Archive for the ‘Project: Natural Histories’ Category


A Natural History: Christopher Stackhouse


Artist Among Other Things: The Natural History of My Social Position

By Christopher Stackhouse

——Indicative of something like a kind of residue, giving insight into the character of my social position, as it began to establish itself early on, on its own terms, toward its current stage, here is a text I received early last year from my brother, he wrote:

“O by the way uncle phil found

some old writing of ur’s when

moving shit out of trish’s crib.

He said it was from the 4th or 5th

grade.  By accident he left it in

his yard and the dog tore up some of it.”

Here is a picture of me, and my brother Zane. He is an actor. (Fig 1)

Fig. 1

Our father shared with us his love of staged theater, carpentry, reading for leisure, writing to remember, and baseball for competition among other sports and games, like table tennis and backgammon. He was once a close friend to the writer James Baldwin. He has lived in many places in the world, but he really loves Detroit. His name is Skip. (Fig 2)

Fig. 2

There are other things that determine, where you were and where you’re at, like watching your babies grow, and grow, and grow (yes, x’s 3 for me). It seems like I may one day find myself with a big lot of them (I started at fatherhood very young). However, staying focused here, pictured is our family’s latest progeniture, my baby daughter Sabine. (Fig 3)

Fig. 3

——Aside from kids, I’m into dogs. Here’s the last dog I owned, an American Bulldog Johnson line, a female named Baci.  I got her when she was 6 months old. She was incredibly well trained. Her previous owner and I respectively put hours upon hours of time in with her. She was rather intelligent, loyal, and engaged with human life. She loved Haagen Das Butter Pecan ice cream and beef bones from the butcher. Her adopted mom (my ex) Catherine, eventually served her a dinner mix of homemade boiled free range chicken with diced organically grown fresh carrots, celery, and quinoa. This diet helped heal an injury Baci acquired during one of her exercise routines. The dietary change proved better than the general high-grade dog foods we tried, so we stayed with it. She lived to be only 9 years old, which is another story to tell altogether. I miss her. She died early summer of 2008. (Fig 4)

Fig. 4

I’m not sure when I’ll be able to get another dog.  I like a range of breeds and if the right mixed pup showed up, I’d be up for that too, but the last search about looking turned up this dude here named Remy who looks pretty cool. (Fig 5)

Fig. 5

——Most people who know me, know that I really enjoy reading poetry. I like discussing poetry and writing, at home with people equally interested. The other night with my friend Geoffrey we talked about the verse form Strambotto, and found ourselves marveling again over Yeat’s “He Wishes For Cloths of Heaven.” He recited that poem and sections from Phillip Sydney’s “Astrophel and Stella.” Among other poets and writers, we discussed Amiri Baraka, Weldon Kees, Walter Pater, Ann Lauterbach, and work by a peer, poet Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon. John K. and I talked later that evening about John Ashbery’s poem “Self Portrait in Convex Mirror”, reciting our favorite lines from it.  We also revisited an old review by Adam Kirsch of Louise Gluck’s book “Averno”, and totally switched topic to attend the growing more prevalent phenomena in the contemporary scene of ‘poet/scholar’ while talking about the ideas in Geoffrey’s new book A Change in the Weather: Modernist Imagination, African American Imaginary which John and I both believe will prove over time to be a very important book regarding American poetry and poetics.

——Few things enhance these conversations more than the before and after a great meal with a glass of quality vino. Food and wine can be marvelously entertaining. I try to cook at home as often as possible, and eat others home cooking as much too. Lately lots of men friends (all writers) cook, and well- Ira makes killer Asian cuisine, Stuart makes hybrid American dishes with heavy broths and alternative cooking oils (like Goose fat), Michael has taken to preparing a rabbit and fennel dish; and though I’m all over the place too, the last dish I made I really enjoyed was Fettucine with mixed veggies in a very light cream sauce, topped with Artic Char pan fried in a homemade cornmeal mix and olive oil, and strips of thick sliced bacon. I think I liked that meal so much because everything came out just right. To accompany it, had a wine from one of my favorite places from which to drink  – Burgundy. It’s rare (for me at least) to find one I really enjoy (bang for your buck ratio for Burgundy is generally narrow), but a recent dabble in Côte de Nuits did it. Michael gave me a bottle of chardonnay from Marsannay-la-Côte by Charles Audoin (It was a gift, but it retails around $30/bottle).

Fig. 6

The bottle shown here is a 2007- I had a 2005 and it was quite good. (Fig 6) Prior that, the last chardonnay I found of similar interest, though a much different feel was from Bordeaux (probably my favorite region from which to regularly imbibe), it was St. Aubin De Branne 2003. (Fig 7)

Fig. 7

I bought a half case a few years ago. I drank the last two this year one with Geoff (we had sautéed to brown, near medium well, center cut boneless pork chops with olive oil, sea salt, cracked peppercorn and thyme, rosemary potatoes with cremini, asparagus with basil, garlic and shallots); the other I sipped with Kelly the evening Michael Jackson died. I wonder how Roscoe Lee Browne would have liked it.

