Huffpost Books
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Jay Kirk Headshot

Museum Of Natural History And Carl Akeley's Jounrey To Build Its African Wing

Posted: Updated:

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.

EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT from "Kingdom Under Glass" by Jay Kirk:

He felt as if he had no skin.

Or worse--as if he had stitched it on himself, in his sleep perhaps. He had been fading in and out of consciousness for weeks. Coming to, now, he didn't bother to lift his hand to swat away the flies that buzzed his head, crawling over the bandages that concealed the rude, oozing scars of his mangled face. He would have put an animal in his condition out of its misery. He would never have mounted such an ugly specimen.

As his wounds slowly healed over the next three months--the expedition would not return, against all better judgment, to America--he lay on his cot, in and out of delirium, only half aware of the gentle ministrations of his wife. She wasn't there now, however, when he woke. It was midafternoon and the sun blazed through the crack of the canvas flap door. He was alone. Or so he thought until he picked up the shaving mirror on the nightstand to inspect his mummified head and noticed the vervet tied behind him to the bedpost, trying to catch a glimpse of its own bemused reflection.

The only part of his face visible through the cocoon of bandages was one grim, bloodshot eyeball. It stared back almost lasciviously. The monkey, unbreakably enchanted by its own mirror-image, now caught his eye with an inquisitive sparkle. What did it feel like? Like being used for an elephant's prayer rug. He stared at the monkey, as if waiting for it to comment. Like being hit by a motor truck. That's what it had felt like.

He wouldn't have minded talking to the monkey, who was actually turning out to be not the worst companion in the world, especially with Mickie gone all day, hunting, or tending to the many administrative errands of keeping the safari afloat, even if formal operations had been semi-suspended during his convalescence.

He tried to lift his head, decided against it, fell back against his pillows and reached for his pipe on the bedstand. The smoke seeped through the bandages plastered over his cheek. After a while, he closed the eye, and then letting the work sounds of camp dissolve around him, took a stroll through the property he had begun to construct in secrecy behind his eyelids.
The marble floor was cool on his stockinged feet, and the echo of his two canes tapped across the monumental nave-like space. Gradually, his eyes adjusted to the dim lighting. The numinous panes of glass, each the size of a motion picture screen, reflected faintly on the dark tiles. Everything was as he had left it. The raised bronze lettering identifying the tenant of each exquisite lair. The hall was as grand as one of McKim, Mead & White's soaring spaces. Penn Station with the lights turned low. Up on the mezzanine gallery, the half-finished chimpanzees looked down from their canopy of wax leaves.

He'd begun to build the great thing in his mind over the weeks and months he'd been confined to his cot. There, between fits of delirium and fever, he had become sole witness to this slowly unfolding vision. A vision of such sublime and splendid design, such a radiant blueprint for what his future now held before him, in a way he had to feel sincerely grateful to the elephant.
Even if he had barely seen the creature before it had crushed him down into the rucksack of oblivion... The last thing he remembered was tracking just below the ice fields, trying to determine how high up the elephants really went. They'd found spoor higher than he ever would have guessed, above the timberline, at 14,000 feet, and a little higher in the sphagnum marshes where the air was thin as plasma and sulphur cold. It amazed him how the elephant could adapt to such diverse and extreme conditions. But how else would it have ever survived the millennia?

But then after Mickie and her altitude-sick monkey had left him for base camp, he and his remaining porters had dropped down several thousand feet, to the upper bamboo forest, where they'd stumbled across the tracks of three very large bulls. By the looks of one in particular, by its footprints, Carl immediately knew he had found the trail of the largest elephant he'd ever come across. A colossal mound of droppings readily affirmed this hunch.
On the other hand, the droppings were four days old at least, a crumbled hive of stubby maggots, but the trackers were still able to single out this large bull's path and to follow it for quite a while unhindered.

The trail itself was a kind of maze. A series of interconnected passageways, blazed over time, that traversed the elephants' feeding grounds high in the bamboo forest. Deep in the maze, though, as Carl tried to follow the bull's tracks, he only ended by circling back around to the same place from which he'd started almost as if he'd been set a ruse.

