Wednesday, August 05, 2009


I peered into the damp crate. Is it... alive? With gloved hands I reached into the dark and pulled out a round, blue, squishy lump covered in pockets of hair and discoloration. I groaned. It moved.

I've never seen so much mold in my life.

I once did a school project on mold--I intentionally grew it on oranges, bread, and leather, to see what kinds grew on what, differences in color, form and function, and how long it took. I looked at it under the microscope. I kept each specimen in a closed container, away from my nose and mouth. Yes, I intentionally grew mold, watched it, encouraged it to grow bigger. And yet I had never seen as much mold as I did today when cleaning out the back cooler at work.

Drip, drip, drip. The vent leaks in one corner. Lilies, probably from March, quietly rot next to oranges that had cemented themselves to the back of the shelf. I smell pickles, but I'm not sure where they are. Perhaps there are some cucumbers hiding somewhere in the dark.

I start with the trays of pots on the ground. Their contents have been shriveled up for far longer than I've been employed here. The soil on the top is bone dry, yet when I take the foil off the pots I find wet mush in between the pot and foil. Forgetting that I recycle everything, the entire tray, pots included, are placed carefully, slowly, into a garbage bag, so as not to splash mush on my face. Trays and trays of plant slime mingle with opened, half-chewed brownies from June, muffin wrappers, and expired bags of opened chips. I toss it all out. Garbage bag one, bag two, bag three.... Water bottles are scattered across the floor, strewn about the moldy pots, and some have rolled to the backs of the shelves. I hold my breath and dive in after them.

I sort the remaining empty pots, trays, and baskets that I was able to salvage. I sweep the ground and discover a cement floor under a thick layer of dirt, dried petals, and wrappers. The garbage bags go out to the dumpster, and I look at an empty and (mostly) mold-free room.

I run to the front of the store, breathe, and tell everyone I can that I'm done I'm done I'm done. I take someone back to validate my work, walking proudly to the back. I open the cooler door, smell the putrid air, and stop. I never did find those cucumbers.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Body Worlds

"Anatomical dissection gives the human mind an opportunity to compare the dead with the living, things severed with things intact, things destroyed with things evolving, and opens up the profoundness of nature to us more than any other endeavor or consideration."
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

This past Tuesday I saw Body Worlds & the Story of the Heart at the Buffalo Museum of Science. Body Worlds showcases Gunther von Hagen's technique of plastination, or preserving living tissue with plastic. In the exhibit, entire circulatory systems are in tact, intricate blood vessels, and minute capillaries that look like thin hairs covered in red acrylic paint. Individual tendons, white and thick, stretch from muscle to ridged muscle, all knit onto a bone frame. From one body, just the nerves are displayed--parts we seldom think of. In the center of the rooms individual organs lie in glass cases. Healthy, functional lungs are placed next to blackened and tumorous lungs, diseased hearts sit next to healthy hearts and enlarged hearts of athletes. The physical effects of smoking and obesity are emphasized.

Despite the excellent preservation, the bodies do not seem as real or disturbing as I anticipated them to be. Each full body is in a different creative pose, cut and separated to show some aspect of our internal organs. One body, the Cyclist, is cut in three vertical pieces. Her ovaries and uterus protrude from one of the slices and leave a negative space on the other side, showing the organ itself, how snugly organs fit together, and the complexity of each intertwined system. As well as the Cyclist, the Javelin-Thrower was presented, the Kneeling Lady, and the Praying Man. In the hands of the Praying Man rests a plasticized heart. It is as if he is holding it sacred, holding the heart to a higher level of understanding, power, and wonder.

Along with the bodies hang photographs of living people with quotations about the heart by various artists and poets. The line between our physical and emotional selves seems very distinct. Then we turned the corner and saw the Juxtaposed Couple.

Their shoulders are turned in, they lean towards each other, their arms are gently placed on the other, and the woman's head rests against her partner's. This piece gives us a clear shot of the brain, spinal cord, and lungs, yet is so tender. The physical and emotional fuse, as the piece conveys something more than muscles and bones.

The idea that these bodies used to be living and breathing freaks a lot of people out. The show brings up the question: what makes us who we are? All that constitutes our personality is not the difference in the thickness of our blood vessels or the shape of our gall bladders. Our bodies are incredible machines. But without consciousness, without perception, without memory and the ability to sense and make sense of the world around us, our bodies are just vehicles.

Anatomia del corpo humano, drawn by Juan Valverde de Amusco in 1559, shows a man holding his skin. According to Wikipedia, "The skin's distorted face has the appearance of a ghost or a cloud, suggesting that [his] spirit has been separated from, or peeled off of, the fleshy inner man." Gunther von Hagen recreated this anatomical sketch in an attempt to show that the skin is the largest organ in our body.