——What else complicates a perspective of one’s own social position as much as perhaps being an artist? The notion of responsibility – to what am I responsible necessarily in art – is a looming question. Lately I have thought about Turner’s painting “The Slave Ship” (1840). (Fig 8 )

Fig. 8

He painted this in part because of his preoccupation with the sea, as a powerful force in nature; but he made such a violent and striking painting to also make a statement about the slave trade, and to commemorate the victims of the Zong Massacre of 1781, where near a 150 African Slaves were tossed over board or died from starvation due to overcrowding on the ship. It is a reasonable assumption that this happened many times during the Middle Passage. So there then, a British man of 19th Century Art Academy honors, flexes his given skill to honor his fallen African brethren in a painting nearly 60 years after the event. Being a likely descendant of both groups of people, I find this moving. It recalls for me Derek Walcott’s essay “The Muse of History”, though I’m not sure I feel exactly the way Walcott feels about our respective blends of ethnically mixed heritage. And after that, the strength of contemplation in history, politics, one’s ‘present-day’ in art, exemplary in this work of Turner’s takes nothing from the pleasure I receive in reflecting for minutes at a time on the objects in my immediate environment which I’ve been wont to stare at and photograph, like the this marble mantelpiece in my apartment. (Fig 9)

Fig. 9

It is as much of Western design as I am. The shape of it feminine and masculine, animated in its stasis, ballast by leaving sun and shadow. It is cut by and from the elements, as am I; and perhaps it feels, as it is certainly felt by hand and eye.

——The re-eventing of a past is a perpetually expansive opening for an artist/thinker. There is so much to capture and release, to witness. It is hardly an impartial place to be, to want to look at an aesthetic work, or at the various things in the/a world, or, to meet my own mutable body on any and every given morning. (Fig 10)

Fig. 10

It is from this point of view, and potential others that I occasionally stare. I tried to explain this compulsion in a lecture I gave with John K. a couple of years ago. We discussed the persistence of abstraction in art and literature. We each discussed our favorite art books, paintings, and idea potential in certain artistic practices. At one point looking into a projected image of a painting by Gerhard Richter, I began to trace his brush strokes in the air while discoursing on the work before us. (Fig. 11)

Fig. 11

It was an odd thing for me to do, given that I have seen the object painting before; I have always surmised it having been painted on the floor, obviously not in the same style as Ed Moses or Ed Clark, but with a similar dependency on gravity and the illusion of defiance of it (i.e. gravity).

——An image that perhaps suits my social situation and outlook best as I see it, metaphorically, is a photo attributed to photog John Mc Colgan. The photo is referred to as “The Elk Bath” and in my files as “Deer Caught in Forest Fire”. It is one of the most poignant pictures I’ve ever seen. When I look at and empathize with, think about, so many aspects of the content(s) and subject(s) of, the photo, I am not sure what living part of the photograph best represents my being- the trees, the deer, the fire, the photographer, the rocks, the forest floor, or the river. I can only stare with aesthetic pleasure. The anticipation forever suspended in the photo is restorative. From such distance, what is most powerful still, is such light, the pure energy in transfer caught in stasis. (Fig. 12)

Fig. 12



“Artist Among Other Things: The Natural History of Social Position” is part of the Natural Histories Project. Click here to learn more >>

Christopher Stackhouse is the author of a collection of poetry, “Slip” (Corollary Press, 2005); and co-author of the collaborative book “Seismosis” (1913 Press, 2006), which features his drawings in philosophical discourse with text by co-author John Keene (Annotations).

You can find more on Roscoe Lee Browne here and here.


A Natural History: Peter Kline


A Natural History of My Obscenely Good Looks

By Peter Kline

Edible Overwear

This may shock those of you who know me, but I wasn’t always the handsomely debonair man you don’t see standing before you.  In fact, at the beginning things were looking pretty grim for our Don Juan: mashed-in head, bulging eyes, doughy, parboiled skin, and a gooey swag of stiff black hair on my head, which promptly fell out.  My mother asked for a valium.  My father asked for an explanation.  The nurses gloated like saints.  I pissed on the doctor’s face and fell asleep drooling.

Those first years, likewise, I showed little promise of sprouting into the Mapplethorpe calla lily of my maturity.  Tub-time snapshots show me, shall we say, “ill-equipped” for my future seductions.  And while innovation in fashion at the age of 16 months portends a gigolo’s talent for the dandified, hats made out of spaghetti are neither comfortable nor suave.  My parents’ hopes grew when I came home from nursery school with tales of the class belle, Tina, who always wore a bright pink dress.  Follow-up with the teacher, however, revealed that I had fallen victim to that most ruthless form of unrequited love, the love for an imaginary friend.

