In early November, I received an event notification in my email: “Presidential Hair: A Close Shave with History.” Speaker Robert McCracken Peck, Academy Curator of Art and Artifacts and Senior Fellow, was going to provide insight into the hair collection of Peter A. Browne, the subject of his book Specimens of Hair: The Curious Collection of Peter A. Browne. I couldn’t click fast enough to RSVP.A lawyer, Browne became interested in wool and fur, tracking the differences between animals and species across various geographic locales. The next step was human hair. Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, Browne actively collected human hair samples, including 13 of the first US presidents, famous authors like James Fenimore Cooper, and Napoleon Bonaparte. Browne devoted his life to this project. Before DNA, Browne knew hair was a significant indicator of our identity and that through hair, we could know more about ourselves, as individuals, in addition to the human species. His immense collection, however, would have been tossed in the 1970s had it not been for Peck who stumbled upon the scrapbooks in the hallway of the Academy bound for the trash.
Peck’s book, Specimens of Hair, accounts for the collection through Rosamond Purcell’s stunning photographs and Peck’s rich text. Full of history and analysis, the book is more than just a glance into what many might consider a frivolous oddity, something to ogle and judge. Peck makes the irrefutable case of Browne’s collection being emblematic of 19th-century science, curiosity, and the adventurous spirit of scientific exploration. A week after his talk, Peck was gracious enough to host me in his office at the Academy of Natural Sciences where we discussed Browne’s mission, science literacy and advocacy, and the implications of collecting hair samples. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This is the last piece we worked on with D.B. Jones who died on the morning of October 29th. Jones was a great advocate for our publication, was always wonderful to go back and forth with about edits, and he had a wonderful way of simplifying everything to the root. We will miss him greatly.
Sometime in the year 2000, I think, I came across a news story reporting that explorers had found the source of the Amazon, the world’s largest river. The group making the discovery was an international, 22-person expedition sponsored by three of our most potent supporters of scientific research: the Smithsonian Institution, the National Geographic Society, and the Defense Department. With the aid of satellite mapping technology, laptop computers, and the Defense Department’s global-positioning satellite system, the explorers located “the point of flowing water the farthest distance from the mouth” as a tiny stream high on a slope of an 18,363-foot mountain in Peru called Nevado Mismi.
Having grown up with a love of exploring and a fascination with maps, I could relate to this story and imagine what an adventure it must have been. Half a century earlier, when we were 11, my friend Owen and I went on an analogous venture one August day and made a structurally similar discovery: the source of Shrine Park Creek, just outside of Leavenworth, Kansas. The creek arose west of town, winding eastward through Shrine Park before entering the city limits. In town it meandered through an industrial area, then inched past a row of tarpaper shacks and oozed through the city dump before emptying into the Missouri River. More… “The Source”
Sylvia Plath has a way of showing up in everything I do. I find her in the essays I write, the things I say, the movies I watch — even the clothing I choose to wear. She is ever-present, ever-changing, working her way into my writing and conversations. I spoke with Emily Van Duyne, a writer, scholar, and feminist, who has also been heavily influenced and shaped by Plath, an American writer and poet best known for her novel The Bell Jar and poetry collections such as Ariel and The Colossus and Other Poems. Emily Van Duyne is an assistant professor of writing at Stockton University in New Jersey, where she is also affiliated with faculty in Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Harvard Review, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Meridian, and Literary Hub, among others. She has written many essays about Plath and is currently at work on a critical memoir called Loving Sylvia Plath. You can tweet her @emilyvanduyne.
Camille DiBenedetto is a staff writer for The Smart Set and an English major at Drexel University. In her free time, you can find her watching romantic comedies, listening to slam poetry, or rereading The Summer I Turned Pretty for the 27th time.
A rising wall of snow-cloud and Canada geese flee the coming squall. From the sunroom at the back of my house I can track storms rolling in over the harbor. This winter, the impulse to step through that pane of glass hit me hard. There’s a magnetic force to Collingwood’s glinting harbor when it’s under ice. I figured that must be the appeal of ice fishing . . . why anglers are notorious for safeguarding their favorite spots. There was nothing for it but to trudge down to the Spit and enter that secret world.
The last few El Niño-warm Decembers, Nottawasaga Bay remained a stretch of midnight blue open water. This year, there’s a freeze-up. The wind off the bay has ground the pack ice, rounding off its edges to form giant lily-pads. Hank Barris, all-season fisherman from the age of ten, is jabbing at the ice with a four-foot chisel. More… “Field Notes”
Anne McGouran is an emerging writer and member of Collingwood Writers’ Collective. Anne McGouran’s nonfiction appears in Coachella Review, Journal of Wild Culture, GreenPrints and TRANSITION Magazine on mental health. Her short fiction won Special Mention in the 2016 Fabula Press Short Story Competition. Born in Toronto, she resides in Collingwood, Ontario where she has developed a fascination with ice huts and orchard picking ladders.
Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His most recent book is Birdmania: A Particular Passion for Birds. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Paris Review Daily, AEON, TLS, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, and Best American Travel Writing. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.
Insomnia might feel like a punishment from the gods, but it is generally thought to be a mind-body problem. While your body would like to sleep, your mind is much more interested in listing every thing you need to do tomorrow. But there’s a difference between a bad night’s sleep and a night of insomnia.
There is no negotiating with insomnia — you are at the mercy of your brain’s whims, like a pregnant vegetarian who finds herself eating slices of bologna slathered in jam. Thus the thrashing in bed (which makes us so popular with loved ones) begins: “I want to be on my left side. Wait, that is not quite right. Put your right arm up a bit. Now, uh, bend your left knee and put your left hand under your pillow. No, bend your knee… More…