1: An Invisible World - Biology

1: An Invisible World - Biology

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Microorganisms (or microbes, as they are also called) are small organisms. Most microorganisms are harmless to humans and, in fact, many are helpful. They play fundamental roles in ecosystems everywhere on earth, forming the backbone of many food webs. People use them to make biofuels, medicines, and even foods. Without microbes, there would be no bread, cheese, or beer. Our bodies are filled with microbes, and our skin alone is home to trillions of them. Some of them we can’t live without; others cause diseases that can make us sick or even kill us. Although much more is known today about microbial life than ever before, the vast majority of this invisible world remains unexplored. Microbiologists continue to identify new ways that microbes benefit and threaten humans.

  • 1.1: What Our Ancestors Knew
    Microorganisms (or microbes) are living organisms that are generally too small to be seen without a microscope. Throughout history, humans have used microbes to make fermented foods such as beer, bread, cheese, and wine. Long before the invention of the microscope, some people theorized that infection and disease were spread by living things that were too small to be seen. They also correctly intuited certain principles regarding the spread of disease and immunity.
  • 1.2: A Systematic Approach
    Carolus Linnaeus developed a taxonomic system for categorizing organisms into related groups. Binomial nomenclature assigns organisms Latinized scientific names with a genus and species designation. A phylogenetic tree is a way of showing how different organisms are thought to be related to one another from an evolutionary standpoint. The first phylogenetic tree contained kingdoms for plants and animals; Ernst Haeckel proposed adding kingdom for protists.
  • 1.3: Types of Microorganisms
    Microorganisms are very diverse and are found in all three domains of life: Archaea, Bacteria, and Eukarya. Archaea and bacteria are classified as prokaryotes because they lack a cellular nucleus. Archaea differ from bacteria in evolutionary history, genetics, metabolic pathways, and cell wall and membrane composition. Archaea inhabit nearly every environment on earth, but no archaea have been identified as human pathogens.
  • 1.E: An Invisible World (Exercises)

Thumbnail: A cluster of Escherichia coli bacteria magnified 10,000 times. (Public Domain; Eric Erbe, digital colorization by Christopher Pooley, both of USDA, ARS, EMU).

Echoes of an Invisible World

Preliminary Material
1 Introduction
2 The Universe as a Musical Creation
3 Man as a Co-Creator of His Harmonic Nature
4 From the Music of the Spheres to the Mathematization of Space
5 Man’s Nostalgia for a Lost Musical Paradise
6 Conclusion
Select Bibliography
Biographical Note
Review Quotes
Table of contents

List of figures, music examples, and tables

Chapter 1. Introduction
1. Nature and scope of the book
2. The tradition of the harmony of the spheres
3. Status quaestionis
4. Methodology
5. Structure of the book


Chapter 2. The universe as a musical creation
1. Introduction
2. The Timaeus as a source of perennial harmonic wisdom
2.1. Prisca theologia
2.2. A hymn to the Creator of the cosmos
3. A divine geometrical method for a philosophy of nature
3.1. The divine Composer-Architect as First Cause of the universe
3.2. Seven cosmic principles
3.3. Number over matter
4. Cosmic harmony in terms of the four mathematical disciplines
4.1. Arithmetic: Numbers bridging the conceptual and the physical world
4.2. Music: Harmonies as intermediaries between the intelligible and the sensible realm
4.3. Geometry: Cosmic harmony expressed in terms of continuous quantity
4.4. Astronomy: The planetary spheres as harmonic forms in motion
5. A fifteenth-century dynamic interpretation of the music of the spheres
5.1. The harmonic structure of the World-Soul
5.2. Four cosmic harmonizing powers
5.3. A magical-astrological interpretation of the music of the spheres
6. Conclusion

Chapter 3. Man as a co-creator of his harmonic nature
1. Introduction
2. Man as a harmonic microcosm
2.1. Man made in the image and likeness of God
2.2. Musical creativity
3. Contemplative ascents
3.1. The transmigration of the human soul: a true and likely story
3.2. The soul’s journey through the heavenly spheres
4. A fifteenth-century dynamic interpretation of musica humana
4.1. The harmonic structure of the human body and soul
4.2. A scientific model of the sense of hearing
5. Music’s power to shape and condition the human body and soul
5.1. Music as medicine
5.2. Therapeutic planetary music
6. Conclusion


Chapter 4. From the music of the spheres to the mathematization of space
1. Introduction
2. The reception of Ficino’s interpretation of the notion of Pythagorean world harmony
2.1. An elaboration of the myth of the prisca theologia
2.2. Critique of Ficino’s interpretation of the harmony of the spheres
3. A revision of the traditional theory of the four mathematical disciplines
3.1. Questioning the primacy of number
3.2. The universe is not ordered by numerical ratios that produce musical consonances
3.3. A new geometry
3.4. The harmony of the spheres as remedy for astronomical chaos
4. A sixteenth-century interpretation of the harmony of the spheres
4.1. The harmonic structure of the World-Soul
4.2. Harmonizing powers explaining cosmic motion and dynamic interplay
4.3. A debate with a member of the Index of Forbidden Books on the harmonic design of God’s creation
5. Conclusion

Chapter 5. Man’s nostalgia for a lost musical paradise
1. Introduction
2. Questioning the belief in a harmonic design of the human soul
2.1. Critique of Ficino’s Eros doctrine
2.2. Man: just a special kind of animal or made in the image and likeness of God?
2.3. Changes in the relationship between the intellect and the sense of hearing
3. A transformation of music from mathematical science into rhetorical art
3.1. The musical foundations of human and animal speech
3.2. Towards a new musical semantics modelled after ancient Greek music
4. A musical expression of the ineffable
4.1. Critique of Aristotle’s theory of imitation
4.2. The marvellous as the basis for a new theory of musical magic
4.3. The harmony of the spheres as experience of the musical sublime
5. Conclusion

Chapter 6. Conclusion
6.1. The rediscovery of ‘new’ ancient sources belonging to the tradition of the harmony of the spheres
6.2. The development of new methodologies
6.3. Intellectual history from an interdisciplinary perspective

Invisible Beasts Explores the Evolutionary Biology of Imaginary Animals

For Sharona Muir, the bestiary is a literary genre of its own. Her novel Invisible Beasts is part anthology and part field-guide, but mostly it's the story of a young woman who sees animals nobody else can. Her experiences unfold in the form of a scientific catalog of animals.

