The American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art has an airy, skylit atrium, the recently remodeled Engelhard Sculpture Court, a place overflowing with marble and curious marvels. In one corner, the Vanderbilts’ humongous hearth. Over there, glowing Tiffany windows. Catty-corner is an annexed Frank Lloyd Wright living room, transplanted entire from Minnesota. But the main draw, anyone can see, is the café. Short of stopping at a fountain, museumgoers head for the line like animals come to drink. A panini, a Vitamin Water. A few minutes in a chair.
Headed in that direction, people circulate around the room’s sculptures, each work an island unto itself. One of them, Edward Kemeys’ bronze Panther and Cubs, rests on a square pedestal in the southwest corner; on the edge, as cats prefer. A lioness is on her side, partially reclined. Two young panthers—less than eight weeks old, by the look of them, when they’ d be about ten pounds—are safe at her chest, between her front and rear legs, in a kind of external womb. Her tongue licks one’s nape, while the other cub, its belly against hers, appears about ready to pummel its sibling. Two strikingly large protuberances, one realizes after a while, could only be nipples. I don’t distrust Kemeys’ eye: no doubt that’s what it takes to nurse a cougar.
I decided to spend time with Panther and Cubs one Saturday afternoon, because several years ago the cougar was declared officially extinct in the eastern U.S. That the animal remains in our homage to ourselves seemed worthy of some exploration. Panther and Cubs was sculpted in 1878, though this particular cast was poured in 1907, the year of the artist’s death. “Kemeys was America’s first animalier (animal sculptor) of significance,” reads the brief placard affixed to its pedestal. “He favored the American panther, depicting the animal in varied emotional states, from fierce combativeness to the maternal tenderness exemplified in this group.”
Ghost cat, catamount, cougar, puma, panther, painter, and mountain lion: Puma concolor is one of the most widely known and variously named animals in the so-called New World, with more than forty monikers. But if you want to see the shape or form of this animal, the Met is perhaps your most solid bet, because although about thirty thousand live in the American West, unsurprisingly they’re reclusive. Crepuscular. Many people who’ve spent a fair amount of time in or near “wilds” have never seen one, myself included. I’ve seen paw prints in the damp sand of an Oregon river, and in the adobe mud tight to a brake of chaparral in California, which would cast a concealing shadow in the moonlight. I’ve found eviscerated, half-eaten deer, and once I heard a female cougar in heat roaring eerily in an oak and buckeye swale. But I’ve never laid eyes on one. Odds are, though, I’ve been seen. In the wilds, it may be we who stand out like sculpture.
Standing before Kemeys’ rendering, one is impressed by the lioness’ size: her hind legs seem impossibly long, but cougars, I’ve learned, have proportionately the longest legs of all felines. Her tail is as thick as my arm, longer (and surely stronger), with a smooth, rounded tip. The cubs are the size of house cats, but lankier, and they are a little less convincing. The statue’s bronze is dark, but in life these cats are tawny all over, concolor, and the cubs have spots. Males are about half again as large as females, reaching 120 to 150 pounds, and as many as 200. From incisor to tail, they’re about eight feet long.
Edward Kemeys, meanwhile, was described by the writer Hamlin Garland in an 1895 McClure’s Magazine profile as a “thin but sinewy” man of vernacular speech. Born in Savannah, Georgia, he was raised in Scarsborough on the Hudson River, and in New York City. After serving as a white captain for a black artillery during the Civil War, he worked for several years on a relative’s Illinois prairie farm, which had kindled his passion for open space during a visit at age thirteen. But he grew restless and, in 1869, at the age of twenty-six, retreated to New York City in search of something he couldn’t quite identify. There, for two dollars a day, he found temporary work as an axman in the engineering corps readying the grounds of Central Park for Frederick Law Olmsted. One day during his lunch break, he watched a German sculptor carve a wolf’s head at the Menagerie beside the park’s original headquarters, the old Arsenal at 5th Avenue and 64th Street. As he later recounted to Garland, immediately he thought, “I can do that!” He stayed up all night modeling his own lupine visage from wax and, in the morning, made a list of future sculptures: “All wild. Deer fighting panther, wolves fighting buffalo, and that sort.”
Three years after his epiphany, Kemeys made his public debut with Two Hudson Bay Wolves Quarreling over the Carcass of a Deer, which still snarls in the Philadelphia Zoological Gardens. Flush with this success, he immediately forayed west, traveling in Kansas, Colorado, and Wyoming for fifteen months in 1872 and 1873 to observe and hunt big game. After an accident broke his arm, he was taken in by members of the Omaha tribe and lived in their camp. Native Americans and frontier animals became his lifelong subjects—or as Kemeys put it, “I had struck the trail.” He carried along his banjo and picked while sitting on stacks of buffalo skins. Once he was back in New York City, his studio became a veritable museum, full of trophy animals and the sculptures they inspired, or the other way around. He put down skins for rugs and wore Native American garb, as if to channel his subjects, and for the sake of performance.