You might guess that things went a lot more smoothly in my adolescence.  Two words should dispel this notion: breast buds.  All wrapped up in ski clothes, with nothing showing but my eyes and mouth, I must have appeared a bit more toothsome: first kiss with Rachel on the ski lift.  I learned to put my hands on my hips the opposite way to avoid looking effeminate.  I hairsprayed my bangs in a wave, and pined after the superfine hair of the skater kids, swishing down over their eyes.  Dressed in forest green tights for our production of Once Upon A Mattress, I was told by my teacher, not un-flirtatiously, that I had “nice legs – not chicken legs like the other boys.”  Clearly, something was turning out right if the zany and free-spirited Mrs. B saw fit to admire it.  On the soccer field, the opposing team called me “thunder thighs” and shouted vroom vroom! as I labored by.

Around this time, my bone structure may have been finalizing itself according to the Grecian ideal – high cheekbones, a prominent chin, a slender muscularity.  If this is the case, my freshmen forty made it impossible to tell (thank you, Papa John’s).  My eyes may have begun to gleam like hot jade in a mineral pool, as they do now, but they were seldom visible through all the nappy pseudo-dreads and plastic beads I wore in my hair.  O my undergraduate self, unloved and unwashed!

Beware of Dog/Terrible Polyester

Skip a decade ahead.  Ugly duckling, and all that.  But you can’t argue with results.  That tub problem has been sorted out, more or less.  The forty pounds went away, though only for a quick vacation.  But I perfected “the look,” sidelong and puckish and wry, and that was that.  However flattering, it still makes me uncomfortable when strange women at the salad bar offer me their firstborn.  And how many times can you hear You’re the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen before it starts to take on a disingenuous tang?  Yes, the shallow world of appearances is not for me.  But you – by all means, feel free to look, if you like what you see.


Peter Kline is a kind of me.  If you were a Peter Kline, what kind of
Kline would you be?



“A Natural History of My Obscenely Good Looks” is part of the Natural Histories Project. Click here to learn more >>

Peter Kline lives in San Francisco, where he is a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry Writing.


A Natural History: Laura Newbern


A Natural History of My Heart

By Laura Newbern

Fig. 1

I have an ex-boyfriend who says I broke his heart on Oakland Avenue, in a little cinder-block house, in the Five Points neighborhood of Athens, Georgia. I say he broke mine, long before I even got a kick at his. I also say that he’s the only ex-boyfriend I actually miss. I say this often; it’s such a plain truth. I miss talking to him.

The little house we lived in was set way back off the street, and behind another house, and just above a slow creek. Even in winter, everything was green and a little bit wet. And the house was painted yellow, and the sky above all the water-oaks, often enough, was a very pale shade of lavender. Inside, mildew grew in our shoes, and in some of our books. We ate our supper at a bright red Formica table. We fought. And I broke his heart.

Once I saw my heart in a sonogram. I listened to it, too. I was struck by how small it was, and how much it sounded like a tiny washing machine. Sort of sad and determined. With all my heart, I saluted it.

What was it we fought about? I half remember—I was depressed. We’d left all our friends in New York, where we’d met in the back of a bar on Houston Street. For me, it was love at first sight. The first time we slept together, he told his roommate, as we appeared sheepish in the morning, that we’d gotten married. We stood there grinning in silk bathrobes, like idiots. I loved him. After a rocky year or so, during which I moved away, and came back, and he cheated, and I cheated, we decided to leave New York and move to Georgia. It was my idea.

He did not tell me I was pretty; he asked me if I knew I was. I found this gritty and impressive. One Valentine’s Day he gave me an anatomically correct heart-drawing, with valves and tubes and arrows. Again, gritty and impressive. And sad and determined.

Recently I had a little scare with my heart; in a mall, in a dressing room, it began to beat so hard and so fast that I had to sit down. This resulted in a doctor’s visit and all the alarmist tests— a stress test; another test that meant wearing different colored wires attached to a black box overnight; another test—the big finale—that sent me inside a machine with some kind of liquid injected beforehand that made me hotter than I’d ever been. It all came out fine. Nothing wrong; nothing at all.

When I think back, I remember how beautiful we were, and how young. How he worked to make the house habitable; how I worked, behind a closed door, at corresponding with everyone except him. I wanted the closeness, but I couldn’t handle it, and things broke. I remember a plate hitting a wall. I remember staying up half the night one night watching the movie Sayonara on cable, alone. Cable was new to me then—that’s how long ago this was.

I don’t remember him moving out, but he did, taking his sleeveless shirts and his books and his French press. And there I was, with the house to myself. Which seemed to be what I wanted.

When I was in college, a doctor on the Upper East Side told me I had a heart murmur. Years later I saw her on television: spectacled, elegant, commanding. She was big in the heart world. I used to love the trips to her office; how intently she would don a white coat and get close, and listen. But I’m not sure it was real. No doctor these days can hear it.

We’d lived in that house with animals – my cats and his dog. And a sizeable population of crickets: huge ones with striped legs; they’d pop out of the basement in their novelty socks. Outside, box turtles scraped around in the yard. Bats hung in a nearby shed. One evening I found one of the cats standing over a bat: a seemingly wounded bat, flat on its back, breathing hard. I panicked and shooed the cat in. Like a beating heart flung out of a body, that bat, on the ground. And, when I checked on it later–gone.