These descriptions are sensitive and elegant. However, this book maintains a sense of polemical urgency, to which the very invisibility of the beasts it describes is a testament.

Invisible Beasts explores the development of Sophie's skills, and of her discovery of the next in her family to share this ability:

I come from a long line of naturalists and scientists going back many generations, and in each generation we have had the gift of discovering hard-to-see phenomena, from a shelled amoeba lurking between two sand grains, to the misfolded limb of a protein pointing to a genetic flaw. This book also follows a venerable family tradition, but one never exposed to public view. Perhaps "trait" would be a better word than "tradition." Every so often, that is, every second or third generation, someone is born in our family who sees invisible animals.

As is evident from the meticulous distinction Sophie makes between tradition and trait, this book hews to evolutionary rules. These fantastical creatures follow the laws of natural selection, even in their invisibility.

The entry for "Feral Parfumier Bees" describes a bee colony, isolated in the Pleistocene:

Invisible, or Parfumier, Bees are natives of Asia, where they likely spring from the oldest lineage of honeybees, the red-bellied dwarf honeybee, Micrapis Florea. Though noble in their antiquity, Micrapis have never been the brightest bees on the planet—they never learned to waggle-dance, for example.

Sophie's biologist sister, Evie, offers, throughout the text, scientific explanations, and sisterly wit, even though she lacks the sight that her sister possesses: "What that means," Evie says, explaining the term escalator to extinction, "is, like, birds follow the plants and animals they eat into cooler climates…for which they haven't evolved."

As with the bees, the evolution of invisibility sometimes appears as itself an adaptation, for animals that struggle in their environment, whether that's the Asian bees that evolve into parfumiers rather than honey-makers because of their subsistence on unfamiliar resins, or the Pluricorn, a "wretched" animal barely clinging to the survival of its species:

Craning into the leafage, he sported a barbed brow horn, a fringe of curly tusks, a horn projecting from his chest, and big spurs, like ivory artichokes, on his rather knock-need legs. Over his head, a massive rack cast a grotesque, thorny shadow. Poor beast, he kept bashing himself on the hawthorn trunk, or tipping too far to one side and pawing rapidly to adjust.

Most of his equipment looks like antler tissue gone berserk, but his leg spurs look like naked bone protruding from under his skin. That has to hurt.

Invisible Beasts' publisher, Bellevue Literary Press, dedicates itself to books at the intersection of art and science, and it's in the descriptions of the invisible beasts, like the Parfumier Bees and the Pluricorn, that the affinity between the two seemingly disparate fields is revealed most clearly. Storytelling remains the only access to those real, visible species, now extinct, like the dire-wolves and the ground sloths that shared the Parfumier Bees' cave, or to the many living species most humans will never directly encounter, whether Rotifers or Chinese water deer, whose tusks the Pluricorn shares.

And it's through this affinity between storytelling and evolutionary biology that the book's urgency comes through. While the interlinked entries are packed with fanciful, beautiful, often humorous descriptions of invisible animals, the book's implicit argument is that all animals are invisible until humans recognize them, and so recognize their own dependence on a diversity of species, even those that seem invisible to most of us.

The stories Sophie tells imagine the animals' evolutionary path. The Fine Print Rotifer, included, punnily, under a section headed Invisible Beasts in Print, not because, like the other animals included in this section, this rotifer exists only in written records, but because it literally lives in, and on, print:

We are talking optimal foraging theory, which applies to all animal foraging, including your own shopping route. … And where do FPRs find their tasty ink molecules? In letters and words. So they develop foraging routes in the shapes of letters and words.

Fine Print Rotifers, in Muir's account, are responsible for the impenetrability of fine print because they subsist on the fine print of contracts, insurance policies, and mortgages.

Despite the passion Muir has for her subjects and the stories of their evolution—"Who could not love a process that refined raw accidents into rare advantages?" Sophie asks—this book is neither didactic nor preachy, and Muir never lets the catalog structure make the narrative repetitive or plodding. Her storytelling is both funny and tender. In the section in which Sophie discovers a previously-unknown invisible species, the Hypnogator, Muir combines includes both danger and romance.

On trip to a Georgia sea island, Sophie discovers an invisible species she has never encountered. But its invisibility does not make the Hypnogator any more friendly than its visible counterparts:

the cold, ugly, glowing stones appeared. They blinked, left, left, right. I couldn't stop my mind from following their code, the code to confusion. I remembered that Iɽ locked onto Leif's kicking body, but a mental mist—like the one when you're about to black out—had kept me from knowing, except in glimpses, if I was still holding on.

The Hypnogator, like its visible brethren, is terrifying, and dangerous. There is, here, no excessive sentimentality about animals—whether visible or not. Rather, the attention to detail that our naturalist/narrator brings to her observations of beasts only she can see, also serves the narrative, developing characters and relationships that are flawed, poignant, beguiling.

This inventory of fantastical beasts allows Muir to tell a story at the level of the human, but also all of humanity. We don't, Invisible Beasts argues, have to be able to see animals to value them. Beasts exert profound influences on the way humans live, both in individual relationships and in our relationship to the world. And beasts, a category used here in all its expansiveness, includes everything from the human to the microbe. This book is a wondrous testament to those relationships, interdependencies, and affinities. Invisible Beasts makes the bestiary a document of profoundly human dimensions, and offers to all readers, whether devotees of science or of fantasy, very real pleasures.

