What the White Panther Meant to Me

2,434 total words    

10 minutes of reading

Photo Credit: tjdatsrt, "Raccoon (Procyon lotor) tracks"

When I was a boy, I had access to undeveloped land. My evenings, weekends, and summers were mostly spent wandering the woods. A book defined these nature encounters. Theodore Waldeck’s The White Panther didn’t lead me to the woods—they were just across the street—it let me imagine its wilderness.

Elementary school in a small, rural Texas town had a kind of Hobbesian quality to it. The long hall that was College Street Elementary made for dangerous traffic flow between classes. A kid looked for the governance of teachers and vice principals to stave off the “nasty, brutish, and short” nature of the halls and playgrounds, or learned to adapt, fight, and find one’s niche. Good training, my dad used to say.

The one caveat to this natural order was the library pass for those students who showed an aptitude for reading. With the library pass, a student was allowed to leave class and spend the next hour in the library reading whatever he or she desired. Such an honor did not come easily; it took two years of excellent grades in Reading and Writing, as well as the less-defined Citizenship.

So while other students had to sort through their mimeograph worksheets on grammar and spelling, those few fourth- and fifth-grade students with a library pass happily dodged the rote work for the freedom of the library.

By the standards of an early 1970s small Texas town, the librarian at the time was a bit of a hippie. She thought bookshelves were to be explored and roamed, and she gave no rules or directions to students with a library pass. She told us at the beginning of the year that the library was our “wilderness of ideas” to enter; she meant “wilderness” in a positive way—that’s how we knew she was a hippie. The only guidebook she gave us was a cursory discussion of the Dewey Decimal System, but she also suggested at some point to leave that behind and let our curiosity create a path.

I quickly gravitated to two sections, the 500s (Science) and the 800s (Literature). I would stack up books on space exploration, climatology, geography, and botany, as well as the literary fare of Poe’s collected stories and poems, something by E.B. White, and whatever else seemed cool. It was an odd combination, but the juxtaposition between learning about something from a scientific perspective and then jumping to talking animals and creepy adventures satisfied my ADD attention span before such a diagnosis was possible. I had my reading space deep in the corner of the stacks—silent and private. Over the two years I had an elementary school library pass (fourth and fifth grade), I specialized in natural history guides and fictional exploration in the vein of Jack London stories.

I had a lot of support for these interests. My parents’ house was just down the road from the flood plains below Lake Lewisville dam, and, at that time, kids were encouraged/coerced to get out of the house. A bit of rural nature existed literally just outside the door—I could grab a scrap of bacon, some string, and walk to the street ditch and catch four or five crawdads in a few minutes. Educational films and TV were also a part of my childhood wildlife experiences. At school we were shown a Disney series of films dedicated to science and wilderness (reader alert: be careful of the fabricated lemming mass suicide in White Wilderness); on Sunday afternoons after church, Marlin Perkins’s Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom offered a mix of safaris into unexplored wildlands and a kind of early Steve Irwin-esque interaction with the beasts discovered there. Jim Fowler, Marlin’s assistant, would risk his life week after week by jumping into a river to wrestle an anaconda or capturing some enormous African herbivore—to what end now escapes me. Last, while I can’t clearly say how, a rising environmentalism began to weave its way into the early 1970s zeitgeist, even in the hinterlands of Texas.   

The natural history books available to students at the College Street Elementary library were dated. Frankly, I worked my way by necessity through a lot of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century naturalists: John Burroughs, William Beebe, Anna Comstock, and Edwin Way Teale. I’d augment these books with some quality camping guides, like an old copy of Horace Kephart’s Camping and Woodcraft or a newer volume, such as Bradford Angier’s Living Off the Country: How to Stay Alive in the Woods. Sometimes the librarian incorrectly catalogued Ernest Thompson Seton’s Wild Animals I Have Known or Thorton Burgess in the 500s, and I would stumble on some really amusing stories filled with anthropomorphism that imbued chipmunks and squirrels with the ability to sort through the intricacies of engineering and emergency medicine, along with the vocabulary to engage in some pretty complex dialogue.