Laura Newbern still lives in Georgia, with no idea whether her heart murmurs or not.



“A Natural History of My Heart” is part of the Natural Histories Project. Click here to learn more >>

Laura Newbern, an Assistant Professor of English/Creative Writing at Georgia College & State University since 2005, teaches graduate and undergraduate poetry workshops, poetics, and other creative writing and literature courses.  Laura is also the Poetry Editor of Arts & Letters.  Her poems have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Poetry, Black Warrior Review, and elsewhere; her collection, Love and the Eye, won the Kore Press First Book Award and is due out this fall.


A Natural History: Joan Menefee


A Natural History of My Writer’s Callus

By Joan Menefee

The pencils I use are slim, wooden and hexagonal; at least to begin with, they are longer than most fingers, and pointed at one end.  I push them around and along, back and forth, creating a conversation not merely between myself and some mythical audience, but also among my right hand (mostly my ring finger, pointer and thumb, and the heel of my palm), my eyes, the pencil, the paper, and inevitably the table, which stabilizes arm and paper, providing enough resistance to take advantage of the pencil’s special irony: long after its hard shell is shaved away, its soft center endures on the page.

Pencils conduct forces; cognitive impulses, sure, but also the masses of bones and soft tissues, heightened or diminished by the friction coefficients of graphite, wood, paper and flesh.  Progressing from long to short, from sharp to dull, pencils yield lines and circles as we apply pressure to them.  Without sufficient pressure, the marks we envision fail to sink into the page.  So we push, willing our thoughts into physical existence. Following ideas heedlessly through inner space, sometimes we lose sense of the tools we are using to render our ideas visible and tangible, or even of the fact that we have bodies at all.  But our bodies do not forget.

In his history of the pencil, Henry Petroski observes that Henry David Thoreau’s catalog of the contents of his house at Walden Pond omits the very instrument with which he was writing his account. Petroski finds this omission doubly odd since the pencils Thoreau used almost certainly came from his family’s own factory.

Though my family owned no pencil company, I did have pencils engraved with my name – first and last— in grade school. My mother ordered these pencils from the Lillian Vernon catalog each Christmas; along with a tangerine, peppermint chews, and lip balm, a pack of personalized pencils gave vertical structure to my stocking. A fussy child, I disliked sharpening into the letters of my name, as if such an eclipse portended an injury I was soon to suffer, so I often abandoned these fancy pencils before they had been much used.

Never mind that my pencils were always experiencing rapid, steady decline, for I was and am a fierce, sloppy writer.  I love the first ten minutes of a newly sharpened point and, if I can get away with it, I will keep jamming the pencil in the sharpener half-hourly, ruthlessly seeking perfection of form.  The number of pencils sacrificed to my quest for knowledge, skill, and renown will remain mysterious.  What can be measured is the bump on my right ring finger, which I did not notice until I was nine or ten years old.

I was in the kitchen; we still had yellow vinyl chairs with a matching yellow table; my mother was frying something.

There it was: a tender red bump below the nail bed of my right ring finger, protruding on the left, like a pack falling off the back of a horse.  When I explored it with my thumb nail, the callus received the impression eagerly and remembered it for half a minute. Rightly placed, the mark of my thumbnail was like a grave mouth on a blushing little face.

I walked over to the stove and installed myself below my mother’s elbow, the better to show her my discovery.

“Is it a mosquito bite that doesn’t itch?” I asked.  “Or cancer?”

“It’s a writer’s callus,” she said.

Still perplexed, I raised the afflicted finger higher.

“It’s the place the pencil rubs against your hand when you write,” she said. “It scars up.  The skin gets harder.”

“Do you have one? Let me see yours.”

“After I finish cooking dinner.”

I don’t remember examining my mother’s callus, nor do I have any idea what hers looks like now.  I suspect that I was most impressed with my “civilized wound” because it was large in relation to my soft, small, unblemished finger, because I had noticed it all by myself, and because I had devised my own theories about it.  Since that day I have been aware of this protuberance, this place where my pencils pushed back.

As my finger grew, the callus stayed the same size, but it grew harder.  It has evolved from a single bump to a flattened pink disc with the remnants of a blister forming a pale circle inside it. Now, on the fewer occasions I take up a pencil, everything seems to lock into place. The callus is not the linchpin, but the vital ridge against which the linchpin rests.

It seems right that those legions of pencils should have left a hill on my body. My callus is a reminder that while grand traumatic events like compound fractures easily capture our attention, it is the complex of small forces and repetitive motions that author most of our surroundings, and indeed our own bodies. Everywhere abrasions and incisions form an impromptu braille, a story of bodies expressing knowledge, as they amass other aspects of their vicinity.  In this fine, deliberate sense, my callus is the sum of what I know.

Callus is as callus does. (Detail from “HI.Hieronymous bein Schreiben” by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1605-1606; courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).


Joan Menefee sharpens her pencils with a Boston Model #18 manufactured in Statesville, North Carolina.