Kangaroo Species

There are four species of great kangaroos, which are the largest marsupials in the kangaroo family. This family is called “Macropodidae,” which means “large foot.” There is the red kangaroo, the grey kangaroo, the western grey kangaroo, and the antilopine kangaroo. Over 50 species of other marsupials are in the kangaroo family, but are smaller and have other names, like wallabies or tree kangaroos.

Kangaroos only live in Australia and New Guinea, a large island just north of Australia. While many kangaroos live in the “outback,” or wild areas, many live near or in towns as well. People must be careful when driving around so they don’t crash into kangaroos on the road.

Creative destruction plays a key role in entrepreneurship and economic development.

Coined by economist Joseph Schumpeter in 1942, the theory of “creative destruction” suggests that business cycles operate under long waves of innovation. Specifically, as markets are disrupted, key clusters of industries have outsized effects on the economy.

Take the railway industry, for example. At the turn of the 19th century, railways completely reshaped urban demographics and trade. Similarly, the internet disrupted entire industries—from media to retail.

The above infographic shows how innovation cycles have impacted economies since 1785, and what’s next for the future.

How to Read a Scientific Paper

Below, we've mapped out the "gross anatomy" of an article — basically an overview of what goes where in a paper. After you know the basics of what you can expect to find in a scientific article, take a shot at reading one on our Article Dissection page. Together these sections provide tips you can use when reading a scientific paper.

Just like you have a name, so does every research paper that is published. Usually the title offers a general idea of the subject of the paper. Sometimes it will also include information on what the scientists found. Show me an example | 1 |

Give credit where credit is due. People that made a large contribution to the project usually end up as an author. If there is more than one author, they are called co-authors. Sometimes, when a lot of people are involved, this makes for a very long list of authors. Show me an example | 1 |

Author affiliations

It may seem odd, but scientists aren't the only ones involved in the completion of a study. Often times the university or institution where the study was completed also had an important role, in providing funds for the work, for example. The universities or institutions that sponsored the work are usually listed under the authors' names. To see which author came from what institution, you can usually match the numbers or symbols listed next to the author and institution names.

The abstract is a one paragraph summary of the most important parts of the article. Reading the abstract is a good way to figure out if you are interested in reading the rest of the paper. Abstracts can also have a ton of information though, so they can sometimes be difficult to read.
Show me an example | 1 |

Author Summary

Certain journals like to have the authors of the article write a simplified version of the abstract. This is often written for non-scientists or scientists from other fields. If an article has an author summary, it might be good to read it before you read the abstract. Show me an example | 1 |


Background is very important. If you're trying to learn about a specific lizard, for example, it would be useful to know where the lizard species lives, what it eats, and what kind of behaviors it might show. The introduction of a paper is where the scientists give you all of the relevant background information so you can better understand the study. Show me an example| 1 |

Materials and Methods

It would be great if scientific information would magically appear. But it doesn't. Instead, it takes days, months, or years to carry out experiments for a study. In the materials and methods section, the scientists explain exactly how they did their study. It is kind of a "how to" or "DIY" for other scientists. Because of the complicated nature of some studies, the materials and methods section can sometimes be the toughest part of the paper to read.

But this section can also give you the best idea of how research is done. Show me an example | 1 |

Results (with figures and tables)

Do you ever listen to an overly long story and wish that the storyteller would just get to the point? If you do, the results section will probably be your favorite. This is the heart of the paper, where the scientists tell you exactly what they found. This is usually where you will also find the figures and tables, though some papers put all the figures at the very end. A lot of results are pretty raw data (meaning the data hasn't been interpreted). Interpretation is saved for the next section. Show me an example | 1 |

If you read the results section, you probably take in a lot of numbers, some useful graphs, and you have a good idea of what was found overall. But what does any of it mean? Are the findings important? These questions are answered in the discussion section. Here, scientists present what they learned from the study and what effect the new information will have on science. They also discuss any problems with the experiment in this section. There is one thing to be wary of when reading the discussion. sometimes data can be interpreted in different ways. The interpretation presented in a discussion is not always the only interpretation possible. This is why the discussion section is kept separate from the results section.
Show me an example | 1 |

Some journal articles have a conclusion section, which is basically a summary of the study that is really heavy on findings and what those findings mean. If you want the quick version of what impact the study will have on science, look for a conclusions section.
Show me an example | 1 |


Some studies involve many, many people that contribute, sometimes in relatively small ways. If someone helps out but didn't do enough to be an author on a paper, they still get credit for their work by being listed in the acknowledgments section. Show me an example | 1 |

Author Contributions

While an author list tells us which people were most important to completing a study, it doesn't tell us what each author contributed to the process. Some journals don't include an author contributions section, but when they do, they list which author did what during the study.
Show me an example | 1 |

You may have heard the phrase that things "do not exist in vacuums." The reference section is proof of that idea. Throughout the entire paper, scientists used other published information to help give you background on their work, to explain why they used certain methods, or to compare their findings to others. The references section is where all those other published studies are listed. As you read through an article, you will often see either tiny numbers in superscript or last names in parentheses at the end of some sentences. These are cues that link you to specific published articles that are all listed in the reference section. This section is especially helpful if you want to get more information related to the article you are reading. Show me an example | 1 |

Supplementary Materials

Some studies produce a lot of important information that the scientists want to share with the world. Yet, if you want someone to read a journal article, it can only be so long. Sometimes, if there is too much information for too little of an article, information that can be considered "extra" is listed in a different section of supplementary materials.