Over in the 800s, I happened across a John Muir essay, “Stickeen,” and then Jack London’s White Fang and Call of the Wild. These stories resonated with me, offering me a new perspective of my German Shepherd Suzie, my childhood pet from ages 1 to 15. Yes, she was my dog, but she was also an animal with wildness, autonomous in some way. Taking her on a walk in the woods by my house became an exercise in following and watching her interact with the woods. I wasn’t leading; she was. I was trying to learn what she already knew by smell, by sound, by instinct.

It was a big step for a boy raised in a fundamentalist church in rural Texas. I interacted with animals, domestic and wild, all the time, but our job was to name and have dominion over them—domesticate them, use them, and most likely eat them. My pet chickens in the backyard were all named, and, while it must have been difficult the first few times I did it, I honestly don’t remember if I ever had compunctions about choosing which one we would eat. Or if the dog ate one of my rabbits and the cage was empty, I was allowed to keep the random possum trapped in the garage. I’d typically let it go after a few days. (Note to the reader: possums make crappy pets. After hissing at you through their scary, sharp little teeth, they sulk into a ball. Oh, the first few days of carrying around your possum by its tail is a neighborhood conversation piece, but this little trick gets boring quickly.) My growing sense that animals may have some knowledge of their surroundings that we don’t was most likely some kind of heresy in my church. The Boy Scouts certainly considered my request for a “Smelling Nature like My Dog” badge a form of heresy—just one of the reasons I was a Webelo dropout.

Two shelves down from the “L” authors, I happened on The White Panther by Waldeck. Its cover is an eye-catching yellow and green of jungle, monkeys, and a white panther. The illustrations are by the iconic Kurt Wiese, a prolific children’s book illustrator between the 1930s and 60s.

The author’s “Note” at the beginning of the book states:

The white panther featured in this book was brought to the author’s attention during his last expedition into the jungles of British Guiana, 1937-38.

The Indians of the upper reaches of the Cuyuní River claim that the white panther, although extremely rare, is outstanding for his exceptional cunning and ferocity and is usually larger and more powerful than the ordinary jaguar.

My 10-year-old imagination was set ablaze—jungles, South America, and a white panther. The first words of Chapter One are “‘Ow-ah-hee!’ It was a sound to freeze the blood.” Even now, the tingle of excitement returns. I read this book once, twice, then another eight to ten times over the next two years. The book pervaded every part of my life for those two years: it helped me pass time daydreaming during boring school worksheets, it gave me storylines to imagine when playing in the backyard, but, most importantly, it made my time in the woods near my parents’ house more wild. 

Waldeck himself was an impressive figure during his day, an author of over ten books of fiction and non-fiction for young adult readers, most published by the prestigious Viking Press. He explored Africa at age 18 with the Duke of Mecklenberg, was a pilot during WWI, and returned to Africa in 1924. In 1937, he and his wife, Jo Besse, went to South America to look for the pilot Paul Redfern, who tried to fly from Brunswick, Georgia, to Rio de Janeiro in 1927. Redfern’s plane disappeared over the coast of South America and rumors of his survival persisted for a decade. Waldeck found no physical evidence of Redfern’s death or survival, but natives told him of the plane crash and death. By 1955, Waldeck had fallen into obscurity and died unceremoniously in 1969 with no obituary.[1]

The White Panther is by no means writing of the same quality as E.B. White’s; rereading the book as an adult makes this clear. Yet, of all his books, The White Panther had some staying power, and went through sixteen printings, the last in 1966. The few contemporaneous reviews of The White Panther were complimentary but not overly enthusiastic. The most fascinating thoughts on this book to date are the five readers’ comments on Amazon. As one notes:

I read this book along with my best friend Kevin in middle school in the 70’s. We both read it at least 5 times over 2yr period. Our names went back and forth on the sign out in the back of the book the way they use to do it in the schools library. I have read it to my child. I have also read it to my foster kids. All the kids love it.

