I am in the minority.
To an outsider, it might seem weird that I am in the minority, but I most assuredly am in a minority.
Here’s what gives me minority status:
I live in West Virginia, and I don’t think there are black panthers of any sort roaming the forests here.
If you go to any little town in West Virginia– or just about anywhere in rural America east of the Mississippi– and ask the first ten people you see if they’ve seen a black panther. You will most often hear either an affirmation that the person has seen one or they know someone who has seen one.
It doesn’t really matter that melanism hasn’t been officially documented in North American cougars or that cougars haven’t even been confirmed in this part of the East yet.
They’ve seen a black panther.
Maybe it’s a black leopard let loose on the countryside. That’s usually the claim when we hear the British talk of alien big cats:
Someone had a black leopard. The laws changed against their ownership. The leopard was turned loose, where it met other leopards who met the same fate.
In West Virginia, the panther casts a shadow long into the psyche. West Virginia is a place where the land was cleared and stock was run and crops were raised.
That world has largely disappeared as new industrial opportunities expanded in neighboring states. Those who remained got jobs off the land, where could afford to buy things that were grown or butchered out of state.
The old fields grew in with brush. Then the trees returned.
If you look at densely-forested hillside long enough, you can imagine any number of fell beasts residing in the thickets and brush.
The great Appalachian writer Joe Bageant wrote of seeing a “panther” when he was only 5 years old. He saw it in a meadow near his family homestead in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle. Whether he saw such a creature is certainly up to question. Bageant died in 2011, and this writing is but a distillation of a childhood memory.
In the meadow sycamore, a panther so black it is almost blue. Neither Nelson nor I have ever seen a panther. Never expected to in our lives. But there it is. Big as life. Nelson’s face shows almost holy amazement in the red light. He takes his pipe away from his quivering lip. Not that fear was a part of it, only awe of this beast. The panther drops weightlessly to the ground and glides into the loblolly* pines with all its lithe power. We let out our breath. We gesture at each other for a minute, then trot for home. By the time we reach the house twilight had settled.
“Maw,” I blurt. “We seen a panther down by the big sycamore. Black as night. Long and black as night.”
Maw turns away from the hand pump by the galvanized sink where she had been drawing dishwater. “Never been a panther in these parts I know of,” she says. But the set of Nelson’s wide dark face tells her this is a true thing. “Hear that Pap?” she asks. “The boys seen a panther. A panther is a sign of war and troubles of war.”
My grandfather frowns, says nothing in reply. Then he raises up his lanky frame from the kitchen chair, picks up the kitchen slop bucket and heads for the hog pen.
What about the sign of war? I wanted to know. Silence from Maw. Well, if it was a sign, I figured, Maw would sure as hell know about it. Maw knew her signs. Maw knew what poultices cured chicken pox, how to plant and reap by the almanac.
“If talk was corn that old man couldn’t buy grain,” Maw grumbled at Pap’s non-response.
And that was all I ever got in the way of answers about the panther and the sign of war. I would one day learn that panthers were among the first beasts killed off by the English and German settlers in our region, along with red wolves [sic] and the eastern woodland bison. And that black is just one of the color possibilities of panthers anywhere on the planet. But in that day and in our world on Shanghai Road along the drains of Sleepy Creek panthers inhabited their place alongside witches, wolf trees, milk drinking snakes and other such creatures as prowled the subconscious and gave explanation to the greater unknown.
Even though I’m actually only removed by three generations from people who lived much like this, it doesn’t change the fact that I am indeed removed from it.
When I was a child, I had a blowhard relative call up everyone in the family that he had killed a bobcat while deer hunting.
It certainly captured my imagination, and I was really thrilled that he was going to have his trophy “stuffed,” so that I could see when we went visiting over Christmas.
Even now I can remember my great disappointment, when I was brought into the room where the trophy cat had been set up for display, only to discover that he’d shot a tortoiseshell Manx cat. The taxidermist had done a good job polishing up this fake bobcat, but it didn’t change anything.
By then I’d learned to keep my mouth shut, and I let everyone bask in the glory of a dead house cat. I remember someone asking how such a little cat could kill such a big thing as a deer and just cringing.
West Virginia is a place that needs its panthers. It doesn’t matter if they are real or not, any more than it mattered whether my relative had killed a bobcat. This is a place that needs its folklore, its animism, its spirits in order to commune with a great unknown that becomes more perplexing every day.
Black panthers dreams must be real, for it is only in their possibility that gives the land its magic, its mystique.
As much as I’d like there to be black panthers in the forest here, I know they really don’t exist here. But I still look into woods in hopes I might be wrong.
*He probably means same tree that my grandpa called a “jack pine,” which is more properly known as a Virginia pine. True jack pines grow well to our north, while loblollies are the common pines of Eastern North Carolina and also grow in coastal Maryland and Virginia. But not in the land west of the Blue Ridge.