At Home in the Adirondacks 2013

Adirondack Still Life

A closer look at the curious art of taxidermy

Photograph by Kyle Ford.

At the end of my street a white bear with black claws stands beside a yellow pinball machine. His mouth is open, a paw hails cars passing on Route 3. He’s been there for de­cades, behind a dusty window in an unoccupied cedar-shake house, staring out at a place he never saw. He (she?) was posed to look menacing and over the years graduated to kitschy, but mostly he just looks lost.

The polar bear is the first thing you see as you enter the village of Saranac Lake from the west, before the Elks, Moose and Lions Club signs. Welcome home. Turn here, he signals to me. But this is not his home.

In the Adirondacks, the walls have eyes. Taxidermy is part of life and death, or at least part of décor. Moose and deer watch over bars. Bobcats prowl bookcases. Loons, which can’t stand upright in life, impersonate penguins on mantels. Owls disapprove, glassy-eyed, from dark corners.

I’ve enjoyed many camp dinners beneath buck-head mounts. They serve to remind my hosts of a noteworthy hunt or of hunters gone by. And I really like taking a long look at a sling-bellied lake trout hung in a lodge next to the lake where it was caught. The fish here take on the brown or green cast of their particular water. Sometimes a taxidermist can recapture that color, which fades in death.

But sometimes, maybe even a lot of the time, the Adirondack penchant for bringing the outdoors indoors goes too far: Deer hooves crooked to hold the guns that shot them, deer legs supporting bear-hide stools, “frolicking” cubs, or any animal holding a tray or wearing a hat. I hate to see black bears sold alongside knotty tables in neo-Adirondack furniture stores. The mounts of yearling bears standing with front paws outstretched on a lamp are an affront to ursine dignity. To me, all this seems a forced version of our vernacular style. And if you look beneath the surface, you learn that most new taxidermy is stretched over prefab polyurethane forms (sold online as “gray fox crouched,” “bobcat stalking”), leaching the art of some of its romance and originality, its frontier charm.

Still, even when taxidermy repels me I can’t stop looking at it. I think these contradictory feelings come from context. I love the darkened halls of the American Museum of Natural History, in New York City, where you can linger in front of dioramas of bison on the Great Plains or lions on the savanna. Without taxidermy, how would we have a sense of what passenger pigeons really looked like? My favorite part of historic Camp Santanoni, in Newcomb, had always been the beetle-eaten great blue heron above the fireplace in the otherwise empty main lodge. Until it disappeared a few years ago it stood watch season in and season out, since the days of the Pruyns and their guests James Fenimore Cooper III and Teddy Roosevelt. And before I can correct the reflex, when I see roadkill my first thought is, Good. I get to stop the car and see a mystery of the Adirondack forest extracted from the shady places and held still. On our roadsides I’ve had a satisfying look at coyotes, grouse, an ovenbird, barred owls, even a boreal owl.

Animals are beautiful, and I understand the impulse to fill a home with beautiful things. And, oddly, bad taxidermy doesn’t bother me—the botched jobs that make river otters smile crookedly or eagles pose like the Kung-Fu Panda crane. They insult Nature’s designs, but the spirits of those creatures have so clearly moved on that it’s no sin to laugh. The mounts that unnerve me, that make me push away from the table, are the well-crafted ones—the ones that still have souls and long-lashed eyes that say, What am I doing here? Or, sometimes, Remember, you must die.

Photograph by Kyle Ford.

“I sold a wildebeest today. And a fish,” Denny Ford tells me as he waters flowers in front of Upscale Resale, his antique shop on Broadway in Saranac Lake. Ford rarely stops moving, so I follow him inside and sidestep piles of merchandise as he helps a customer find glass doorknobs and negotiates a price on a tackle box and a peppermill. Once he gets a break, he says the wildebeest head will hang inside a home near Syracuse. The walleye will hang in a camp in Lake Placid, a place where you might catch a trophy laker but not a walleye.

I don’t get it, I tell Ford.

“You don’t see the appeal?” he says. “Well there’s something for everybody. Just like some people hang NASCAR stuff around their house.”

Ford likes taxidermy, as long as an animal is not killed exclusively for display. In any case, he deals only in second-hand mounts, some old enough to be made of plaster and very heavy—he once sold a moose head that weighed 250 pounds. I look around. Faces, animal faces, they’re everywhere. Giant eland, caribou. A musty indigo bunting teeters backwards on a wooden perch, eyeball hanging by a thread. A lint-covered weasel needs a comb out.

Ford is philosophical. “Well, they’re already dead,” he says. “I don’t care what people do with me when I’m dead, do you? There might be another planet where they might use hu­mans as potholders or gun-hangers or something, you know? My dad donated his body to science. That’s creepy if you think of it—where they put you in a classroom and cut you up, or donate your body parts? I’d rather be taxidermied.”

Most of Ford’s stuffed-animal buyers are decorating an Adirondack seasonal home. “It provides a look for a wil­­derness camp,” he says. “As long as it looks fierce or has horns. I mean, I’ve sold a hyena, monkeys. Birds of prey are very popular, but they’re illegal, so you have to be really cagey with those. The most popular thing is local animals. But not deer heads. Everyone has a deer head. The most popular thing is like a beaver, an otter, a fisher, ducks, fish.”