It would seem important to note that Kemeys’ totemic animals were firmly lodged in his imagination before he ever visited the frontier and glimpsed them in “the wild.” He prided himself on his “intuitive” understanding of creatures, boasting to Garland, “I could sit down before an animal and drink him dry.” His self-promotion as self-taught aligned with a dominant American myth of both then and now: literally overnight, as the story goes, he transformed from a day laborer to an artist, and soon to one of national caliber. His affirmation of hunting, which was essential to his accurate renderings, was likewise in vogue and separated him from other artists.
Kemeys had to go west to see big game, not least because by the late 1800s animals like the cougar were already all but extinct in the Northeast. It took well over a century for the Fish and Wildlife Service to declare what had long been manifest. Puma concolor is a highly adaptable species—in fact, it has the broadest range of any mammal in the Americas, spanning 110 degrees of latitude from Alaska to Patagonia—but we managed to shoot and trap them out of the East quite quickly: from Delaware in 1790, New Jersey in 1835, Massachusetts by 1858. The tail end came just slightly later in New York: 107 cougars were “bountied” between 1879 and 1890, and the final kill was paid for, upstate, in 1894. The last verified record of a breeding cougar in the Northeast was in Maine in 1938. So Kemeys’ cats aren’t strictly modeled after eastern cougars, though it’s not even clear that eastern cougars were ever their own subspecies. DNA analysis suggests there are just six subspecies, and only one in North America. (The Florida panther, of which about two hundred still exist in the Everglades, isn’t genetically unique, either. But it is now isolated.)
After his initial visit to the West, Kemeys made one voyage to Paris, where the animalier movement was centered. Critics had coined the term to describe Antoine-Louis Barye, who in the 1830s began exhibiting Panthera bronzes modeled on captives in the Jardin des Plantes. Kemeys was to become “the American Barye,” although his sculpture, by philosophy but perhaps also skill, would never be as refined. The sculptures of the French animaliers were classical and allegorical; Kemeys’ work radiates a rough-hewn, frontier American idealism. While in France, Kemeys showed his third major work, Fight Between Buffalo and Wolves, in the Salon, but afterward he settled into a lifelong routine, forgoing both Europe and zoos for regular excursions across the Mississippi. “I’ d go back to New York and work till I sold something,” he explained, “and then—back West again.”
Soon his popularity swelled, and in 1885 the Art Institute of Chicago held a special exhibition of his bronzes and sketches titled “Wild Animals and Indians.” Today, outside the Institute’s doors still sits perhaps Kemeys’ best-known work: a sentinel pair of African lions, sculpted for the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 and now an important symbol of the city. Though these exotics may be his most iconic, for the Exposition Kemeys also produced six American panthers—the cougar was probably second only to the wolf in his personal mythology—as well as a pair each of bison and bears, which guarded the bridges to the “wilderness islands” Olmsted created in the lagoon beside the equally idyllic White City and its stuccoed colonnades, a paragon of civilization. It was a heyday for animal sculpture: Kemeys was lionized for his untutored talent and endemic preoccupations. In The History of American Sculpture (1903), the first survey of its kind, sculptor Lorado Taft notes that Kemeys was significant to “the slow unfolding of a national art: he was one of the first to see and appreciate the immediate world around him, to recognize the artistic possibilities of our own land and time.”
But that particular land and time, one of discovery and superabundance, was fast transforming. In fact, it was also at the World’s Columbian Exposition that the historian Frederick Jackson Turner delivered his famous Frontier Thesis, arguing that westward expansion was key to American identity, while also observing it had come to a close. “In a recent bulletin of the Superintendent of the Census for 1890 appear these significant words,” Turner begins. “ ‘Up to and including 1880 the country had a frontier of settlement, but at present the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line.’ ” He narrates the successive waves of colonization that pursued “free land” and other resources, noting how each wave returned its intrepid pathfinders to primitive conditions and so fostered a staunch individualism, “a gate of escape from the bondage of the past.” Eventually, “in the crucible of the frontier the immigrants were Americanized, liberated, and fused into a mixed race.” The gaps between outposts were sutured by trade and its improved routes, culminating in the railroad. A vigorous nationalism and democracy had resulted. But now America had reached the other sea, and what then?
