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Photograph of red-sided garter snake by Stephen Petegorsky

Clearstories

Photographs by Stephen Petegorsky + Poems by Naila Moreira

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These cleared and stained specimens allow us to see things about the animals we could not otherwise observe.
 

Artist Statement by Stephen Petegorsky
I’ve been interested in animals—living or otherwise—for as long as I can remember.

Growing up in New York City, my exposure to animals was limited. I saw dogs, squirrels, the occasional horse, and unhappy creatures in their depressing surroundings at the Central Park Zoo. I was fascinated by the dioramas in the American Museum of Natural History. There, the science and art of taxidermy, combined with props and painted backgrounds, allowed me to see animals in a manner that would otherwise have been impossible; it fueled my curiosity to no end.

More than 20 years ago, I visited a friend who was the curator at the Wistariahurst Museum in Holyoke, Massachusetts. He asked if I had ever seen “the animals.” When I told him I hadn’t, he took me to a storage room in which there were hundreds of taxidermied animals, mostly in disrepair, left over from a time when the museum, which dates from the Victorian era, had a natural history component. The pathos was abundant; I was transported back to my childhood memories of being spellbound in front of museum dioramas, and I knew that I wanted to photograph them, and did so for two years.

Since that work, I always kept my eyes open for any other collections of taxidermy. Yet when I tracked down a collection at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, I sensed that I had seen some of them before. As it turned out, when the Wistariahurst Museum finally got rid of the animals in their collection, they donated the ones that were intact to the university. When I explained that I had seen and photographed many of the animals years ago, the curator kindly offered to show me the rest of the collection, part of which included things I had never heard of before: cleared and stained specimens.

Small jars and containers held what looked like reverse x-rays. Fish, birds, small mammals, and reptiles had been placed in an enzyme solution that made the tissue transparent, and stains were then applied to make bones and cartilage darker colors of red and blue. They were beautiful and intriguing, and once again I knew that I wanted to photograph them. Since working through the specimens from the collection at the University of Massachusetts, I have been able to work at Yale’s Peabody Museum, the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute, Biodiversity Institute at Texas A&M University, Smithsonian Institution, Field Museum of Natural History, and Royal Ontario Museum.

In architectural terms, a clerestory is a high section of a wall that contains windows above eye level. The purpose is to let in more light. As with taxidermy, the cleared and stained specimens allow me to see things about the animals that I could not otherwise observe. They are beautiful and haunting; they tantalize with the mysteries of how and why such elegant and complex structures came to exist. It is as though they are trying to tell me a story or to sing a song. These images are the visual impressions of what I hear.

Artist Statement by Naila Moreira
As a poet, I am drawn to the storytelling and socioecological resonances of Stephen Petegorsky’s Clearstories photographs. His images remind me of contemporary projects to photographically catalogue all animal life before it’s lost to extinction, such as National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore’s “Photo Ark” of more than 11,000 animals. By focusing on skeletons instead of living animals, Clearstories provides a grim mirror to these efforts in a provocative reminder of death.

However, environmental threat isn’t the only thing I see in these photos. In the interplay between life and death, animal and human, lie seeds of human mythmaking throughout time. Each animal’s anatomy serves also as a window into its own natural history and ecological niche.

Science art has burgeoned in recent years as a way to bridge the distance between the human psyche and our growing body of scientific knowledge. By pairing poems with photos, I aim to suggest resonances, lengthen engagement, and deepen satisfaction by creating a ping-pong effect of ideas and relationships between image and text. 

By imagining the animals of Clearstories simultaneously as archetypes of our deepest fears and hopes, and as mysteries of existence whose independent lives we can never fully reach or own, I seek to evoke both the wonder and the familiarity of these beings who share our earth.

 

Marsupial Frog
Marsupial Frog

Stain

To mark, to color, to dye.

Sully with infamy; corrupt.

Spot not easily removed.

Taint of guilt.

Here, in red—green—blue—

skull, spine, hyoid

offset from void

by nightclub neon.

A concept through a glass jar.

Fixed blotch of the fleeting.