“A Natural History of My Writer’s Callus” is part of the Natural Histories Project. Click here to learn more >>


A Natural History: Krista Franklin


A Natural History of My Drapetomania

Text and Art by Krista Franklin

"Drapetomania #2", Mixed Medium, Krista Franklin

*   *   *

In 1851 Lousiana physician Samuel A. Cartwright introduced America to a theory that he thought would serve to explain the aberrant behavior of black slaves “absconding from service.”  He called the “disease” of those who sought to flee captivity drapetomania and outlined the symptoms and treatments in his essay “Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race.”  Dr. Cartwright suggested reinforcing the subservience of the black slave to his white slaveholder to treat the disease.  He prescribed treating the black slave like a child and by delivering sound beatings only in the cases of those persistently afflicted slaves as the cure for this pesky mental ailment—the desire to be free.

Nearly 130 years after Cartwright kicked the bucket, a cracking, black and white photograph of my 18-month-old mother falls under my gaze.  The picture, small and curling at its white-bordered corners, shows the back of my tiny mother barely walking, moving away from the camera, the hem of her baby dress haphazardly tucked into the top of her diaper.  One foot hovers precariously off the ground; she is in the throes of movement.

“This is the day she ran away from home,” my grandmother says, giggling at her first daughter’s blossoming desire to escape.

*   *   *

Not nearly as advanced as my predecessor, around eleven I begin to push my body against the neighborhood’s borders, roaming into woods along paths past thickets. Even as fear rides piggyback and my nostrils flare like a deer’s at the scent of the unknown, I press on across fallen leaves; errant branches scrape my arms, a phantom sound, someone behind me.  I spend minutes like I spend money, squatting at the creek’s edge watching minnows swirl each other in their watery dance.  When I go home, my Zips are caked in mud.  I smell like grass.

Around this time, at a church picnic the pastor asks me to get her nephew, who is also my age, a hot dog from a nearby table.  I tell her “I’m not in the service.”

This is a story that my grandmother also relishes.

*   *   *

The radio is a bad influence, lures me further away, summons me to Salem Mall, through its heavy glass doors to feast on the hallucinogen of consumerism.  Here garments beckon me to try on, be transformed, but Camelot Records spins a sticky web, offers a hundred shrink-wrapped escape plans begging to be bagged.  I leave sweaty-palmed with something to take home, my allowance pick-pocketed by the record industry.

When the needle drops, I’m drawn outside myself.  My scalp tingles.  The sounds spin revolving doors I walk through in my mind.

Like the countless Negroes who used their skin as their disguise, passing as white to spin the yarn of a life, I master the art of a malleable identity.  Music is one of the places I learn: 1) how to speak like a white girl from the Valley, 2) how to walk like an Egyptian, 3) how to be, when the occasion calls for it, off the wall.  I try on identities like jeans.

By the time I’m thirteen I spend approximately 65% of my waking life  putting on “whiteness,” because in some crude, unarticulated way, in my mind “whiteness” is equivalent to “freedom.”

It’s been said that the human brain hasn’t reached its full development until a person is in her mid-twenties.  Whether this has anything to do with me eventually relinquishing that ridiculous arithmetic around that age is unknown to me.

*   *   *

Once during my adolescence my mother told me, “Children are like tiny anchors,” and asked me through a series of elaborate questions, did I like being free?

*   *   *

At the university I practice late-night-slip-outs like I should be memorizing lines from textbooks to pass tests.  Side roads and alleys become familiar.  I visit unfamiliar bars, hide out in the movie theater, hop in my car and skip town.  For one week straight I forget that I’m enrolled and spend days in my pajamas watching television, reading books I checked out from the campus library, and refusing to answer the phone.  Classes are an afterthought.

*   *   *

The last time I held a full-time job I had to be prescribed anti-depressants.

*   *   *

As a child I used to have a recurring dream where I was running across the freakishly deserted, green campus of my elementary school being chased by a man whose face I can never see.  Once he almost caught me, but I woke up.

*   *   *

"Wanderlust Wonderland", Collage, Krista Franklin


Krista Franklin toils in Chicago, rubbing her hands fiendishly plotting her next great escape.



“A Natural History of My Drapetomania” is part of the Natural Histories Project. Click here to learn more >>

You can find out more about Krista Franklin at and the Tres Colony website. And you can find more of her images online at and  delirious hem.

The collage “Wanderlust Wonderland” first appeared in the issue guest edited by Evie Shockley.


A Natural History: Laura Marchetti


The Natural History of O.P.A.L.