Kemeys and his panthers seem bound up in the contradiction of Turner’s thesis: caught between fine art and animal nature, between big skies and the urban studio, they are both quintessentially American and, from the start, nostalgic. “All going, all going,” Kemeys said of his subjects. Just about the time he arrived in the West, it began—from a certain angle, at least in the estimation of Kemeys and his ilk—to look like another kind of zoo, where livestock were fenced in, wildlife fenced or wiped out, and Native Americans murdered, confined, and treated as if they’ d evaporated. As wildlife reserves and Indian reservations were conceived, they were established separately: the former a garden outside of time, for visitation only by the genteel (Yellowstone in 1872, Yosemite in 1890); the latter a quarantine under the pretense of assimilation. As Black Elk, the visionary medicine man of the Oglala Lakota, was to say, “the white man has put us in a little island and in other little islands he has put the four-legged beings; and steadily the islands grow smaller. . . .”
Of course, Kemeys himself was a colonial force; his trips to and from the West were a symptom of the trend he decried, just as today many prominent environmentalists jet around the world, justifying the emission of far more than their share of carbon dioxide by the high stakes of the cause. Kemeys was an unabashed hunter, part and parcel with the extermination—as was Audubon, who famously shot, taxidermied, and posed his avians as naturalistically as possible earlier in the century. “Every night,” Kemeys said to Garland of his first western excursion, “I had all the animals I could use for dissection and posing. . . . I wanted to go to the very heart of the wilderness, and then came to the mountains! I went all through them. I met mountain animals, I killed them, grizzlies, sheep, wolves. . . .” And cougar. With a metaphor both amorous and violent, he exalts that “I went to the heart’s core of our American wilderness, and it yielded up its most carefully guarded secrets to me.”
All early sportsmen, who were the nascent environmental movement, are enmeshed in this paradox: they wanted to protect “nature” so they could poach it and renew themselves. The Eden of game was slipping away, and so national movements—spearheaded by organizations like the elite,
one-hundred-member-only Boone and Crockett Club—began to regulate, began to fashion a gate for that garden, as it were. In his manner, Kemeys was also forging this gate with his bronze. Field and Stream—then the most prominent outdoor magazine—praised Kemeys’ efforts to the sky:
The government at Washington has at its hand the very man who could put into parks and avenues of the Nation’s capital what ought to be there—a series of colossal sculptures of American wild animals. These would be a better influence, one is disposed to think, than . . . statues of American statesmen and martial heroes. . . . American wild animals and the country that bore them will presently have become things gone forever.
Implicit in his thought is that our wild animals are American statesmen and martial heroes, and that to wage a one-sided war against them, to cut them down, was to engage in a clandestine civil war. An ironic sentiment for a hunting magazine, but such was the transition to a conservation ethos.
Shortly after Kemeys’ solo exhibition in Chicago, in 1886 and 1887 he published a serialized account of his first western tour in the new and aptly named Outing: An Illustrated Monthly Magazine of Recreation. Its title, “The Sunset Land: A Tale of Rocky Mountain Adventure,” is telling: the sun fades in the west, yes, but in the consciousness of the nation, the West was a land of fading, of brilliant but evanescent vitality. Serendipitously, Kemeys’ dispatches were in those pages entwined with Teddy Roosevelt’s series “Ranch Life and Game Shooting in the West,” and Roosevelt, then the president of Boone and Crockett, was thereafter a friend and champion of the artist, promoting him for commissions and purchasing his sculptures.
In “The Sunset Land,” Kemeys positions himself as a sportsman who “had always craved the free life of the hunter and explorer” and desired to experience the “pure spring of nature,” “that enchanted land,” “the wild fastnesses of the Great Desert” of the plains. Guided by a friend who had toured before, he wagoned westward from Fort Leavenworth—no railroad went further—to join a hunting party in western Kansas, where Kemeys felt “more like myself than ever before.” They soon continued to “Monument,” now Monument Rocks, which Kemeys reveled in and identified with: “Nature, in her wildest forms, has brooded for ages over the grim rock-sculptors which sat enthroned around, the naked plains savage and sere, furrowed by cañons. . . . ” For an emerging sculptor, the mesas and arches of the West must have had peculiar pull.
Surely there are embellishments in these memoirs: Kemeys claims to have suffocated a wolf caught in a foothold trap, by biting its jugular, and to have reached out with his hand and caught a wounded pronghorn by the leg as it bounded past—could these things possibly be true? There is the expected bravado, the encounters with the sublime. But for someone who made the excursion in his late twenties there is also unexpected clarity and a pensiveness verging on regret. He passes “countless skulls and bones” to find a living herd; he sees Native sky burials and then comments, “on every side stretched the sweeping plain—their hunting ground from childhood, but now invaded, and with scarce security for their own graves.” Though Kemeys calls the Natives “savages” with “coppery cheeks,” as was convention, from the start he admires them. When he falls into the Omaha camp after breaking his arm, he comes to respect the tribe profoundly, though he also romanticizes it. “The longer I remained among the Indians, the more I came to appreciate the existence,” he wrote. “At no time of my life had I been so free to pursue unmolested the study of my art.”