About the Author

I first saw the book as a young child, and, although it was already many years old, it was in almost-new condition. Being too young to read, my grandfather, Frank J. Reiser (1892 – 1960), read it to me. The book was a gift from his father, Frank W. Reiser (1865 – 1928), to his son and my father, Walter A. Reiser (1916 – 1963), for Christmas when seven years old. My grandfather and I spent many enjoyable evenings skipping about the book’s pages while he wove tails and embellished descriptions about the animal pictures we found. Gramps was a very patient man. Not only did he endure frequent interruptions by my fanciful and occasionally animated wildlife fantasies, but he often added a few twists of his own, enhancing my childish dreams. With some families, there is a bible that passes down through generations. With ours, it is the classic tome about animal ecology, Hornaday’s American Natural History. The book is now trustingly held by my son Noah A. Reiser (1997 – ).

Dedication written on the flyleaf of The American Natural History

A Related Anecdote
One childhood reading of Hornaday’s natural history book did not come to a good ending. It’s one of my earliest memories, so I cannot recall the species of beast my imagination conjured me into becoming. My mother was sitting at the kitchen table in conversation with my grandmother. With determined stealth, I crawled beneath the table and bit her ankle. What burned the incident as a memory into my developing mind was her response. She reached down and grabbed my shirt, dragged from beneath the table to the center of the kitchen floor, and began slapping the living daylights out of me. (This occurred during the mid-1940s, an era when corporal parenting was more en vogue. ) Grandpa ran to the rescue. Protectively, he scooped me up — my mother claimed I continued snapping and snarling as he did — and explained to her I was deeply involved in imaginative play, and the nip was neither aggressive nor hostile. Now in hindsight, I consider the incident to be my debut as a player of ecological roles.

The following list of citations, most with links, refer to the author’s work related to the science-related bucket-category Natural History. Email me if any links are not working or if you are interested in delving deeper into one of the topics.



Bleyer, Bill. In The Wake of Their Concerns, (boat wake erosion). Newsday, NY Oct. 9, 1992

Sovierno, Brienne. In Search of Wildthings, Massapequa Observer, NY. 04/02/1999

Antonison, Chris. Losing Ground – Shoreline Erosion at State Park, Masapequa Observer, NY 04/10/1998

Antonison, Chris. Ghost Nets on Jones Beach, Massapequa Observer, NY 02/27/09

Fagan, Dan. The Trees are Dying (Front Page), Newsday, 01/17/1995


I was a regular guest on the program On Long Island, Telecare, TV25, for five years and made appearances on various news broadcast on WNBC, News 12, News 55, and Fox 9.

Book Analysis: Wonders of the Invisible World

In Wonders of the Invisible World, Cotton Mather gives a view on the witchcraft and some of events that surround Salem in the year 1692. Mather’s literary work becomes relevant even in this 21st century as much as it was solely meant to discern the filth in the Salem society early in 1960s. Mather gives an implausible explanation to the causes of bewitchment that happens in Salem. The author posits that the witchcraft which is seen in Salem in the year 1962 was just a consequence of miasma of events that were falling in place unintentionally furthermore Mather says that certain actions were just done consciously and deliberately. The author among other scholars posits the bewitchment in Salem was as a result of devil action on people as he tries to draw their closer to hell. Cotton Mather though that the cause of witchcraft was as a result of descending of the God’s kingdom on earth to destroy the evil ones. Mather took a great interest of what was going on in Salem so that he could record an illustrious providence of what was happening. He would later use these documentations to point out to the people the righteous step that they should take so as the devil spell could get out of them. Cotton Mather’s book found its ground when the judges and magistrates of the court started to question whether the proceeding that they were conducting had wisdom in them. At this point he was called to go and testify what he was thinking of the undertakings of the court.

Nobody doubted the innocence of the wife to Mr. Hale, minister of Beverly as she was accused of witchcraft. Some people argued that the devil can also assume the face an innocent person so as to bring destruction to the people and being the fact that Mrs. Hale hailed from an upper class did not exempt her from being possess with the devil spirit. Mr. Hale was more than convinced that his wife was innocent and being the fact that she had been called witchcraft, they started to question whether there were justice practices in the government and the judiciary. For this matter, therefore, they had to act in quick response of the same so as to rescue the fate of the man who would be and the already victim of the circumstance. There was conflict between these two personalities when at fist Hale could not fathom what underlies witchcraft and he took an active role in convicting and arresting those were victims of evil spell. This happened until that time when his wife was also said to be witchcraft is when he knew that they was no seriousness in the issue. This was a lesson well learnt. Hale was one of those people who were talking ill about the religion which was being presented by Mather. He said that those who were found in possession of this evil spell were to be killed, convicted and arrested. The event followed publication of the book that furthered the case of consciousness related to the witchcraft and the evil spirits personating the human generation. This brought an overhaul in the thinking of the right- minded man in the society as to whether those who had been convicted and jailed were under the spell of devil or some of them were just causing destruction to the people intentionally and consciously.

The difference in the personality between Mather and Hale is that Hale had to get the first hand experience through his wife so as to doubt the existence of witchcraft. In this case, Hale has a feeling for the humanity following what he has experienced while Mather thinks that whatever happens is a sign of the descending of the heaven’ kingdom. According to Mather, this should act as a lesson to people so that they can change their behaviors. The scenario however alludes to the judgmental nature of human being. Most of the people, more so those in a higher class were found of judging others whom thinking that they were far from the evil spell while in real sense they also later became victims as well. Both Mather and Have contributed towards bringing glory to Salem. Hale, having the experience through his wife could realize that there was no justice in dealing with the people who were said to be witchcraft. This made the judges and the magistrates to confess that they were not being genuine in dealing with these victims. On the other hand, Mather brought light from the onset over the suffering that most of the people were going through because some were even killed in the process. Hale could only know the truth after he became the victim of the circumstance

God uses human being in different ways so as to spread the word of salvation in different ways