I enjoy controversy. I welcome anything that makes me think. Of course, this exhibit has received negative attention because of the "grotesque" manner in which our innards are displayed, the way some of the bodies were acquired (supposedly all the bodies were from consenting donors, although the copy-cat shows have been accused of using Chinese bodies without permission of the person and their family), and in many religious contexts the body is considered sacred and must be buried after death. Antigone, anyone? People were also upset when two bodies were positioned as if they were having sex, and museum visitors were uncomfortable with a pregnant woman on view, as well as a few fetuses in different stages of development. The pregnant woman would have been fascinating to see, but she was not at the exhibit that I went to. A few of my friends that went to Body Worlds said that she was the only body that made them queasy.

This show was one of the best things I've done this summer. I am finally able to piece together what I've learned from drawings and lecture and I can visualize all of the gushy crap inside of us. The educational value of the show was reason enough to buy a ticket, but the artful presentation made each piece even more beautiful.

"The older I get, the more I realize that death is normal and that it is life that is exceptional," said Dr. von Hagens. "I hope this exhibition will encourage people to strive to live with inspiration every day throughout their lives."

Monday, July 06, 2009


A few more photos of the wonderful, underrated plants in my own back yard.

Orange Hawkweed


Oxeye Daisy

Foxglove (pictured: the anther)

Sweet Cicely

Hop Sedge

Dame's Rocket


Monday, June 29, 2009

WNY flora

For the past month I have been collecting, preserving, identifying, and photographing various flowers from the Western New York region. I'm taking an in-the-field plant identification class as an independent study through my local community college, and as of this Wednesday the project comes to a close.

I've been to a few wild areas in the state to do this, but the most rewarding was visiting an acid bog. Because of the closed off, unique environment, I saw plants I had never seen before and a few that I had desperately wanted to find from the moment I saw them in a field guide.

My favorite find so far is the pitcher plant. Pictured above, the pitcher plant grows in only in sphagnum moss bogs, and the leaves look like small, green and red-veined pitchers with a gaping fish-mouth on the top and side. The plant sends up a long, thick, burgandy stem and produces one flower. The flowers are unique as they not only have a stem, sepals, petals, stamen and an ovary, but the stigma is flattened, like an umbrella, and covers the internal parts of the flower. The stigma is a part of the pistol, the female part of the plant, and in other plants it tends to be oblong and small.

At first, the parts of this flower seemed like one dried-up blob. The colors were muted. I thought it was dead. But up close, the petals have a deep-red sheen. The spherical ovary, fat and smooth like a fruit, has a slight blush as if it is embarrassed by my camera. The soft yellow stamens hover around the edge of the ovary, and to hold everything in, the thin, flat stigma branches out below, protecting the working parts of the flower as seeds develop.

Another unique bog plant is the sundew. This plant is a brilliant red and is sticky to the touch because it traps and digests insects. I tried to capture the goo a few pictures down.

Of course there were also plants that appear in other places as well as the bog. This includes the last two photographs that I'll post here--spreading dogbane and a water lily. I shot the dogbane with a Nikon microscope camera (which I've fallen completely in love with) and the lily with a handheld camera.

Overall, this course has been very satisfying. Going to different wildlife areas in Western New York has given me an appreciation for home just as I was getting frustrated with chain stores, cement, and summer boredom. I did not realize we had so many different wild areas outside the well-known destinations such as Zoar Valley, and I finally see that home is just as beautiful as the familiar Blue Ridge Mountains that I've been pining for. I've learned how to correctly identify a plant, preserve it, and show its best angle. Best of all, I've found that the smallest and most boring-looking "weeds" are complex, colorful, and brilliantly intricate organisms. They command attention when placed under a microscope, and now they hold my attention and respect even when they aren't.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Hermann Hesse

I now viewed the bright days,
The sunshine and the woods,
The brown rocks and the distant snow-covered mountains
With heightened feelings of happiness and joy,
And with a new conception.

During the dark hours I felt my sick heart expand and beat more furiously,
And I no longer made any distinction between pleasure and pain,
But one was similar to another;
Both hurt and both were precious.
Whether I felt pain or joy,
My discovered strength stood peacefully outside looking on
And knew that light and dark were closely related
And that sorrow and peace were rhythm,
Part and spirit of the same great music.

-Hermann Hesse

Monday, March 23, 2009


My parents came down to visit and on Sunday we went to Brevard to see the parkway and various waterfalls along the way. As we walked along trails and streams Dad recited this poem, which fit my mood perfectly.

O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!
Thy winds, thy wide grey skies!
Thy mists that roll and rise!
Thy woods this autumn day, that ache and sag
And all but cry with colour! That gaunt crag
To crush! To lift the lean of that black bluff!
World, World, I cannot get thee close enough!

Long have I known a glory in it all,
But never knew I this;
Here such a passion is
As stretcheth me apart, -- Lord, I do fear
Thou'st made the world too beautiful this year;
My soul is all but out of me, -- let fall
No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Though I believe in limiting exclamation points, she hit the feeling.
When you're so surrounded by beauty that any change, anything more beautiful will be too overwhelming. When you're so blissful that you feel as if your chest will bust open if it swells any more. Hiking along those trails made me so happy it was almost painful.