Sparingly he mentions sketching and sculpting; it’s not the main action (not for Outing’s readers, anyway), but it was ongoing behind the scenes—and hunting was integral to Kemeys’ process. Early on, he describes painstaking dissection and examination: “My studies, sketches and notes were by this time nearly completed, so far at least as bison were concerned, having devoted my time to skinning and cutting up each portion of their anatomy, till all was firmly fixed upon my memory.” Fixed also, we must imagine, in his muscle memory. In a departure from his boisterous, sometimes florid voice, Kemeys describes in clinical terms cutting, with a “keen knife,” through the layers of a bison’s hump: “it consists of a line of spines extending above the vertebral column at the highest point, for about eighteen inches, dropping abruptly forward, and tapering toward the hind quarters, until it loses itself about one foot in front of the hips.” The nineteenth-century hunts are notorious for their waste and brutality, but this unfolding of an animal is an intimacy few experience today. Despite his precise, scientific language, one understands the act would be tender, delicate, raw. The argument is still made in the most rigorous art schools that one cannot draw the human figure without a deep knowledge of anatomy—that, in fact, one is not even capable of seeing what is there without knowing, already, what it is underneath. Undoubtedly Kemeys had the same bodily knowledge of a cougar; undoubtedly he had put his hands inside one.
I found myself pacing around and around the bronze Panther and Cubs, slowly, looking for a way in with my hands behind my back. Stalking. That is the particular gravity of sculpture: You have to circle to peer through. Each piece has its own territory, demands its space, and then sometimes invites you closer. This, mainly, is what I saw: The lioness’ legs are wider than her cubs’ bodies, emphasizing just how much the young would grow in the next year to reach adult size; the soft hammock of her skin between her hind leg and flank; the flared, sharp curves of her hip bone and shoulder blades; the astounding size of the paws, as large as my hand; the grooves for retractable claws; how flat she is, lying on her side; how sleek her body for slipping through brush. Kemeys’ marks, like brushstrokes, are generally subtle, but thicker on the lioness’ chest and hindquarters. They reminded me of claw marks, as if the artist had thought to mimic the animal with each impression.
Clearly Kemeys understood the patterns of the animal’s fur, knew just how her coat would lie. His portrayal of this family suggests he knew that, in a robust year, when kills were plentiful, there would be ample time for grooming, for leisure. Both cubs might survive. The lioness’ ears are neither erect nor flattened; she is relaxed. The cubs are sated. She gazes over their heads in that distant, catty way. She seems unknowable—which is how animals should be rendered. You can’t look into these eyes; or you can, but you will see only yourself, an imagining of the cat’s interior. Otherwise there’s shadow and green patina. As I circled the sculpture, the echoes of the cavernous gallery almost reminded me of wind on an alpine slope. But not quite.
Few visitors linger in the sculpture court to appreciate Kemeys’ work. Though once on the artistic frontier, Panther and Cubs might seem a bit kitschy these days, either too mystical or too banal, or both, in part because of the proliferation of Western lodge art (and gift shop miniatures). Likely we could create an alternate index to the frontier’s disintegration through such knickknack commercialization, as the connections between city industry and prairie life tightened. Kemeys was also complicit in this, collaborating with a Chicago foundry, Winslow Brothers, to produce mail-order statuettes and reliefs, including crouched panthers. In 1884, Julian Hawthorne trumpeted his friend in Century Magazine, writing, “The American bear and bison, the cimarron and the elk, the wolf and the ’coon—where will they be a generation hence? Nowhere, save in the possession of those persons who have to-day the opportunity and intelligence to decorate their rooms and parks with Mr. Kemeys’s inimitable bronzes.” These lines seem as much a sales pitch as a call to action, but the philosophy is plain: If the species could not be preserved, at least their forms could be. And they could be possessed, collected. They could imbue your parlor with wild American charisma.
But just as importantly, Panther and Cubs may suffer light glances because the Met overwhelms with its labyrinthian abundance. In the sculpture court, it’s the children who seem freshest. Something about the atrium’s open space, the diffuse, revivifying light filtering through the pyramidal skylight. Or just kids being kids. If there weren’t vigilant attendants on hand, the gallery might quickly become a gym, boys and girls climbing and swinging from all these busts and beasts. Panther and Cubs is in similar, familial company then, although juvenile cougars, it should be said, rely on their mothers for just twelve to eighteen months.