In the Wonders of the Invisible World, the author gives explanation of the seven trials at Salem and he seeks to show the divide between the actions of the witches in England and those ones which take place in other parts of the world. Besides that the author addresses the issues witchcraft in general. The delusion of witchcraft was thoroughly dispelled so as to bar the recurrence of the persecution which was common in the society. For the case of these who still believed in such superstition were reduced to nothing less, they no longer had any position in the society and they also had no defense to their opinion. Later on the people of Salem became humbled and most of them repented. They went to the extent of driving away their hypocritical ministers from their places of residence so that they remained a consolidated society. As the remorse continued for several years, those who were in the judiciary carrying out the prosecution started to regret their actions to the extent that most of them had to confess in public. The jurors signed a paper whereby they were showing their repentance and they also confessed that whatever they were doing was because of the pressure. Notably, there are those who were witchcraft yet they were the very people who were in the fore front of persecuting other alleged witchcraft. For them they made it clear that whatever they were doing was because of the influence of terror. God has used the human knowledge so wonderfully in bringing the light to the rest of New England and Salem. Those in authority did not believe in the words of Mather until that time when they also started to be the victims of the circumstance. In most cases they were pretending that witchcraft was only meant to the confused class and those from a lower class in the society. However, when they started to be victims, some of them confessed that humanity should be practiced.

It is not in seeing and having a firsthand experience is when one should believe, as Mather would allude to the doubting Thomas of the bible. Most of people in this particular society made a confession for their action as some posited that they were acting out of pressure and terror. Mather did not directly get involved in the proceedings of the Salem but he would more often than not use letters when addressing the magistrates and the officials of the court while advocating that they should not only use spectral evidence in handling the cases of the victims. He posited that the devil can use the shape and the outlook of an innocent person like some of them were pretending to be.


Bürkle, Wolfgang. Cotton Mather’s “The Wonders of the Invisible World” and witchcraft in Salem. München: GRIN Verlag GmbH, 2007. <>.

Benes, Peter, and Jane Montague Benes. Wonders of the Invisible World 1600-1900. [Boston]: Published by Boston University, 1995.

1: An Invisible World - Biology

SAMUEL MOCKBEE, HALE COUNTY, ALABAMA, 1997. Photographs by Maude Schuyler Clay.

Sambo sits in a spot of shade poking at some shale with what’s called a “beaver stick,” one of the many barkless, gnawed tree limbs the beavers have skinned and piled in bundles along the banks of Alabama’s Black Warrior River.

The Black Warrior, Tuscaloosa in the Choctaw language, flows a hundred yards wide here in Hale County. The river coils out of the thickly forested banks to the north and passes cool, brown, and slow before disappearing around a wooded point a quarter-mile south. Sambo’s talk passes desultorily from beaver sticks and the ease of finding fossils in the limestone of the riverbank to how he once stole his wife’s and her girlfriend’s clothes as they skinny-dipped.

Sambo wears a floppy straw hat. His pale blue oxford-cloth shirt is long sleeved and buttoned at the neck. Since the cancer struck him a couple of years ago, the sun, relentless in July here in West-Central Alabama, has become a threat.

Samuel Mockbee—“Sambo” to anyone who knows him at all—architect, painter, chair maker, so-far cancer survivor, father, husband, and teacher, received a “genius grant” in June of 2000 from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The Foundation, based in Chicago, has handed out 588 of these grants since 1981.

It’s impossible to apply for a MacArthur there’s not even an interview process. The Fellows are chosen by a thirteen-member selection committee from a list prepared by a slate of anonymous nominators who change yearly. At fifty-five, Sambo was the oldest of the twenty-five winners and the only Southerner. “Some of those people do things in the sciences, and they really are geniuses,” he says.

The Fellowships have gone to twenty-seven biologists, twenty-one physicists, and thirty-four poets. Eight astronomers are MacArthur Fellows, as are three primatologists and now, with Sambo’s inclusion, three architects. “MacArthur Fellows are chosen for their exceptional creativity, record of significant accomplishment, and potential for still greater achievement,” said Daniel J. Socolow, director of the Fellows Program. Winners, he added, are a “wonderful collection of extraordinary minds in motion.”

The grant gives Sambo—who has taught architecture at Auburn University since 1991 while periodically lecturing at Yale, Harvard, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Virginia—a hundred thousand dollars a year for five years. There are no strings attached to the money, no papers to write, no lectures to give, not even a requirement that the money be accounted for in any way. The Foundation Web site says such confidence in the recipients is the “underpinning” of the program and that “the Fellows are in the best position to decide how to make the most effective use of the Fellowship resources.”

“They told me the only requirement was that I deposit the check,” Sambo says. “I told them I wasn’t going to deposit it. I told them I was going to take it down to G.B.’s Mercantile store in Newbern, Alabama, and cash it and that it better not bounce.”

Sambo lives in Canton, Mississippi, but spends much of each week in Hale County, the heart of Alabama’s Black Belt—so named for the richness of its soil—where in 1993 he cofounded the Rural Studio. The Studio’s mission, as he put it then, is to “step across the threshold of misconceived opinions and to design/build with a moral sense of service to a community.” Started under the auspices of Auburn University with a $250,000 grant from Alabama Power Company, the Rural Studio exists on a year-to-year basis by collecting funds from various sources—grants, gifts, the university.

By establishing the Rural Studio, Sambo set about to erase the boundaries between the world of academic architectural design and the reality of Hale County, a place with more than fourteen hundred substandard dwellings. Every year the Rural Studio puts forty-five students to work designing and constructing community buildings and houses and working on other service projects—repairing mobile home roofs and septic tanks, digging wells—in one of the poorest parts of one of the poorest states. In the summer of 2000 the project expanded into an experimental outreach program, allowing students from other schools and in other disciplines—biology, medieval history, art—to work there.