Art and text by Laura Marchetti


The window was open this morning, swamp air filled the living room.  I woke up on the couch, which reeked of mildew and last night’s cigars. My friends, passed out on the floor, appear as flipbook ghosts jerkily moving back and forth as I open and close one eye at a time. First one eye, then the other.  No one wakes up from my mental prodding, so I make coffee and smoke a cigarette.  Church bells are ringing in the distance, but then I realize there are no real church towers left here.  What I’m hearing is the new speaker system bought by the First Baptist Church downtown.  This techno call to worship sounds flat, but it manages to stir up a longing within me I thought died years ago, or was possibly never born.  I imagine putting on a dress. I imagine walking up the steps, the pastor knows my name and greets me with a practiced nod.  My hair is long, curled at the ends.  My high heels click gracefully as I find my pew.  I know all the songs. My teeth are white in light pink never-swollen gums.  The hot water whistled and pulled me back to the moldy carpets and still-drunk friends.  “We will find something to believe in,” I thought solemnly as I bit into buttered toast.

Do you know how hard it is to research abandoned buildings?  Night explorers are more committed to recording hauntings, glowing orbs, supernatural sightings than street names.

Nice Bright Orbs at one of the main entrances

Red energy at the top right along with some Orbs and what appears to be Ecto

Nice multi-colored orbs!

Huge Orb to the left surrounded by smaller yellow Orbs

Sunland Boy Scout Troup (1967)

Cribs in Sleeping area (1967)[1]


I went looking for Sunland Hospital for the first time in August, 2003.  I sat on the floor of the van, picking out twigs and weed stems from the carpet and placing them in separate piles while the band tried to scare each other.  We’d only heard stories about the abandoned mental hospital, how dead children played in the hallways.  It was a site of negligence, an unsightly blemish on Florida’s not-so-pristine history.  Chris was pouring over a hand-drawn map of the place.  That was how this whole thing started.  Some acne-covered kid gave it to him at the end of their set; I’m not sure why.

The drummer, Avi, loved those ghost hunter shows you see on tv.  Couldn’t get enough of them.  He would always make us watch them late at night; I was the only one who was ever scared by it.  Since I couldn’t stand to watch another episode, fulfillment was the only way I could see to end Avi’s obsession.

The Ocoee Paranormal Ass-Kicking League (O.P.A.L.) was formed.  We started small: cemetaries, schoolyards, abandoned shacks in the lower swampland.  But soon we heard about the chain of abandoned children’s mental institutions known as Sunland Hospitals.  It was only a matter of finding the Orlando location.  I became the cameraman, since I owned a camera.

“Orbs are for amateurs, we got to scare out some real ghost shit, you know?”

Built in 1952, Sunland Hospital in Orlando, Florida, was originally W.T. Edwards Tuberculosis Hospital.  It was never a treatment center, at the time tuberculosis was without cure.  It was a waiting facility; the end of the line.  An entire side of the main building was windows, as it was a commonly held belief that sunshine and fresh air were agents of healing for the t.b. patients.

“Once lodged on a given ward, the patient is firmly instructed that the restrictions and deprivations he encounters are not due to such blind forces as tradition or economy – and hence dissociable from self – but are intentional parts of his treatment, part of his need at the time, and therefore an expression of the state that his self has fallen to.”[2]

Dust pushed up out of the dirt as our van slid to a stop a block away from the Fence.  We followed the map’s instructions, and were as discreet as drunk kids can be.  I looked at the pale, greenish faces floating around me.  Not ghosts, just my friends, scared shitless.  I took a breath.

“Let’s fucking do this already.”

This wasn’t like the tv hunters, and I was ready.  We made our way quickly to the hole in the fence, guided by that map, the anonymous voice of a scrawny hardcore kid.  The hole was small. Chris and I made our way through easily. Avi, Abe, and Dylan took more squeezing, but we were in.  I brushed my jeans off and sucked in a breath quickly.  A large field sprawled before us, the building rising up out of the middle of the earth perversely.  It looked like a person caught in the middle of exhaling, its collapsing middle parts soaked in years of rain and neglect.

Theories for the Sudden Abandonment:

1. Asbestos

2. Fire Hazards

3. Neglect and Abuse

We walked the perimeter of the hospital, I snapped photos without looking.  Teenagers and explorers had ripped open windows and smashed doors, beams and concrete chunks fell together to form haphazard cathedral arches.  Letting my eyes adjust in the main lobby, my flashlight scanned over the wreckage.  Overturned wheelchairs closed in around us and graffitied hallways grasped at the light.  These floors hadn’t seen electricity since 1983, and were thirsty for the grand fluorescence of their past.  We stood unsure, felt watched, as Chris nervously opened the map.  The basement.

Two of the following:

1. Delusions

2. Prominent hallucinations (through-out the day for several days or several times a week for several weeks, each hallucinatory experience not being limited to a few brief moments)

3. Incoherence or marked loosening of associations

4. Catatonic behavior

5. Flat or grossly inappropriate affect

6. Bizarre delusions (i.e., involving a phenomenon that the person’s culture would regard as totally implausible, e.g., thought broadcasting, being controlled by a dead person)[3]


Originally, the basement was a unglorified burial chamber for those t.b. patients.  Five round chambers line one wall.  To the right, large piles of firewood, crumbling and mold-furry.  “The crematorium of the damned” is scrawled in red paint in one of the furnaces, written by someone more brave than us.  It all feels too fresh, and the stories I read on the internet about missing disabled children and this place pull at the tingly place where my neck meets my back.