Beside the cats in the sculpture court is a rectangular fountain, but on this day the water wasn’t flowing. Families from around the world perched on its edge to rest, traced the colorful lines of subway maps, and tossed coins over their shoulders. As I sat there, kids came up to Kemeys’ cats and reached out for their tails. “Don’t touch,” one mother whispered, leading her towhead son away. Another lady stopped, stared for a second, announced, “That’s bronze, not granite,” and moved on. Then came a girl with brown curls and a red dress of pastel flowers, hearts, and other shapes—startling color, for this marble atmosphere. Her mother lifted her by the armpits above the pedestal, eye level with the felines, and her father looked on with her sleeping brother slung to his chest.
“See,” said the woman, “it has two babies.”
“Where’s the daddy?”
“Dad’s not here. Maybe he’s out hunting.”
The child squirmed. “That’s daddy, over there!” she shouted, pointing over my shoulder to the center of the fountain, and we all turned to see a delighted bronze boy, a cherubic spout, hugging a flapping duck he must have caught from the water.
There’s no breeding population of cougars within several thousand miles of New York City, and there won’t be one anytime soon. To start, it’s not so much that mom can’t find dad as the other way around: Young male cougars disperse thirty to one hundred miles—and sometimes as far as a thousand miles—but females settle and establish territories, on average, only nine miles from where they’re born. They stick close to their homeland, a dynamic known as “philopatry” in animals. So although western cougars consistently do venture east across the Mississippi (I imagine them swimming, pawing through the waves with flattened ears), these pioneers are mostly male. They travel “brush belt” corridors, along rivers and the buffers of train tracks. But finding a mate is likely impossible, and every road crossing is hazardous.
Nonetheless, I might have told the girl in red that “daddy” wasn’t far away. He’s just off the East Drive of Central Park, at about 76thStreet, near the summit of Cedar Hill, which tests the resolve of the city’s joggers. There Kemeys situated another cat, Still Hunt, on a glittering stone ledge in 1883, the same year he sculpted Panther and Cubs. When it was unveiled atop the outcrop in June, the Chicago Tribune reported, “Then the young lady with the red parasol said: ‘Oh, my!’ The gentlemen exclaimed, ‘Ah!’ and all went round to the drive to look at the statue, while the police dispersed the crowd.” Now, on weekends, there’s no dispersing the crowd. The Drive is a veritable game trail, as people plod uphill in vibrant Lycra and Spandex, sneakers, and shirts that exclaim, “What does it take? NYC Marathon!” Occasionally a lady strolls past, to or from the Met. Sometimes in fur.
There’s a saying, in running, for when someone fades hard in a race: “The bear’s jumped on his back.” Here, it’s the panther. When joggers notice Still Hunt, their expression is a twist of exertion and recognition, as if they’ve been running from this creature a long time, but now, here it is, waiting for them—and this was Kemeys’ design. As a curious reader of the New York Times wrote in a letter more recently, “sighting it unawares can give you quite a chill.” A more typical remark by those with breath to spare is “I’ve never noticed that before,” which is testament to its camouflage and siting, and to our collective hurry.
Still Hunt seems to have crept from the sinuous, quiet thickets of the thirty-six-acre Ramble, which Olmsted fastidiously designed as a “wild garden” to offset the park’s grand pastoral vision; though, when I visited, someone was practicing his chip shot just there on a modest patch of grass. The lion sits hunched, its haunches taut, a coil of “fierce combativeness.” The catamount seems poised for an attempt at springing all the way back into the modern East. A cougar is said to be able to jump eighteen feet straight into the air, and twenty to forty feet forward, which would be clear across the road—though I suppose it would take a running start. At the same time, its expression seems anxious, nervous, even mournful, as if it wishes simply to slink off or to disappear into the rock, rather than leap.
Or, in Kemeys’ own words from a story called “The Legend of the Little Panther: A Tradition of the Seneca Indians,” which also appeared in Outing (in 1901):
On a rocky projection which overhung the cave’s mouth there crouched a monstrous panther, his limbs all gathered beneath him, his immense quarters trembling with eagerness as he slowly and almost imperceptibly at times lifted his cushioned fore feet. His great tail quivered and twitched with pent-up force, and on the yearning head and neck the cat-like ears slowly laid themselves down.
This portrait bears a remarkable likeness to Still Hunt, suggesting the “trembling” animation the bronze had for Kemeys, even years after he cast it.
Originally just placed on the ledge, Still Hunt was permanently affixed and re-patinated in 1935, three years before the last breeding cougar in the Northeast was recorded in Maine. There it sat, seemingly tense but peaceful, until 1973, when its tail was broken off and stolen. I wonder if that curled fragment is still around, mounted on a mantel like a trophy or buried in the leaf litter nearby, a rare bone for a dog to unearth. Fifteen years later the tail was replaced, and you can trace the faint edge of the repair as if it were a scar from a fight. Already the new tail’s round tip has been worn golden and smooth by the oil of passing fingers.
