheeler, was reading aloud to Carl from Schopenhauer while Carl worked on the skin of an orangutan the museum had recently acquired from Borneo. But Akeley was not paying attention. He was standing back from his work bench, regarding the primate’s skin with a lost looking gaze, his pipe loosely clenched in his fist.

Wheeler set the open book across his knee.

“Are you really thinking, Carl, or are you just thinking that you’re thinking?”

It was a question he often put to his friend, as his self-appointed mentor.

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But this was not one of Carl’s usual spells of absent-mindedness. He was thinking all right. But he would not solve the problem he saw before him — not a problem, per se, but a deeply imbedded question — until a few nights later, after Wheeler had gone home, when he again brought out the orangutan.

He had already built the usual armature. The leg and weirdly long arm bones were clamped to the wood-block pedestal, the skull bolted down, a slapdash skeleton that looked like some Mexican Day of the Dead parade float. As much as he had tried to hone his powers of observation and to get as close as possible to recreating exactly how the animal really looked — despite whatever Wheeler had said about Schopenhauer’s pessimistic view on the matter of the representation of reality (i.e., how any effort to experience the world as anything more than shabby representation was doomed to further distort and distance man from the true thing) — he still felt his creations lacked a vividness he knew must be possible.

He was preparing to stuff its skin in the usual way when he began to think. What he wanted was a more subtle medium — more expressive, a more convincing way to impress the skin with the muscle beneath. The essence that did not so much lie on the surface, but somehow came from somewhere deeper. Something he would have to see and find with his hands, the ape’s unseen essence — the pongid’s noumenon, as his philosopher friend might have put it: concealed and revealed simultaneously by the deception of its outer skin. That was it — in order to truly bring it alive, what was underneath would have to come to life first. He moved the corncob pipe from one side of his mouth to the other and looked at the sawdust clenched in his fingers. Then he let it fall to the floor, wiped off his hands on his pants, and started pacing around the creaky floorboards of his studio.

Using clay had not been an altogether new idea. Taxidermists often kept it around to rough out and bulk up the armatures for larger mammals, and to sometimes finish the surface of a manikin, to give it a bit more natural look. Naturally, Akeley himself kept a spare bucket of wet clay on hand. Maybe that’s all he had in mind when he picked up the first lump and weighed it in his palm. Massaging the clod slowly in his fist to soften it, he stood with his free hand on his hip, leaning forward toward the ape, twisting the clump behind his back, like a pitcher contemplating whether to throw a curve or a knuckle, and then he tore off a pinch and pressed the clay under the zygomatic arch of the monkey’s skull. He built up the skeleton, packing clay around the pelvic bone, its legs, working slowly and following the intuition of his hands. He tried to be mindful of the details at every layer, and stopped frequently to check his progress against the original measurements taken by the explorer before he’d skinned the animal a thousand oceans away.

When the sun set, the gas lamps hissed to life out on the street. The only other sound being the tick of the clock, and the occasional half-conscious mutter of satisfaction from his own lips — then it gradually dawned on him. What he was doing. That he was finally doing what he was meant to do. He was actually sculpting. Why had he never tried this before? He looked at the clay embedded in his fingernails, smiling. Nothing had ever come so naturally.

He stayed up all night, surrounded by a blue haze of pipe smoke, in an ecstatic wide alert haze himself. He only stopped now and then to relight his pipe, or flip through his notebook to consult the explorer’s sketches, to double check the width of a haunch, the circumference of a bicep, a photograph of the monkey’s dead but still smirksome face. When he went to bed, at last, the birds were singing, and the tobacco smoke swirled around the clay ape on its pedestal like a golem awaiting the spell of life. That would come the next day, once Carl awoke after only a few hours sleep, and cautiously tried on its waiting skin. The fit was perfect. By following his sketches to the final detail, he had captured each indelibly unique trait, each nook and plane of the animal’s outer surface, every undulation, mole, scar, and wrinkle, so that — like a reverse suit — the manikin was perfectly tailored to the skin. There was an eye-tricking sense of motion under the skin. As if something like will was surging forth from within. Indeed, the ape looked as if it might leap off the table and jump out the window.

From the book “Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, and One Man’s Quest to Preserve the World’s Great Animals” by Jay Kirk. Copyright © 2010 by Jay Kirk. Reprinted by arrangement with Henry Holt and Company LLC.

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