According to official records, the crematorium has not existed since 1962 during renovation.

Tap tap tap tap tap

We all freak out, I point my camera towards the corner of the room as Chris prepares to bolt. I take a picture, the flash illuminates a malnourished rat.  My first ghost.

1997: A young man fell three stories down an elevator shaft here and sustained serious injuries.

We climbed to the third floor, the door was locked.  This is where the map ended, with a skull and cross-bones drawing.  Chris sized up the door before pulling the rusted pins out.  The record room.  We read that the medical records were intact, that blood samples and pills scattered the floor.  But none of us had believed it, and then there we were.  An index taped to the inside of photo album devoid of pictures:

Arrival of the first eighteen children

Beauticians at W.T. Edwards Tuberculosis Hospital

Birthday party at Sunland 1964

Hospital Pet therapy at Sunland Center Hospital

Disabled child in the swimming pool of the Sunland Hospital

Sunland patients out for some air

Ward at Sunland Hospital

Activity room at Sunland Hospital

Residents brushing their teeth at Sunland Hospital

Boy Scout patients of Sunland Hospital[4]


The excavation continued for hours, these obscure histories scoured for abnormality or signs of a hidden agenda.  Like holy men studying ancient texts, we read the case files.  I bent down and picked up a once-orange bottle, full of sand.  It was time to leave.  I took more pictures, the sun was coming up.

At all four corners of the main fence, you should look out for security guards.  It is a Federal crime to trespass on this site, so don’t get caught.

In the early morning, we sat in the van, getting high to balance out our now senseless paranoia.  Everyone swore to encountering a ghost; I flipped absently through the photos while Avi pointed excitedly at asbestos orbs.  Those same faces, full of terror only moments ago, were now elated.  We had touched the void, maybe.  I drank a beer as the sun rose over the boys’ sleeping bodies.

1. ingestion

2. absorption into the blood

3. transport to the brain via circulation

4. penetration into brain tissue through the membranes that protect it from many chemicals that might disturb it (i.e. the brain-blood barrier)

5. association with the proteins whose function they control  [5]

Arrival of the first eighteen children. It does not matter if they left or not.  The thin high building was now haunted by the living; by inebriated teenagers in search of the mystical.

[1] Panhandle Paranormal, “Sunland Hospital.”   6 June 2004.

[2] Goffman, Erving.  Asylums; Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. Chicago : Aldine Pub. Co., 1962.

[3] Rosen, Deborah. Mental Geography. Deborah Rosen, 1983.

[4] Panhandle Paranormal, “Sunland Hospital.”   6 June 2004.

[5] Rosen, Deborah. Mental Geography. Deborah Rosen, 1983.


Laura Marchetti is still learning to love oatmeal. She is better at loving sky colors while driving on the 101, making up jokes with a certain 3-year-old, and reading comic books.



“A Natural History of O.P.A.L.” is part of the Natural Histories Project. Click here to learn more >>

Laura Marchetti was raised in Ocoee, Florida, and currently lives and works in Los Angeles. She makes paintings and sculptures about growing up steeped in Southern Baptist rituals and linguistics, asking the viewer to consider the residual aspects of indoctrination. She binds books, curates shows, and makes comics. She graduated from California Institute of the Arts in May 2009, with a BFA in Art.


A Natural History: Devin Corbin


A Natural History of My Static Electricity

By Devin Corbin

Touch the steel file cabinet first, then the keyboard. Winter has finally come to Wisconsin, and with it lessons in physics. Dew point:  -18 °F. In this hibernal dryness, my body sloughs electrons like dead skin, the day’s subtle frictions (my shoulder sweeping past curtains, my arms sliding from the sleeves of my jacket. . . ) buffing me to an ionic polish.  Our furnace greets Orion with a sigh, and I imagine myself growing faintly luminous, like the starlit snow beyond my window.  Polyester yearns for me.  I can feel its elfin fingers teasing the hair of my arms, can feel much of what surrounds me, in fact, as a jumble of nudging and straining, a crowd of competing desires. No more puling about sub-zero weather, please. Please. This is winter as I love and remember it, animate and magical with cold.

Here is summer in Wisconsin:  A cloud of gnats orbits a person’s head.  Then another person approaches, and the cloud stretches to meet the newcomer, including her; when she leaves, some of the gnats will go with her.  In winter it is the same, only instead of gnats it is electrons.  Matter draws near to matter, and electrons change rides.  Some people attract more gnats than others, I have noticed, and certain materials, too, trump others at drawing electrons.  The result is that meeting and parting produce electrical imbalance, what physicists call “triboelectrification”:  electrification through rubbing.  Electrons are always pulling free, of course, but in summer one doesn’t notice.  Humid air allows gnats and electrons alike to roam freely, so charges quickly dissipate on the static breeze. Come winter, however, moisture freezes from the atmosphere, making the air a better insulator. The result is a world of impromptu batteries, of bodies and objects suddenly able to carry a mounting glut (or dearth) of electrons until a suitable conductor approaches and—snap!—electrons funnel into a gust of heat and light, restoring electrical balance.