Finally, deciding to try and find the exit to the maze. Carl was going along the bamboo perimeter when he found another pile of dung. It was just as massive as the four day old spoor, but fresh, actually still steaming in the freezing June mist. He poked at the humid ziggurat with the machete he'd been using to cut path.

It was then he began to have a distinct sense about this elephant. It came over him gradually. The feeling was that he had finally found a bull worthy of bringing back to New York. The one he'd been chasing after for the last long difficult year. As if it had only been one individual bull all along that had evaded him and set up this contest. But now he felt it--this was the one.
Even stranger, as they kept through the maze, Carl started getting the sense that the elephant truly was waiting for him. The feeling was strong. That he was being hunted as well and was now engaged in a mortal contest with this bull. In fact, he felt it right up until the moment when they came to a small clearing in the tinsel-green bamboo and heard a loud crash in the woods fifty yards straight ahead.

The trackers were already twenty yards ahead, on the path, and now braced against the unknown. The porters behind him had run off, shedding their bundles of firewood, Heinz baked beans, Underwood's deviled ham, etc. Carl calmly took his .475 double rifle, while his gunbearer went through the patient ritual of taking out and holding up for Carl's inspection every single bullet from the bandolier. The last thing he needed at a critical moment like this was to load the wrong caliber. Meanwhile, he unwrapped the handkerchief from his hand, trying to rub feeling back into his numbed fingers, and waiting for the tracker to give him a sightline, when, with no more fanfare than a dust mote entering a Victorian drawing room on a ray of midafternoon sunlight, the bull was suddenly upon him. Out of nowhere, a tusk was at his chest. As if the elephant had only been standing there, hidden behind the bamboo curtain, waiting for its cue to enter.

What he remembered now was that the safety on his rifle had caught; though later his porters would remember that he had gotten off one shot. He did not remember the splintering of wood or an explosion of leaves nor whether he got a shot off or not. What he did remember was the odd overwhelming sensation of homesickness, struggling for a moment with the safety, and then he had done the unimaginable--he had thrown the rifle aside and actually reached out to grab ahold of the tusk as it lanced past him with the force of a sharpened swinging log. A completely mad thing to do! To climb aboard a charging elephant, as if it were a speeding boxcar. It had been almost automatic like something he had rehearsed in his mind a thousand times before. Lifted off his feet, lurched skywards, somehow in the next split second managing to get himself between the two tusks, grabbing the other as well, so he had ahold of both like the handlebars of a gargantuan bicycle. Here he was now riding the face of a giant bull, a massive tembo, overlord of the forest. Pressed against the thick ridged bridge of its trunk, close enough to see his own terrified reflection jiggling in the piggish gelatine of its cornea, he knew to expect no mercy.

Attempting to scrape the gymnast off its face, the elephant thrust its tusks into the earth. It plowed him into the ground. But for a thwarting stubborn undersoil--a root, a rock--Akeley was not killed instantly but remained between the tusks, holding on for bitter life. As the elephant changed its footing, Akeley felt the chilled breeze of its nicked, batwing ears, and took one last breath of the animal's creosote musk. The smell of hot coal tar. Then a shuddering blackness. Ten hours later, his runners would arrive at base camp to bring Mickie the bad news.

* * *

When he first came to, a heaviness filled his lungs, like iron vapor. He was aware of lying in the mud, and the cold rain, and he could also make out what he took to be his porters, a little distance off, warming their hands around a blaze. He could only see this through one blurry eye. When he tried to get up, he discovered that he was not able to move his legs. And so he lay there, tasting the blood that trickled out the corners of his mouth like a slow burbling spring, convinced that his back was broken. He did not dare touch the side of his face. He had to wonder why his men had not put him inside the tent, leaving him here instead on the wet ground, or not at least set him nearer the fire, when he arrived at the only possible conclusion which was that they thought him dead. Nothing could compel a Kikuyu to lay hands on a corpse.

He tried to get their attention several times before they looked over, startled to discover him moaning, and indeed still alive at all, but as soon as they seemed persuaded that he was not bluffing, they set down their smoking implements, and came along and dragged him into the tent. Then he went unconscious again.

