Have you ever wondered what the blackest thing in the world is? The other day, while considering the blackness of black panthers, I wondered. A quick google search revealed that it’s a substance called “Vantablack,” invented in 2014 by British researchers at Surrey NanoSystems. Lest you think Vantablack is something so easily categorized as a pigment, think again. It’s actually a coating made of carbon nanotubes. And before I fall into the trap of believing I know what I’m talking about, I’ll show you a couple of images of this stuff from the Surrey NanoSystems website (learn more here):
It’s mind-bogglingly black, almost completely non-reflective. Nearly every bit of light that shines upon it is absorbed. This drastically flattens the appearance of whatever three-dimensional object it’s applied to, making it look, when viewed face-on, two-dimensional. That second picture is like viewing a perfectly circular obliteration of reality.
What I’ve seen twice now along these country roads isn’t as black as something coated in Vantablack, of course. Nevertheless, it’s very black indeed. A reflective black, though. So fresh and bright that it looks like a calligraphic brushstroke glistening on the landscape. I’ll call it “Panther Black.”
Cougar, catamount, mountain lion, panther, puma. All names for the same animal, the Puma concolor, a native of the Americas. We know what it looks like. It’s not black.
There are, however, many instances of big cats that are black. In fact, one of my favorite exhibits at the San Antonio Zoo when I was a child was a big cat we called the black panther. Long after my parents were ready to move on to another attraction, I’d want to stand by the cage watching it. I didn’t know until years later that it isn’t a separate species. What are commonly called black panthers are melanistic leopards or jaguars, meaning they’re dark-colored due to having high concentrations of the pigment melanin. I don’t know which of the two this one was. But I could see in that plush, black coat the faint blotches—blacker on black—that marked it as a spotted cat.
For all the black leopards and jaguars, though, there has never been an authenticated sighting of a black cougar.
Yet many people insist they’ve seen one. Including two of our neighbors.
So what is it that I’ve seen twice in the past year? I don’t know, but I can tell you what it isn’t. It’s not a dog, a wild (or domestic) hog, a cow or a coyote. Or a goat or a llama or any of the other usual suspects you find in the country. It certainly isn’t anything small, like a skunk or raccoon. For so many reasons—height at the shoulder, length, color, litheness and fluidity of motion—it was obvious to me that it is none of these things. I’ve lived in the company of animals all my life. But never in this one’s.
The first time I saw it was about a year ago. I was driving from the farmhouse one sunny morning, leaving the property to go in to Austin. It was about 200 yards away when I spotted it in the grass just outside the front gate. Large, long. Very, very black. Motionless at first. I couldn’t imagine what it was. Then as I drew nearer, it crouched low and moved swiftly into the drainage ditch, turned on a dime and disappeared into the culvert under our road.
My mouth hanging open, I arrived at the spot and spent a few moments looking at the ditch, wondering. I wasn’t foolish enough to get out of the car.
The second time I saw it was just a couple of weeks ago. I was much closer, for all the good it did me. It saw me first.
I was driving home late in the afternoon, still about 3 miles from home. This time of year, many of the fields in the area are planted with corn, which becomes a feature of the landscape for months. It’s feed corn, so the ears are allowed to dry on the stalk until the lush green fields parch to a dull brown and the leaves rasp together in the hot winds. By the time it’s ready to harvest, I’m so sick of the dead, dry brown on the land that I drive between the fields banging the steering wheel and yelling, “Harvest the damn corn, already!”
So there I was, looking at the corn as I drove and noticing glumly that its bright green was already a little duller. Then I spotted that glistening black in the weeds by the roadside. I was about 50 yards away and had barely registered what I was seeing when again the creature crouched low and disappeared. It turned and flowed—just flowed: a fluid, boneless motion—down into the ditch, under the fence. I had a brief impression of powerful haunches before it was swallowed up by the cornstalks.
It amazes me that I’ve seen this thing twice in a year’s time. And I’m glad there’s validation: that two neighbors have had their own sightings that predate mine. Otherwise I’d think it was the interdimensional road cows all over again.
Sometimes it’s better to have answers to our questions. Otherwise, how would Vantablack have been invented? But sometimes it’s more satisfying to have mysteries than explanations. Too many certainties can deaden the soul.
What did I see? I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. It’s enough for me to know that we still have mysteries abounding in this anomalous, unquiet world.
Just out of reach. Just how I like them.