The life and work of Carl Akeley, considered by many to be the father of modern taxidermy owing to certain innovations in mounting he helped to develop in the late 19th century, forms a kind of spine for the book. I deployed him to hinge thereon much of what I wanted to write about: pet taxidermy, competitive taxidermy, taxidermy schools, etc.
Earlier drafts did a lot more fictive biographizing than does the final book, I think. Back then I believed more in Akeley’s heroism, and I trusted too fully the accounts that had been written about his life. Over time, this changed. One of the problems in the book is that I think the writing about Carl is inconsistent. At times I help to build the man, the myth. At times I tear it all down.
In the end, my aim was to convey my personal ambivalence toward this person I’d originally pegged as a herodramatic or otherwise. And so the following bits became too grossly manipulative, creating a forced, falsed-up persona to fit my narrative’s needs.]
About a year after Carl arrived in Rochester, looking for work, a man named Will Wheeler started at Ward’s [Natural Science Establishment, where Carl landed his first professional taxidermy gig] and immediately began intense, diligent work on the classification of invertebrates. Shells, mostly. On breaks, Carl would come across cases of seashells in certain corners of the compound, and as Carl’s was the indiscriminate eye of the sculptor, taking in everything and storing it for future use, he could never see any real difference between the specimens Will categorized and named in full. Conus kintoki. Conus virgo. Conus gloriamaris. Carl would read the names printed on little cards pinned to the back of these display cases and he’d pronounce them in with his untrained tongue over and over again until they sounded like a kind of music.
One day, bored and restless after an afternoon of stuffing a whole crate of [honey] badgers, Carl went wandering and found himself outside Will’s studio. The door was open and he rapped on it with two quick knocks. “Want some company?” he said. “It’s pretty much quitting time.”
Will said sure, and the boys introduced themselves in earnest, gripping hands the way their fathers had long ago taught them to. On the observation table, Carl saw a flat, spiral shell of a vivid amber pattern curling around a cream undertone. “Seashells, huh?”
“Architectonica perspectiva,” Will said. “From Singapore. Probably held a sea snail at one time.”
“This is what you do all day?” This came out in a tone a touch too derisive. “I mean, this is what Ward’s got you cooped up to do?”
“Well, I classify most of the specimens we get,” Will said. “Shells are just my specialty.”
Carl didn’t know what else to ask next. He held the shell and looked at it closely for help. He tried to imagine living inside such a structure, coiling his body inward on itself to escape whatever danger lay outside.
“It’s probably not as exciting as what you guys do up there in the taxidermy studio,” Will said. “Quieter work.”
“Cleaner, too, I’d imagine.”
Will laughed. Carl laughed. They were friends now, as easy as that. On weekends they started heading out together into the thick of the Rochester night, its theatres and taverns, young people like them looking to bump into one another for a time. Though he was three years younger, Carl always felt as though he was meant to take the lead. Will came from midwest Lutheran German stock—quiet, industrious—and this background, coupled with his windworn skin and lanky frame, leant him the air of the learned gentleman. Carl was shorter, his body packed close to itself like a haybale, and even at twenty he still bore the fair, soft looks of the adolescent. It was Carl who happily took the bulk of passing women’s waves and smiles. Will always seemed happy to watch, to observe.
One night, the two boys were walking down Clinton Avenue, having just left a theatre where they watched Sarah Bernhardt storm around the stage as Thèodora, Empress of Byzantium. Carl had been held rapt by the direct animal energy of her performance, her limbs’ fluid explosions, the steely surging behind the eyes, and as he walked he tried to shake her from his mind, get himself back to the present world of work and transit. Here was an old derelict, asleep in the street, his mouth curled up in the corners as if he had some amusing joke to tell. The boys didn’t hurry past. They gave themselves a good look at the man.
“Perhaps he’s merely playing a role,” suggested Will, a lifelong teetotaler.
“If he is,” Carl said, “he’s a natural. Even Ms. Bernhardt couldn’t match him.”
From across the street came a shout, high and quick, like a train engine’s sharp blast of steam. Carl and Will turned to watch: a young woman fixing the pleats of her dress and slapping at the hands of some grinning gent, flashing his eyes about to see just who might be watching. “It’s incredible,” Carl said, “the spectacle of the city.”
“Coarse, I think,” said Will.
“Well yes, but that’s the point, isn’t it? It’s not just the people. People are everywhere. It’s everything else. All of it.”
“What do you mean?”
They’d reached Washington Square Park by now and by some unspoken agreement both boys strayed from their direct path home, turning into the park and slowing down their pace to enjoy the lingering warmth of the now-finished summer day. There was a faint breath of wind from the north that rustled the treeleaves which canopied up above them and blocked out the sky for a time. It was darker here, and quiet, and whenever the boys stopped talking they could both faintly pick up the sounds of the Genesee River running through the city just a few blocks away.
“It’s like the show we just saw,” Carl said. “Imagine Ms. Bernhardt up there on the stage without a scene set behind her. With no windows painted on the backdrop, showing the sun rising in the distance behind those minarets. No bed or sofa for her to fall into. No cup. No dagger. Just her and the other actors on the stage, talking to one another.”
Will considered this. “I see what you mean. I’d still be moved by her performance, though.”
“Yes,” Carl said. “She’s incredibly gifted, but can we really feel the power of the story without being able to watch it unfold in front of us?”
In the center of the park was the new Civil War Memorial that stood taller than Carl’s house back in Clarendon, with four lifesize statues ringing the base, and at the center, Abraham Lincoln. Even in the darkness of the evening, Carl could see the stern, steady gaze in Lincoln’s eyes and the Emancipation Proclamation he gripped tightly in his hands, as if ready to use it as a weapon.
“Take Lincoln up there,” Carl said. “He just standing alone with a single prop. Where is he supposed to be, and what is he supposed to be doing there?”
Will looked up at the statue. Here the trees fell away to open the memorial up to the sky, and against its darkness the president looked like some distant specter. “But it’s a statue, Ake. That’s the point: to stand starkly against the sky. To simply be what it is.”
“It’s not enough, though, is it?”
“Enough of what?”
If any words came, they came too short. Ideas fell apart before he could piece them together and hand them over to his friend. He started walking, heading for the park exit, ready to get home and sleep on it.