The Studio is headquartered in a rambling, restored 1890s farmhouse in Newbern, a proverbial “wide spot in the road,” with no traffic light and no need of one. Half a mile up the street is G.B. Wood’s Mercantile, with its stocks of fishing supplies, rubber boots, pork rinds, and chicken feed. The store acts as the student union, Sambo says.

The students who come here spend the semester without TVs or VCRs neither the NEW YORK TIMES nor USA TODAY distributes here. Students sometimes pump visitors for news, making them feel as if they have landed among castaways. The sensation of isolation is palpable—and intentional. “It’s like taking them completely out of their world. It’s like taking them out of time,” Sambo says.

Smack in the middle of the Black Belt, Newbern and nearby Greensboro, the seat of Hale County, are largely poor and African-American. Thirty-five percent of Hale County’s population lives in poverty, including forty-four percent of all children under five. The per capita income, according to the Center for Business in Alabama, is $16,380, compared with the state’s average of $22,972.

As he searched across Alabama for the locale that would meet his vision of where the Rural Studio needed to be, it was this legacy of grinding poverty that brought Sambo to Hale County. “I wanted a place that was poor and left behind, where there exists a world most people are not willing to look at,” he says.

The Studio’s projects—which include a soaring chapel in the woods, a house made from hay bales covered in stucco, a community center with rammed-earth walls—are frequently beautiful but are also cobbled together. Often, as in the case of the chapel, with its walls constructed from recycled automobile tires, the buildings are made from discarded materials. Students at the Studio provide all of the project designs and construction.

Now Sambo is excited about the prospect of building with wax-impregnated cardboard. The cardboard, previously used to ship frozen chickens, is compressed into cotton bale–sized blocks weighing six hundred pounds each. Uneconomical to recycle, the bales are routinely discarded in garbage dumps. “The insulation values are off the chart,” Sambo says. “And it’s practically fireproof. We tried to burn one of the bales, and we couldn’t find a way to get it to catch fire.”

Sambo committed to teaching at the Studio for one year. That was eight years ago. But if the Studio, with its mission of designing and building architecture with a social and artistic purpose, has drawn him in in a way he never expected, it is also responsible for giving him his widest professional renown. “Oh yeah, the Rural Studio is the reason I won the MacArthur,” he says. “There’s no doubt about that.”

The impact of the Studio has been almost surgical: someone casually traveling across the area might notice little change in a landscape dotted with cotton fields and bosky river bottoms and interspersed with the dilapidated shanties or disheveled mobile homes, in which much of the black population lives. Most of the county remains untouched and somnolent. Then in unexpected, out-of-the-way places there will be a residence of high architectural imagination that has replaced the trailer or shack where a family lived before. The Hay Bale House, for example, is built of stucco-covered bales of hay. The Butterfly House has a tin roof lifting upward like the wings of a butterfly about to take flight.

Much of the Studio’s work has been done in Mason’s Bend, an all-black community located at the terminus of a dirt road in a crook in the Black Warrior River. The only drinkable water here comes from two wells sunk by students from the Studio. In the summer of 2000 biology major Heath Van Fleet worked to find solutions to the community’s wastewater problem. From some two-dozen residences, most of which are ramshackle house trailers, wastewater is flushed directly onto the ground. “We’ve tested all around, in the nearby creeks and other places, and found the E. coli bacteria from fecal matter to be T.N.T.C.—too numerous to count,” he said.

Van Fleet has worked to get a company that is developing a new type of septic tank to donate a couple to Mason’s Bend residents. “The company wants the publicity, and if we can get enough, it might lead to sewage systems for all the houses,” he said.

Why did Van Fleet, a University of West Alabama biology major, come to the Rural Studio in the first place? “I came for the chance to work with Sambo,” he said.

A community center designed by two fifth-year Auburn architecture students, Jon Schumann and Adam Gerndt, was going up across a dirt road. The center’s arching ceiling joists of laminated cypress are fashioned from trees harvested by the two students from a nearby swamp. The walls supporting the joists are of rammed earth, made mostly from red Alabama clay, which leaves a finish the color of terra cotta that’s reminiscent of classic Italian architecture.

“Our plan is for this to be an open-air gathering place for the community,” said Gerndt, sweating and filthy from the day’s work. “We’re hoping this space will add to the community’s cohesiveness, will give it a focal point.

“Sambo is amazing. He has a sense of what architecture can mean in a broader sense than just a building. That’s what I hope to take away from this.”

The design by Gerndt and Schumann meets Sambo’s criteria that architecture must transcend the merely physical and utilitarian to addresses the ethereal. “If you are not dealing with spiritual comfort,” Sambo says, “you are not dealing with architecture.”

It is that lack of spirituality that Sambo criticizes in well-intentioned programs such as Habitat for Humanity, the faith-based organization that builds largely prefabricated housing for the poor. “They build minimal houses. Nobody is going to want to live in those houses in five years. And the people we are building for here Habitat wouldn’t touch because they are too poor.”

Habitat’s houses, unlike those built by the Studio, are not free to the owners. Instead, the occupants of the houses must have the income to qualify for a loan, though the loan is interest free. “None of the people we build for could qualify for any kind of loan,” Sambo says.

Some have questioned whether the Studio’s unique designs serve the purposes of this impoverished community. The designs are oftentimes experimental and modernistic, with lofty rooflines and nontraditional configurations. But these designs, which would fit in well in Birmingham’s Mountain Brook or Atlanta’s Dunwoody, in effect are customized. Some are surrounded by yards filled with chickens and the rusting hulks of automobiles. Sometimes a battered refrigerator hums on the house’s porch. On a balcony overlooking the two-story screened front porch of the Butterfly House, an artificial Christmas tree sits fully decorated in the wilting July heat. The house’s owner, Anderson Harris, refuses to run the large fan built into the rear wall because it increases his electric bill. At Shepard Bryant’s Hay Bale House plastic buckets beneath the porch’s cantilevered fiberglass roof hold dirty water and hyacinths from the river or turtles with shells the size of hubcaps. In the yard a student-designed smokehouse—ovoid and almost church-like, with different colored bottles piercing the walls to allow in light—is filled with a chugging, rusting chest freezer.