Of course, in Central Park the habitat that could support a cougar is merely intimated in the likes of the Ramble and its counterpart, the equally rock-strewn, Adirondack-inspired Ravine at the park’s northern end, where only humans are now feared. Hunters may have bagged the last eastern cougar, but habitat destruction had as large a hand in their demise. Panthers just don’t do well in tight conditions. As the East was cleared by untold axmen, habitat was fragmented and white-tailed deer populations crashed for lack of forage. (Now that the East has reforested without big predators, deer populations have exploded.) A cougar needs to kill a deer every ten to fourteen days, which is in part why it needs giant tracts of unadulterated space, its own game reserve. All of Manhattan—where 1.5 million people live—is just 22.7 square miles: room enough, maybe, for just one cougar. (For comparison, Frederick Jackson Turner cited the frontier as at “the margin of that settlement which has a density of two or more [people] to the square mile.”) Each night while out on patrol, these big cats walk the equivalent of a full loop around Central Park’s drive, over six miles; but this is part of a much larger territorial circuit that often takes weeks to complete. Meanwhile, an estimated 425 to 850 square miles of uninterrupted landscape are necessary for the existence of a viable population of panthers—though less if corridors allow cats to travel between these areas and exchange their genes.
Still, there remains room, so there is still possibility: Road density surveys predict there are almost thirty thousand square miles—an area about the size of Maine—still suitable for apex predators like cougars and wolves in the Northeast, including over four thousand square miles in the Adirondacks. One seasoned cougar biologist, Paul Beier, tantalizingly suggested to the Times in 2002 that cougars “will eventually get to New Jersey, or at least close.” They’ll trickle down gradually from Canada and in from the West. In 2011, on a Connecticut highway, a lone male was run over after it padded eighteen hundred isolated miles from South Dakota, by far the longest journey by a cougar ever recorded. Its DNA traced it to a subpopulation of cougars in the Black Hills, and its movement was confirmed by matching fur and scat samples found in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and New York.
In other words, the frontier for mountain lions is our populated spaces, our suburban tracts. Fittingly, some of the corridors they might use to move east are the same trails by which the nation expanded westward: great and small rivers and, later, that steel river, the incursive railroad. Cats are literally using the seams by which they were eliminated to try to repopulate the East, though the journey is arduous, a real long shot. But the panthers’ continuing existence might signal that some “frontier” hasn’t disappeared, that by certain rubrics the frontier could even return to the East in places, though the odds are slim. Or maybe the cats’ forays and persistence suggest that the frontier, and thus its erasure, were a kind of myth all along.
The eminent environmental historian William Cronon, in his essay “Revisiting the Vanishing Frontier: The Legacy of Frederick Jackson Turner,” argues that the Frontier Thesis “expresses some of the deepest myths and longings many Americans still feel about their experience,” though Turner’s idea quickly fell by the critical wayside. Surveying the work of others, Cronon notes that Turner’s poetic narrative overlooked the breadth of colonial forces at work in westward expansion and perpetuated the marginalization of minorities by idealizing their experiences—or simply ignoring them. The thesis also underestimated the potent role of the federal government, business, and cities, which in truth established the establishment on the frontier long before the frontier was said to dissolve.
Even beyond those flaws, Turner himself soon became aware of the essential limitation of his thesis: it was predestined to fade into the sunset. By declaring the close of the frontier in the instant he spelled out its importance, Turner gave his theory a rather short lifespan. American democracy would have to be steered by some other force and, in 1910, he admitted the frontier had become “subordinate in influence to general social forces.” He proposed a new grand narrative for American history based on the idea of geographically distinct “sections,” arguing that these regions—bioregions, I think we could call them—would compete against each other for resources. In our age, when California, the Northwest, the East, the Midwest, and the South often seem at odds, Turner’s lesser-known Sectional Thesis remains compelling, though it may be cultural differences—determined only in part by resources, or the lack of them (water, public lands, tech companies, slavery)—that sustain these tensions.
Yet Cronon observes that one way of salvaging the Frontier Thesis is to reimagine the frontier as a “contact zone,” an area or region “where people of different cultures struggle with each other for control of resources and political power.” In this model, what was a moving line of irreversible change—a frontier sweeping across the country over time, trailing democracy and/or acting like a prairie fire, with animals and Natives running before its flame—is replaced by shifting territories of cultural exchange, always unequal. These zones might wax or wane, but they are porous, not unidirectional.