Reduced to its distillate, this figure

an essence

for recognition,

for keeps,

not for love.

 

 

 

Blacknose Skate
Blacknose Skate

Skate Fishing

Their mouths moved me most,
flesh-lipped, white, gasping,
womanly lips, married to death.

They came up fast, like widgets
or shirts or yoghurt cups
on the conveyor belt of quality,

clubbed on the head, one after next
with the fisherman’s red rubber mallet.
Life, the design flaw of food—

not even a mushroom
nor grain of wheat free of it.
The motor chuckled and hissed

and churned its sea-colored secret
filamentous lattice of green.
Detangled of net,

flung on the deck,
subdued, still alive, they sucked air,
blinking eyes black-hollow as ghosts.

The deck hand stumbled on dozens
of skins slippery under his boots
to saw off their sides for market,

these salt-loving angels of water
who soar the great Atlantic
on wings now unable to lift them

or breaths to inflate them
with the stuff of heaven:
that intangible soul of being

for which we would sell anything.

 

 

 

Mole
Mole

Mole

Shovel claw. Deep digger. Diver of the dark.

Nose-for-eyes, cruising the soil’s truffly fragrance,

a scent like cold ale, trapped between grains.

Walnut and chocolate, biscuit, apples, wheat,

a malt of time, the color of tea.

Little earth chaser, blowing your bubbles

under weeds and gardens and fungus and roots,

my mother hates you, you kill her flowers,

swimming through dirt like an ocean of stars.

You hump up the mulch over tunnels and secrets.

You row your black boat of silken fur.

It’s you who stir at the core of the world,

burrowing your wormholes at the very toes

of the great God-tree.

 

 

 

Rabbit
Rabbit

Rabbit

El-ahrairah would be proud.
Ghost-rabbit, you have conquered
the underworld, linings of your ears
ashine, your eyes sockets,
paws still leaping, sure as a hunting-dog,
each rib straining. You are ready
to draw the chariot of the dead,

meek as the lamb, crafty as the lion,
nibbling the silences between twigs,
stalking the Reaper’s dark forest.
Thief of all that grows
you cheat consequence,
your scat nourishes seedlings,
you steal time, shepherd it under soil.

On All-Hallows the sod
remembers beings like you
who crept to trade their ears, their tail,
into the fearsome den of the god.
Over you death’s jurisdiction falters:
the fear with which you tremble
is a trick, your bound the truth.

When it calls for me I hope it looks
like you, glimmering as the dusk falls.

 

 

 

Red Dory Eyes
Red Dory Eyes

Red Dory Eyes

Cyttopsis rosea
 

The eyes are the window to the soul

but what soul is this,
emotionless, seeing
not us but prehistory’s
depths of sea

gazing across
unreachable past

a message
but veiled in glass

The eye sees a thing more clearly
in dreams than the imagination awake

muppet-bright,
playfully bobbling
on weirdly opposite
sides of flat skull

child’s play
in all its seriousness

My eyes are an ocean in which
my dreams are reflected

in color of coral,
garish,
rare,
scraping the bottom
to make clouds out of sand

The eye is the jewel of the body

a fish is the jewel of the sea
split, cooked, plated
straight from earth’s furnace

The eyes indicate the antiquity of the soul

and what more ancient
than a fish?

castle, sculpture, urn
poured from waves
that scoured time for ideas

cartilaginous lens
begun in the Cambrian
adapted to see
through obscurity

They seemed to be staring at the dark
but their eyes were watching God

a flower, a fruit,
blooming silver, pink, red,
plucked from dark gardens:
creation to consumption

even these waters
a hellfire or heaven
fueled by burning
until time and sight end
 

Italicized text from: anonymous proverb, Leonardo da Vinci, Anna M. Uhlich, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Zora Neale Hurston.

 

 

 

Smooth Puffer
Smooth Puffer

Smooth Puffer

Instead of spines, you have stars.
I cannot stay away
from the cosmos, when I look at you.