The White Panther is mostly warmed over Jack London, though I intend this as a compliment. While the writing is chock full of anthropomorphism, the struggles the protagonist panther Ku-Ma faces are accurate to the life of a young panther. He suffers bites, scrapes, trampling, and a possible strangling by a hungry constrictor. Through all this, Ku-Ma fights, claws, eats, and survives. A young reader cannot help but root for Ku-Ma after he escapes a trap just before the antagonist native arrives. The story implies that man is the intruder, the predator to be avoided. The lesson of such books wasn’t just that other animals’ knowledge of their surroundings made them different and valuable, separate from human dominion; their very existence, full of struggle, learning, and danger are presented as heroic.

The White Panther offered fresh perspectives as I roamed the woods. I already knew most of the plants by common names, and my dad had taught me the common tracks—raccoon, coyote, egret, possum. I knew how to hunt and fish, and I knew the names for the ridges and deep pools in the Elm Fork that were worth fishing. After Ku-Ma, all these familiar ways of navigating held less sway. I imagined these places and connections the way a panther might. This changed the way I experienced our 1800-acre parcel of nature. I now saw it as wilderness, as a place full of complexity, danger, possibility, and hard lessons to be learned. I wanted to avoid paths and make new trails to new places. I wanted to see and watch animals move in their own way, not for my interests. I wanted to imagine myself as part of the ecological mystery, a story going on around me, like Ku-Ma.

Paul Shepherd writes that “The great leap in comprehension from the microcosm of the self to the macrocosm of the mysterious is otherwise confronted by an impossible distance, but the leaping, dancing play of boys and girls prepares an ecological bridge, a vehicle of insight and intuition.”[2] His point here is that as children play and experience nature they begin to see that the other-than-human world is not an extension of self, and as children experience this otherness a bridge is made between their internal insights and intuitions and the world around them.

Nowadays, most environmental education for kids is dedicated to basic scientific understanding of plants, animals, geology, and river systems. Teachers may bring up the challenges of energy use and waste disposal, and teach children terms like carbon footprint and biodiversity. This is important stuff and needs to be taught to the next generation if anything is to change. I wonder, however, if children are encouraged to read stories that could play a part in this “great leap in comprehension”?

From my own experience, I can attest that it wasn’t just my environmental education via the woods across the street or my dad’s common names for the world he’d known, fished, farmed, and hunted since the Depression. It wasn’t just the natural history books I read and practiced identification with that made the biggest impression on my young psyche. It was Theodore J. Waldeck’s The White Panther that allowed me to re-imagine what I thought I knew. Knowing the names of things was one kind of knowledge, but it took story to lure me into a deeper wildness.

With less undeveloped land to roam, are children nowadays missing a way to re-imagine their urban, suburban, or rural places—tales that might prompt them to re-story pigeons, rats, grackles, pets, lawns, and alleys?

I HOPE CHILDREN THESE DAYS:

  • Have library passes in lieu of extra classes
  • Roam library stacks, letting cool book covers catch their eyes and odd, unfamiliar names and subjects nab their attention
  • Have a place (urban, suburban, or rural) to roam without adults
  • Find their own animal stories—bloody, tough, tender, joyful, and wild
  • Let loose a panther growl and crawl on their carpet beneath the table or behind the furniture or through brambles and groves until their knees and chins are scratched
  • Learn good science AND a good story, so that their experiences are both informed and unbound in imagination.

[1] I’m researching more about Waldeck’s life. For some strange reason, he and his wife published nothing else after 1955. One source suggests they bought a dairy farm in Connecticut and retired there; however, no evidence exists. Also, Waldeck was a nationally known explorer in the 1930s and 40s; during his two-month search for Redfern, General Electric had given him a short-wave radio to make calls back to the US about their adventures every Friday.   

[2] From Paul Shepherd’s “Introduction” to the Japanese edition of Edith Cobb’s The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood (Tokyo: Shishaku-sha Publications, 1986).

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  • David Taylor

    David Taylor is a Professor of Sustainability at Stony Brook University. His writing crosses disciplinary boundaries and genres—poetry, creative nonfiction, scholarship, and science/technical writing. His most recent work is Sushi in Cortez: Essays from the Edge of Academia (University of Utah Press, 2015).

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