As Cronon argues, “we must be careful to avoid embracing frontiers that somehow ‘close,’ ” and we should think about environmental history not as a one-way movement “from free to occupied land” but rather on a spectrum of “abundance to scarcity”—which is a matter of context and value. One culture’s abundance is another’s scarcity, as the eastern hunter’s buffalo hides (the furs that Kemeys carried home to adorn and authenticate his studio floors) were for Natives, who depended on the “endless” herds. Today a rural county’s notion of abundance might be land free of cougars, while for the more bourgeois “environmental” set, a free land of abundance might mean a healthy cougar population and the possibility, if remote, of seeing one. Reinterpreted in this light, as Cronon says, “The vanishing frontier no longer needs to vanish.”
A museum is likewise a frontier, if we think of it as a “contact zone.” Twenty years ago, the anthropologist James Clifford extended this idea to our vaunted, often intimidating halls of cultural capital, borrowing the term from language scholar Mary Louise Pratt, who defined a contact zone as “the space of colonial encounters, the space in which peoples geographically and historically separated come into contact with each other and establish ongoing relations.” Under this vision, the imperialist museum is decentralized and those artists and cultures “on display” in its collections become participants, partners in a dialogue. There is lopsided power, always, but also reciprocity—at minimum each party benefits through “mutual exploitation.” In the best of cases, the curators and those represented sit together so that communities are truly represented, in the democratic sense, and able to tell their own story. There is genuine interaction and, one hopes, ultimately mutual admiration. Of course, this ideal can’t extend to Kemeys’ animals, which cannot speak or sit at the table.
A work of art such as a sculpture is an important contact zone as well, and here at the Met visitors like me step into the atrium. As we encounter and gaze upon an objet, we make contact with a body—a cultural body, a body politic, a personal body of work—beyond ourselves; there is refraction of meaning and the chance for recognition, for conversation. As I stand in the sculpture hall before Panther and Cubs, the layers of its embodied history unfold: Kemeys’, the cougar’s, Native Americans’ and the atrocities they’ve suffered—all of which the sculpture represents complexly. And one’s own history unfolds, as well, a response that, for many museumgoers, is the most automatic and authentic, though it may be associative and passing: Suddenly I want to tell those around me, the other visitors and you, about how I am the only one in my immediate family never to have seen one of these creatures. I was tying my shoelaces in the car when one bounded across the road into tall, dry grass.
What’s wonderful about Still Hunt is that you can lay not only eyes on this cougar, but hands. Do touch is in the wind. You can reach out and brush your fingers across the cat’s flank, make contact in the most fundamental and sometimes most crucial sense. The oil-burnished tail of this panther is a testament to this impulse and its gratification. Not at first, though: You hesitate upon seeing Still Hunt. Something in the form spurs an instinctual reaction, like a branch might be mistaken for a snake on a sidewalk. Also, you have to scramble up the rock ledge. But then, feeling the chill of the metal, its curves, one finally empathizes with the sculptor’s art. Feels his hands.
We would appear to need more of these contact zones, but in fact they’re all around us if we choose to recognize them, to interpret them this way. Consider the brushy corridors cougars and other liminal creatures navigate: some are rich ecotones, greenways for disparate species; others are simply places where kids and adults alike can still veer to interface with or imagine something “wild,” which is to say quite feral, within a city. Brownfields, abandonments, untended riparian banks. Manhattan’s Central Park, though the pinnacle of manicured, remains a frontier: There you can encounter the strange and elemental, something raw, such as a red-tailed hawk (although, potentially one with a name) bearing down on a squirrel. Once in a decade, a coyote creeps through a tunnel and finds its way there, and the media goes wild. From a cultural perspective, moreover, New York City is the greatest of all contact zones. Languages and ideas travel its underground corridors the way cats slink through brush belts.
Some experts have described proximal and distal ways of knowing, which indeed, we can ultimately interpret as close to or away from the body. “The distance between distal and proximal thinking is an old one in philosophy, physics and psychology,” says the lauded organizations scholar Robert Cooper. “Distal thinking refers to effects and outcomes, the ‘finished’ things or objects of thought and action; proximal thinking, to process and event, to carriers or mediators of things or objects. For the distal thinker, the destination is more important than the journey; for the proximal thinker, to travel is better than to arrive.”
Though we can walk right up to the cat sculpture in the Met, it is a distal object, apart from us, pedestaled, cordoned off, explained by a placard: “Kemeys was. . . .” Panther and Cubs has come to its final resting place, it seems. Museums suffer from this affliction of stasis, though in recent years—in an effort to stay relevant alongside the virtual—most have made a conspicuous effort to become more interactive and communal. But Still Hunt is proximal, with no guards in sight. Touching this sculpture, we dwell less on its definitive meaning, which is contested, than in its making and environment (a simulacrum of cougar habitat, with a golfer standing by). Still Hunt seems to travel as the seasons change around it, or as we stumble upon it from different directions. The cat fades into the foliage in summer, seems to grow bolder, hungrier, come winter. By dusk, a streetlamp casts an orange glow on its humped, muscular shoulders—a sun that never fades. When it rains, the loop of Still Hunt’s tail gathers water, holding a crescent puddle with sunken leaves and the reflections of those who scramble up the rock.