Inflated, gravid,
your throat in death
pooches out, as though about to speak

or sing, a diaphragm
filled to tell the world who you are.
Do not eat me, you proclaim,

do not take me; I’ll be your death too.
Poison sparkles silk-smooth skin,
trickster fish, tempting the fisherman.

On Jersey shore
in 2016, you multiplied, blithe
from southern waters.

I threw it back, reported the angler.
Sometimes, rarely,
we learn what not to keep.

 

 

 

Fringe-toed Sand Lizard
Fringe-toed Sand Lizard

Fringe-toed sand lizard

Uma scoparia/notata/inornata
 

Taxonomy of death.

First, genus. Italicized, for emphasis.

Uma.

One, in Portuguese, single.

No, no. Wrong root.

In fact, for Yuma, Native tribe. Like their namesake, belonging to desert—

believing that all beings, lizards, rocks, mountains, sands,

birds, stunted trees, cactus, air, dry winds,

jack rabbits, burrowing owls, brittle bushes, ants, rain,

lifegiving Colorado River,

have souls, spirit, a point of view.

The species: scoparia.

Having twigs.

It runs on fringed back feet, skimming sand

like walking on water.

Or notata.

Marked. As in blotches—

as in fated, threatened, doomed. By off-road vehicles, left a smear on the sands.

Or again, inornata—unmarked—

as compared to marked, lives only in the Coachella Valley,

three quarters of its habitat erased.

Arizona, Nevada, California, the drylands,

Joshua trees, arms upraised to sky, tawny flats

stirred by many small feet.

Uma, the woman. In Sanskrit, tranquillity. SplendourFame.

in Hebrew,

nation.

Uma, dancing the desert, feet emitting fine spray,

Jesus-lizard of the southwest, miracle worker,

soul reflecting ours, arms out,

dying for our sins.

 

 

 

Red-sided Garter Snake
Red-sided Garter Snake

Garter Snake

Glyph, cipher, red-green scrawl.
I caught them as a little girl,
precise calculation, galaxy’s swirl.

Civilization fell to crumble
where the sidewalk ends.
Under an abandoned door

on a junk heap, in a field,
they were secrets to uncurl:
unkinking head, vertebrae, tail,

question mark, hurricane’s whirl,
first fistfuls of reliable order.

 
Italicized text from Shel Silverstein.

 

 

 

Seahorse
Seahorse

Seahorse

He is maternal, the little man,
standing erect among weeds
washed by waves.
In the thick pouch
of his protruding belly
the baby horses wait, each strange
and slow and sweet, like him.

An endless ocean waters
the sea of his hopes, a space
beyond imagining:
a sparkle in the inner distance
under sunlight, then a long shadow.
A world goes on beyond sight,

beyond the thread of reed
where he clings, a root in shifting sands.
Now this one, in an aquarium
harboring his young, where he nods and coils.
His triangular head
looks not into blackness

but human faces staring.
An ancient knowing lives in his eyes,
a sea that got in there somehow,
each joint of his tail a cartilage
of that relentless sequence
of purposeful change,

to clasp in one’s tail, one’s pouch
the whole ocean and its past,
the joints of geology,
of history.
All that creaks as he lets go
and takes hold again, as though it were still there.

 

 

 

Stephen PetegorskyStephen Petegorsky is an artist and freelance photographer based in Florence, Massachusetts. Born in New York City, he graduated from Amherst College and later received his MFA in Photography from Rhode Island School of Design. He has taught at Amherst College, Smith College, Hampshire College, and the University of Connecticut. His work has been exhibited internationally, and is in collections throughout the United States and Europe.

Naila MoreiraNaila Moreira teaches at Smith College and has been writer in residence at the Shoals Marine Laboratory and Forbes Library. Her second chapbook, Water Street, won the New England Poetry Club Jean Pedrick Prize, and her middle grade novel The Monarchs of Winghaven will debut from Walker Books US in 2022. She’s also worked as a journalist, environmental consultant, and Seattle Aquarium docent.
 
Read “The Reaper of the Sea” by Naila Moreira also appearing in Terrain.org.

All photographs by Stephen Petegorsky. Photo of Naila Moreira by Jermane Stephinger.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.