To all this, Sambo shrugs and says, “Some people have said these houses aren’t appropriate. What’s appropriate? Who do you mean by appropriate? We are not building anything gluttonous. These people like these houses, and I like what they do to them. They make them their own, which is what they are. We don’t get into judging these people. We don’t get into changing them.”

Maybe that’s true, and maybe it’s not. When Sambo first approached Harris, who is in his eighties, and said the Studio might be interested in building him and his wife, Ora Lee, a new house for free, Harris was skeptical. “I don’t think I’ll take one of those today,” he told Sambo.

It took several discussions before Harris reluctantly allowed the construction. Now he says of Sambo, “He’s about the most wonderful man I’ve saw,” and of the Studio students he says, “The children! I keep my mind on the children all the time.”

Why, then, did Harris at first refuse the offer of a house? “Well, always before, when somebody come around here offering something, there was always something attached to the end of it.”


Even before the MacArthur came along, Sambo’s career was one of distinction. A Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, he had already won two awards for other projects from ARCHITECTURAL RECORD, the institute’s magazine, as well as an American Institute of Architects National Honor Award, an honor award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and an Apgar Award for Excellence. Still, the MacArthur comes as a one-time money blessing to a life that, so far, has been blessed with most everything but money.

“Whenever we worked with him, he wasn’t thinking about money. His partners were thinking about money, but he wasn’t,” Hap Owen, owner of Communication Arts, a Jackson, Mississippi, design firm, says of Sambo. Owen has known and worked with Sambo for twenty years. “Sambo has always strived to understand what motivated great artists. I don’t know if he understands all their work, but he wants to understand what motivated them. He has always desired to bend to the cycle of great art.”

Owen characterizes Sambo’s designs as a radical rendering of the South’s rural architectural vernacular. “He is a master of form,” he says. “He is an inventor of forms that I have really not seen used by other architects.”

Sambo’s forms draw on reconfiguring and rethinking older, conventional architectural models. For example, in designing a house for a prosperous Jackson family, Sambo included a dogtrot, the roofed, open-air passageway that was a traditional architectural aspect of the houses of the South’s rural poor. Such deconstructing and refashioning of the well-known elements of Southern architecture—barns and other outbuildings have been a prime inspiration to Sambo—create something that is at once familiar and new.

Born in 1945 in Meridian, Mississippi, he was raised the son of a salesman father and schoolteacher mother. In 1981, when I first met him, Sambo was a young architect in Jackson who cited the writings of Ellen Douglas and Eudora Welty as major influences.

One of his first high-profile commissions, Mississippi’s state pavilion at the New Orleans World’s Fair in 1984, showed his bold design while also demonstrating his flair for whimsy. The pavilion included a trellis planted with kudzu (although it did not include the stuffed possums Sambo wanted to hang from it). But what Sambo most remembers is the incredulity on the faces of his clients, including Owen, when he suggested trucking Elvis Presley’s Tupelo birthplace to New Orleans and including it in the pavilion. “They thought I was crazy. Then they laughed, thinking it was a big joke. Hell, I wanted to do it. It’s just a little old shotgun house. Moving it wouldn’t have been anything.”

Alabama’s Black Belt sweeps in a crescent eastward from the town of Demopolis, toward the Georgia border. Bounded on the south by the Gulf of Mexico’s coastal plains and on the north by the Piedmont’s beginnings, the Black Belt is a land of almost mystical alluvial richness. That richness brought cotton plantations here even before Alabama became a state in 1817. And it was the remnants of that plantation culture that deposited the region’s still existent legacy of racial separation and poverty after the Civil War.

In 1936 James Agee and Walker Evans came to Hale County to write a magazine article that later became LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN, their pivotal study of rural poverty in America. The book helped open the nation’s eyes to what Sambo refers to as “the invisible world” of wretchedness that lies all around us, close enough to see but just on the other side of the boundaries drawn by most people to surround their everyday lives. A couple of years ago, Sambo gave a lecture at the University of Pennsylvania, where he discussed his invisible world. The lecture’s full title was “Praying Pigs in Mississippi: An Invisible World in an Observable Universe,” and it began with an eight-minute film of a farmer who taught his pigs to “pray”—including crossed trotters and bowed heads—before he fed them.

People like Shepard Bryant and his wife, Alberta, populate this invisible world. “I guess I’m about eighty-five years old,” Bryant says, sitting on a broken wooden chair on the front porch of his Hay Bale House. “I was born down here across the road. Me, my father before me, and his father before that.”

Alongside Bryant’s house, across a yard patrolled by his multicolored, gimlet-eyed fighting cocks, head-high weeds hide a jumble of old roofing and falling-in walls. The walls mark the shack where the Bryants lived for forty years, raising half a dozen children before the Hay Bale House was constructed.

What does he think of his house of thick hay bales and stucco, with its reaching, cantilevered porch? “All through the years I hear the roosters crowing at night,” Bryant says. “I’m eighty-something years old, and this is the first house I ever lived in where you can’t hear a rooster call.”


It is less the recipients who distinguish the MacArthur from other grants than it is the mystery of how the Fellows are chosen—the list of nominees is shrouded in secrecy, and those who are chosen get only one telephone call from the Foundation to tell them they have won.

When the MacArthur people called to tell him the news, Sambo was at home in Canton, Mississippi. He told Jackie, his wife of thirty years, that he was “a half-millionaire” and then went happily into the yard to toss a baseball around with his son, Julius, the youngest of his four children.

Sambo is not the type to act modest by the acclaim or the money. “Hell, no. I’m glad they gave it to me,” he says.