The notion of a frontier that dwindles until it disappears, leaving only civilization in its wake, rests firmly in the realm of the distal; the revision of that idea as a shifting, permeable contact zone partakes of the proximal. I would wager that Kemeys, in his own time, was a relatively proximal thinker, an adventurer never satisfied, as artists must be if they’re to endure. “There is fascination in exploration which I have ever found it impossible to resist,” he wrote of his travels in “The Sunset Land.” As his deft hands shaped a recollection, a contour, of his western excursions to pour as bronze, one imagines that this, too, was active exploration, not a foregone conclusion in service of a national movement. The form and surface of an animal was a landscape to be studied and mapped, but not conquered—even if Kemeys wanted to do so. Each bronze was cast, “and then—back West again.” If we interpret his bronzes only as monuments, that view says as much about us—our current tastes, our own memorialization and diminishment of animals—as it does about him.
On the best of days, we live in the proximal: our perceptions are a contact zone minute by minute. Our perceptions of the panther, which has been eliminated from two-thirds of its historic range in the Americas, are no exception. Like wolves, they have been utterly vilified, but we are beginning to see them otherwise. Kemeys’ familial depiction in Panther and Cubs shows that, over a century ago, he understood them as social, not evil or only tenacious. The crouched cat of Still Hunt is similarly ambiguous, neither fierce nor frightened. Even “The Legend of the Little Panther,” Kemeys’ retelling of a Seneca myth in Outing, may be instructive on this point. I can’t say if Kemeys’ version is reliable ethnography; it may be tampered with dramatically, or tweaked just a little as all stories are. Seen only in the most obvious light, it again casts Native Americans as savages, but I find the tale hopeful in at least one particular way.
In the legend, the wife of a pacifist Seneca chief glimpses, in a dream, the “monstrous panther” that seems a model for Still Hunt. Afterward, she bears a boy who is bloodthirsty, fulfilling her desire for a son and future chief “as savage as a panther.” Her wish was the tribe’s at large: a preoccupation with returning to glory through bloodshed. Little Panther does lead the tribe into war, but heedlessly, and the people are slowly ruined; eventually, though, he is killed by his namesake—a panther—in “a lonely gully by a cave,” thus sparing the Seneca further “decimation.” “So runs the legend,” Kemeys concludes without interpretation, which seems a respectful gesture. Clearly the cougar and Native Americans are deeply aligned for him, informed by myth, and we might see Still Hunt to some degree as an embodiment of Native America’s limbo: a delicate position for any animal, any work of art, to occupy. But what strikes me about this curious and complicated legend is that though the panther is construed as “savage” by the people in the story, the tale slyly debunks that notion. The cat turns out to be a savior, ending the rule of an overzealous, harmful man. The “monstrous” panther proves merciful, even as it kills, while human nature is needlessly brutal. This interpretation is, once again, a moral projection onto a speechless animal, but nonetheless it may be a useful parable for our times.
When totemic animals are depicted these days, often they seem confined, at least to me. They’re statues not to themselves, but to the commercial interests of Pixar or some other corporate dime. Or they’re mediated, stuffy, in some other way, like another pair of local cougars—those in the Museum of Natural History, whose dusty skins are wrapped around forms in a Grand Canyon diorama, though this form of contact has its merits. But Still Hunt breathes more easily in situ. It is its own creature: sometimes severe, sometimes sympathetic. Dogs with keen eyesight are known to bark maliciously at the bronze. Perched atop its low cut of Manhattan schist, which glitters with mica, the sculpture reminds me that once we painted animals on rock walls. It reminds me also that Kemeys was once compelled to spend weeks carving into a soft cliff a relief of a buffalo hunt he had witnessed among the Omaha tribe, as he recounts in “The Sunset Land.” Freed of a pedestal and any pet-tag interpretation, Still Hunt silently asks questions of those who walk or run by: How does your body react to this form? What is lost if this form no longer exists?
As I crouched off to the side to scribble a few notes, two boys and their mother walked up Central Park Drive, looking tired. Whole Foods bags from Columbus Circle—a fair distance away—dangled in their hands. They glanced up and stopped in their tracks.
“Whoa,” one boy said. “Grr.”
“You want to climb up there?” she asked. “I’ll take your picture.”
They did, and they draped their lithe bodies over the panther, raised their arms, and, after some encouragement, smiled for their mother’s magenta phone.
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