* * *

When he came to again he felt a tickling sensation on his face and hands and under his shirt as well. It was all over his body. Ants, come to feast on his leaking carcass. He was covered with them, but there was little he could do about it. After a while he managed to get one of the porters to bring him some quinine and a bottle of brandy which the man helped him to down, though a good half of its contents was lost out the trench in the side of his face. But after the bottle was emptied he could move his toes. He was not paralyzed after all. Then, again, much relieved, he slept.

* * *

When he woke again, the ants were still there, so he lay there like that, like a human ant hill, until the rain outside stopped and it was very quiet and gradually the monochrome of dawn began to crowbar its way into the tent. It was then he began to feel certain about Mickie being near. It was just a feeling. As much as he had felt the elephant had been waiting for him in the woods. So, when the men reemerged at dawn, and he could hear the crackle of fire starting, he told the gunbearer to take his rifle and fire a signal shot every fifteen minutes. Between the explosions he faded in and out.

* * *

When he next opened his eyes Mickie was already there. By the way she covered her face, he knew how badly he must have looked. Then they tied him to a stretcher and he was lopsidedly carried along by two of Mickie's porters who looked as if they had not slept for a week. It was strange, but he could have sworn he'd seen one of the Africans actually crying over him. It was Bill, the one he'd tried to put in jail, but who'd somehow gotten free and followed them back up onto the mountain. He could not have been happier than he was now to see the African cutting a path for his return.

* * *

A few weeks into his convalescence, he started building his museum in the sky. Like a shirker slipping into a nickelodeon in the middle of the afternoon, he could sneak in whenever he felt like it. Each time, there were new details to notice, like the panels depicting the primeval hunters in bas-relief above each alcove. Details he must not forget. He walked around slowly, passing the giant coffin-shaped dais upon which the frozen elephants stood like great bronze statues, estimating the dimensions of the hall in his mind. The overall layout revealed itself more clearly with each visit. The elephants would still be the centerpiece. But this was not anything like the original purpose for which he had been sent to Africa, but once he shared his vision with the trustees back in New York, he knew, they would have no choice but to build it.
Carl stood with his fists in the pockets of his bathrobe, mesmerized by the perfection of the vision. All the charmed, fabular beasts caught as if under a spell. Twenty on the first floor, and twenty on the gallery. It would be like a giant movie theatre where the viewer could walk from one silent screen to the next, but with no reels, no moving parts, no chintzy special effects, no dinky piano playing in the dark pit.

Ticket-buyers would be able to stop and enter the illusion, move from window to window, one artificial wilderness to the next, and behold each vivid fragment of Nature for as long as their disbelief could be sustained. Maybe more than the movies it was more like a silent, glittering mausoleum: each scene hermetically sealed for eternity. In the mossy shadows of the rain forest, a leopard, its hide like silk damask, stalking some unseen prey. A rhinoceros making love to its Nile mud. Here were five gemsbok, faces painted like hoofers for the Ziegfeld Follies. A gerenuk on tiptoes, entwined in a thorn tree, lipping away the tender leaves. In one diorama alone an entire grassland ensphered: zebras, giraffe, wildebeest, stampeding across the plains. He could practically taste the rising dust.

Of course he had not yet accounted for every detail. In some, the backgrounds were merely sketched out, barely penciled in. Behind one pane a raging brush fire but no animals. Some of the dioramas were still vacant altogether: empty dark compartments, as of yet unimagined.
This vision in his fevered mind would be his true work. He understood that now. To look inside this beautiful forgery, he felt sure, one would almost ache to get on the other side of the glass, to enter the sealed chambers where life and death seemed held in suspension. Here was asylum from the ravages of decay and oblivion. And here was the same paradox, to a degree, which every artist faced: to immortalize time, one must kill it a little bit first. What better way to understand the cosmos than to flense it, bleed it, and then build it back up again to spec. All just so that it might be possible--bearable even--to look directly upon the naked mystery of nature unveiled.

Around the Web

Museum of Natural History presents fifth annual ButterflyFest

Institutional Investing, Along Central Park West

Salt Lake County Proposition 1: Museum of Natural History