North Carolina, I cannot get thee close enough.

Friday, January 09, 2009

The Darkling Thrush

The Darkling Thrush
by: Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.

The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land's sharp features seem'd to be
The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seem'd fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carollings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some bless├Ęd Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.

Poems of the Past and Present. Thomas Hardy. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1902.


I love his pessimism, cynicism, and imagery.

My favorite, "The tangled bine-stems scored the sky/Like strings of broken lyres," immediately gives me a mental picture of sharp, harsh, and deadly shapes cutting across the landscape.

I also like the rhythm and sound of these powerful lines: "The ancient pulse of germ and birth/Was shrunken hard and dry."

Finally, the poem ends well, with the bird. Though small and gaunt, he flings his soul upon the growing gloom. Hardy sees no hope or reason for which the bird would sing, yet the bird had chosen to "fling his soul" in the face of his cruel surroundings.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Painting as promised

Last night I had inspiration to paint. It was late and I needed to sleep, but my fingers were itching to slather color into shapes--Ebola shapes. My first few tries were disappointing, as I mixed too many colors on my canvas and made it muddy, but the third time I got it right. I focused on the contrast between the yellow and blue-green-brown, and blotted the background to allude to bruising, broken blood vessels, and blotchy skin. The photograph below doesn't show as much texture as the original, but you get the idea.

Sunday, January 04, 2009


For my first post, I'm sharing some news about my favorite microbe: the Ebola virus.

Today I came across a statement that there is a current outbreak in the Congo. Read more on the World Health Organization's website:

Closely related to Marburg, Ebola has 4 subtypes: Ebola Sudan, Ebola Zaire, Ebola Reston. Also, a quick google search comes up with Ebola Ivory Coast as well, though I haven't heard about this before and will need to do some research on it. These are types of filoviruses that are level 4 pathogens and if infected, the death rate among victims is 50 to 90 percent. Yikes! According to Hot Zone by Richard Preston, Malaria is considered highly lethal, as it kills 1 in 20 people. Ebola kills 9 in 10.

When Ebola enters the body, it immediately replicates, destroys the body's cells and liquifies internal organs. Connective tissue dissolves, and pretty soon you've got a violent, awful mess. Maybe that's where inspiration for some horror movies came from.

While terrible, the virus, like all organisms, has some ecological purpose. Preston states that outbreaks come as a consequence of the ruin of the tropical biosphere.

He states, "The emerging viruses are surfacing from ecologically damaged parts of the earth. Many of them come from the tattered edges of tropical rain forests, or they come from tropical savanna that is being settled rapidly by people. The tropical rain forests are the deep reservoirs of life on the planet, containing most of the world's plant and animal species. The rain forests are also its largest reservoirs of viruses, since all living things carry viruses. When viruses come out of an ecosystem, they tend to spread in waves through the human population, like echoes from a dying biosphere."

Preston goes on to say, "In a sense, the earth is mounting an immune response against the human species. It is beginning to react to the human parasite, the flooding infection of people, the dead spots of concrete all over the planet, the cancerous rot-outs in Europe, Japan, and the United States, thick with replicating primates, the colonies enlarging and spreading and threatening to shock the biosphere with mass extinctions. Perhaps the biosphere does not "like" the idea of five billion humans. Or it could also be said that the extreme amplification of the human race, which has occurred only in the past hundred years or so, has suddenly produced a very large quantity of meat, which is sitting everywhere in the biosphere and may not be able to defend itself against a life form that might want to consume it. Nature has interesting ways of balancing itself. The rain forest has its own defenses. The earth's immune system, so to speak, has recognized the presence of the human species and is starting to kick in. The earth is attempting to rid itself of an infection by the human parasite."

Sigh. That's intense.

Ebola. Horrifying, beautiful, violent, amazing, shocking, powerful, bloody brilliant. Below is a great photograph of Ebola Zaire, taken by Dr. F.A. Murphy in 1976. This is supposedly the first photo taken of the Ebola virus, and it is an electron micrograph at 160,000 x magnification. I'd like to do some acrylic paintings of this. The curves, or "shepherd's crook" gracefully loop and are balanced by the long strand. This photo also shows wonderful contrast between dark and light. I love when science and art come together.

If all the blood and gore and talk of humans being parasites hasn't warmed you up to this little guy, maybe this will:

Giant microbes is a company that makes viruses, bacteria, and other small organisms in plush form. That's right! You can have your own cuddly Ebola. So far I own flesh eating (with a fork and knife embroidered right on it, so you know it means business), rhinovirus (the common cold), and fat cell (I use that one as inspiration when I work out, and I make sure to keep it separated from flesh eating). I'm waiting until my birthday in February, and then if no one has bought the furry thing for me I'm getting it myself. YAY! Soon I'll have a friend sleeping next to my face at night.

Let's hope it doesn't begin to replicate....