Over two hundred years ago, a Swede named Johan Carl Wilcke, whose exposure to cold northern winters may be of note here, published an influential study of static charges, including what is now known as the first “triboelectric series,” a list of sundry materials ranked according to how likely they are to lose or gain electrons through contact with other substances. Many such lists have been generated since, and they are typically organized with materials that most easily lose electrons placed at the top and materials that gain electrons at the bottom.  The farther two substances are from one another on the list, therefore, the more potent the charge they will generate when rubbed together.  Mischievous children take note.

There is something delightful to me about these lists—the way seemingly disparate materials land next to each other via the arcane logic of atomic bonds, the way each list reflects the material culture of its historical moment. From Wilcke’s original list, for example, we learn that a writer’s quill tends to lose electrons to paper.  Or consider this triboelectric series from the Smithsonian Physical Tables, published by the Smithsonian Institution in 1921, in which asbestos precedes rabbit’s fur:

According to this table, rubbing a sheet of asbestos with “indiarubber” should produce the best static charge; I can’t recommend it.

Amber, item #24 on the Smithsonian list, appears in most triboelectric series, thanks to the ancient Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus, who found that amber—called elektron in Greek—took on a charge when rubbed.  This discovery may have been less random than it seems, for amber, a fossilized plant resin long used in jewelry, would often have been rubbed to give it the high gloss that best reveals its rich, honey-colored translucence.  My Chambers Dictionary of Etymology explains that the word elektron itself derives from the Greek word elektor, which translates to “the beaming sun.”  This is a reference, no doubt, to the material’s lambency as a polished gem, but it’s also a pleasant fortuity given amber’s role as the etymological root for electricity.  Imagine:  ancient globs of resin burnished into little suns charged not only with light from the same old star that created them but also with electrons filched from a jeweler’s flannel and hands.

* * *

Just before bed, I shuffle into our upstairs bathroom to brush my teeth, the house already steeped in the long darkness of a boreal winter’s night.  In the gloom, my hand misses the switch on the small fluorescent lamp over the sink, my fingers instead brushing the bulb itself, and for an instant the glass tube flickers under my touch like a guttering candle.  I am befuddled, then pleased.

Later, in the bedroom, I pull off my thermal shirt with a sound like fire moving through pine boughs, then strain my eyes to make out the delicate whorls of my sleeping wife’s ear.  When my lips draw close enough, there is a glint, an electric pinch, and my wife starts.  “We are touching now,” I whisper.  “If we don’t let go, we will be fine.”

Notes on Sources

what physicists call “triboelectrification”: A. G. Bailey, “Static Electricity,” McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science and Technology 10th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007), 367; Lawrence B. Schein and G. S. P. Castle, “Triboelectricity,” Wiley Encyclopedia of Electrical and Electronics Engineering (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1999), 574.  Etymology from the entry for “tribo-” in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, 2002.

a Swede named Johan Carl Wilcke. . . the first “triboelectric series: J. L. Heilbron, “Wilcke, Johan Carl,” Dictionary of Scientific Biography (New York: Scribner’s, 1976), 352–353.  Heilbron notes that another of Wilcke’s major scientific contributions was the discovery of latent heat while trying to use hot water to melt  snow from a courtyard (353).

organized with materials that most easily lose electrons placed at the top: For information on the organization of a triboelectric series, see Schein and Castle, “Triboelectricity,” 580, and the entry for “triboelectric series” in McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific and Technical Terms, 2nd ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1978).

a writer’s quill tends to lose electrons to paper: Heilbron, “Wilcke, Johan Carl,” 353.  In the centuries since Wilcke, triboelectrification has only become more central to writing technology; its primary industrial use is currently in laser printer and photocopier technology, wherein charged toner particles are drawn to their proper places by an electrostatic template.  See Schein and Castle, “Triboelectricity,” 575.

this triboelectric series from the Smithsonian Physical Tables: Table 395 from Smithsonian Physical Tables, ed. Frederick E. Fowle, reprint of 7th revised ed. (Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1921), 322.  Accessed electronically 5 January 2010 through Google Books.

Thales of Miletus: Bailey, “Static Electricity,” 367; Peter J. Nolan, Fundamentals of College Physics, 2nd ed. (Dubuque, IA: Brown. 1995), 517.

translates to “the beaming sun”: Robert K. Barnhart, ed., “electric,” Chambers Dictionary of Etymology (New York:  Chambers, 1988).

“We are touching now,” I whisper.  “If we don’t let go, we will be fine”: Okay, actually I didn’t say this.  I think I just laughed and hopped into bed.  But maybe I should have said it.  I mean I kind of wish I had, but perhaps my wife would only have found it strange.


Devin Corbin is in and of northern Wisconsin, where he takes care to ground himself at the gas pumps.


“A Natural History of My Static Electricity” is part of the Natural Histories Project. Click here to learn more >>