Archetypal Adirondack architecture emerged at the time of Victorian fascination with natural history. Before museums were widespread, European aristocrats, New York society and science-minded scholars collected and preserved butterflies, beetles, wild bird eggs and wild birds themselves for study and display in home cabinets of curiosities. A century before you could watch a peregrine hatch live on a webcam, it was high style to present your own specimens perched on branches.

Naturally, as Gilded Age in­dustrialists and financiers built rustic mansions in the Adirondack woods, hunting trophies went with birch-bark banisters and stone fireplaces. Some Great Camp owners even kept a taxidermist on staff. In 1903 Field & Stream founder Henry Wellington Wack fawned over the game room at Kamp Kill Kare, near Raquette Lake: “There are … all sort of nooks and corners made bewilderingly interesting with mounted specimens of fur, fin and feather. Great white bear rugs strew the polished floor; mountain lion, wolf, tiger and black bear skins lie about in profusion. … Overhead are spears, assegai, guns, rods and a thousand emblems of the chase. It is a sportsman’s dream ‘come true’!”

At Antediluvian Antiques & Curiosities, in Lake Placid, Stephen Dori-Shin and Christopher English curate a more taxonomic aspect of Victoriana. There are turn-of-the-20th-century dioramas of songbirds under glass cloches, created for décor as much as study. There’s a roseate spoonbill framed behind convex glass (décor more than study), a wild bird egg collection (study or obsession). “I love these as reminders and a glimpse into the past. And a glimpse of what we should protect and how beautiful they are,” English tells me. But then there are the frogs: vintage mason jars stuffed with pickled bullfrogs, images of mysterious women tattooed on their soft white bellies. A neighbor told me about them, and they are what I came to see. I am as repulsed as I was curious.

English, whose tastes otherwise tend toward objects of beauty, is somehow the person who brought the graffiti frog to the Adirondacks (though somebody else gigs the frogs and a guy in New Hampshire does the tattoos). They are the most macabre items in the shop. English is drawn to odd as much as he is drawn to nature, but the inventory stops well short of Oddities, the Science Channel show about the semi-ironic renaissance of creepy souvenirs—body parts, taxidermied anything, vintage amputation instruments. And although Antediluvian occupies a little log cabin on Main Street, the ambiance is not twiggy. The camp owner who is looking for a fish on a board is not the target clientele. The shop is inspired by the side of Teddy Roosevelt that watched birds rather than shot them.

Sometimes, though, birdwatchers kill too. As in TR’s day, the Adi­rondacks re­mains a collecting ground for museum specimens. Cornell University Mu­seum of Vertebrates, the New York State Museum, the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History—all come here with small-gauge shotguns and mist nets to take warblers and boreal species. Bones and flesh are removed in the field, and the skins are temporarily filled with cornmeal to absorb fluids. The feathered hides go to research collections, stored in lightproof, bug-proof drawers rarely opened by the public.

In the name of education, some mu­se­ums are abandoning collections in favor of kid-friendly showmanship, but a few still build on the old-fashioned naturalist cabinet as a foundation for research and conservation. Whether birds should continue to be collected is a subject of some debate among orni­thologists. I know a birder who encountered a museum staffer in the remote Madawaska country near Santa Clara this spring. He eagerly divulged what species he spotted where, until he saw the gun. He wonders whether three in­stitutions need to collect in the same place. A Cornell researcher assures me that the museums coordinate and that the harvest is driven by science and a need to fill mutual gaps, not competition. Feathers and eggshells are rich in information about diet, habitat and pollutants that can gauge population health over time. In the hierarchy of things that kill birds (windows, cats, high-tension wires), collecting does not even register, at least since passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which banned the shooting of most nongame birds for home caches.

Photograph by Kyle Ford.

This spring my nephew found a dead chimney swift next to his school. It was perfect. I’d never seen a swift up close, and I felt a moment of temptation to preserve it in boomerang pose forever. I put it in the freezer before deciding to bury it in the garden, to concede decay. Whether for art or science, to save na­ture or just to stare at it, the motivation to display dead things in the home still eludes me. Rachel Poliquin, author of The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing, thinks the urge stems from the human contradiction of “being both within and apart from nature” and our yearning for “wonder, beauty, spectacle, order, narrative, allegory and re­membrance.”

In the Adirondacks, I would add identity. Living close to nature and hunting it differentiate us from most, so maybe we feel that our dwellings should em­phasize the gnarl in the grain, the practical uses of antlers, the juju of a squirrel tail pinned to the door.

The white bear down the street is another case. He reflects human history more than natural history, a relic of the misguided days of unregulated trophy hunts. Recently I learned that he was made by taxidermist Charles Dickert, who lived and worked in that house from 1904 to 1942. A purgatory of owls, ducks, deer, moose and trout preserved by Dickert—250 in all—are on display behind glass in the Saranac Lake Free Library. For whatever reason, Route 3 bear didn’t make the show.

Animals and the Adirondacks will always be connected, but the relationship isn’t simple. We hunted wolves and mountain lions to local extinction, and now we revere their idols. Taxidermy is an animal conjured by a hu­man, which will never invoke life, no matter how hard a taxidermist tries. Maybe longing is what the polar bear evokes in me, not to revive it, but to return it to the elemental dignity of death.

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