The money would have been welcome at any time, but for Sambo, the award came in the midst of a two-year fight with a chronic form of leukemia that usually kills within twelve months. The disease was as unexpected as the MacArthur. A bruise on Sambo’s foot that would not heal led to a checkup, which led to the diagnosis in September 1998. “The first thing I said to the doctor was, ‘You can cure this, right?’”

It wasn’t promising. The needed stem cells from a bone marrow transplant could come only from a sibling. Even though Sambo had a sister, Martha Ann, four years his senior, the chances were only one in four that her cells would match.

Sambo drove to his sister’s house in Selma, Alabama, to have her sign consent forms and have blood drawn. The next day he drove back to the hospital in Jackson so the blood could be tested. “I wanted to face things. I didn’t want to wait. If I was going out, I wanted to know.”

For the ten days it took to get the results, Sambo lived not in the Rural Studio’s big house but in one of the futuristic, student-built pods tucked fifty yards away against a wall of towering hardwood trees. The pods are Sambo’s tribute to Thomas Jefferson’s notion to dot Monticello with small studios for artists, writers, and thinkers.

Both of Sambo’s parents died of cancer. “Every night I came out and looked up at the North Star and thought, ‘I might be up there with you soon.’ Everything kind of started to close in on me. I thought about never seeing my grandkids and that I would be leaving Jackie financially screwed because I’ve always lived hand-to-mouth and never had any money.” (So precarious were Sambo’s finances that when two students wrote a nine-hundred-dollar check from his personal account to buy building materials, they drained the account dry.)

Martha Ann’s blood cells matched. “When my doctor called to tell me,” Sambo says, “he said I should go to the Silver Star Casino because I was a lucky man.”

Still ahead was full-body radiation and a regimen of chemotherapy—treatments that sapped Sambo’s previously bear-like body of its weight and his once voracious constitution of its energy. He barely survived, and then, six weeks later, just as his sister’s cells began to take hold in his bone marrow, Martha Ann herself was diagnosed with cancer. The disease, born in her breast, spread to her lungs, heart, and brain. She died in August 1999. It is unknown when the cancer first struck her, but it was not there when Martha Ann’s blood was screened or when her cells were drawn to put into Sambo.

Sambo takes copious amounts of medicine. He moves slowly and tires easily. The marks of strain on his fully bearded face are not just the products of age. His laughter is the same as before, though, as is the bubbling tenor of his voice. In fact, Sambo seems to have a hold on the simple joy so often seen in cancer survivors. But the disease took its toll on more than just his body. “Mortality is around the corner, and, like Faulkner said, everyone wants to leave a mark somehow. I admit that’s one of the goals I aspire to. I’m insignificant as an architect. I’m insignificant as an artist. I still aspire. Balzac. Pliny. Welty. Mary Ward Brown. They all aspired to it, to leaving their mark. I have to make every brush stroke count.

“Most architects have too much ego. You want to lead the orchestra. But too often architects give up the creative decision-making they give up their responsibility to the creative process. Once you veer from that, once you stray from the opportunity to serve the creative process, you begin to lose it. I have seen architects who were much more talented than I am abandon their gift and fail.”

Sambo’s leukemia is, so far, in remission. But his doctor has stopped telling his patients that if they can survive the disease for five years, they can consider themselves cured. “He said he’s seen too many of his patients relapse after five years for him to say that any longer,” Sambo says.

Still, life for Sambo has a fragile clarity as he moves around Hale County, which he jokingly calls “my fiefdom.”

“I’m like Kurtz, just not as sinister. I’m way up the river like HEART OF DARKNESS.” Sambo laughs his deep laugh. “I’m living the myth. The myth that your life can mean something.”


Samuel Mockbee recommends some of the most significant architectural sites in the South:

1. Residence at 64 Wakefield (Atlanta, GA)
“On the scales of architectural beauty, this 1995 house strikes a perfect balance between solid to void, light to darkness, technology to art. It was built by the Scogin, Elam and Bray architectural firm.”

2. Windsor Ruins (Claiborne County, MS)
“Completed by Smith Daniell in 1861, this is the embodiment of Sex and Death in the mythological antebellum South.”

3. The Crosby Arboretum (Picayune, MS)
“Designed by the architect Fay Jones and the landscape architect Edward Blake in 1985, this is the Deep South’s answer to the gardens of Versailles.”

4. Phillis Wheatley Elementary School (New Orleans, LA)
“The work of a visual futurist, the architect Charles Colbert, this 1952 structure cantilevers itself well past the next thousand years of architecture.”

5. Riverfront Revitalization (Chattanooga, TN)
“Curated by Stroud Watson, this ongoing project started in the 1980s and demonstrates the power of architecture to humanize a city.”

6. Fort Morgan (Gulf Shores, AL)
“In every brick of every arch the memory of the ancient Roman builders embeds itself and a brick arch, after all, makes architecture eternal. This structure was created by the military engineer Simon Bernard, from 1819–34.”

7. Hightower/Prystup House (York, AL)
“A composition of technology at work with its ex-twin, Mother Nature built by B.B. Archer, architect, in 1974.”

8. Ark of the Covenant at Margaret’s Grocery (Vicksburg, MS)
“Built by the Reverend H.D. Dennis, its crude materials and method of construction place it in an ethereal state of being and a perpetual state of beauty.”

9. Medical Arts Surgical Group building (Meridian, MS)
“An example of the work of the Deep South’s premier modern architect, Chris Risher Sr., who was always in league with his Muse and Art. Built in 1977.”

10. Town squares (Marion and Eutaw, AL Lexington, Oxford, and Canton, MS)
“These public squares remind us of the importance of civic life, and they also have the ability to give architecture a human face.”

Watch the video: An Invisible World Revealed - Full Album 1971 (June 2022).