„Stars Fell on Alabama“ is the first chapter in Regine Petersen‘s series on meteorites, titled „Find a Fallen Star“. It is a configuration of archive press cuttings, eye witness reports, interview transcripts, genealogy and found images, fleshed out with quiet, contemplative photographs taken in the field.
She began the project in 2009, having chanced on the story of the Hodges meteorite. What began as an investigation into a single stone, though, has branched into a lightning rod touching memory, history, magic and mortality; human relationships and religion; race, slavery and colonialism. It also considers the practice of storytelling itself - whether an author/photographer can tell a story without casting their own shadow over its content.
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Meteorites are pieces of asteroid, leftovers from the formation of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago. They are highly prized by scientists, who find in their solid, iron and stone mass clues to the infant universe. Of the several thousand that make the fiery plunge to earth each year, most are lost in the sea. Others become cosmic dust and disperse, but each year a great number make contact with the ground. Most fall without consequence. Most that is, not all.
On 30 September 1954, an eight pound meteorite fell on a house in Sylacauga, Alabama. It crashed through the roof, bounced off a console radio and hit 31 year old Ann Elizabeth Hodges on the hip while she was napping on her sofa. A photograph from the time included in Petersen‘s anthology shows the woman with two policemen. Her brow is furrowed, her hands nervous, and no wonder. As well as extensive bruising, the incident brought a Special Forces investigation to her door, a flurry of media attention, a bidding war, a lawsuit, divorce, betrayal and a breakdown. This is the event on which Petersen‘s project pivots, although as we shall see, its remit is much wider.
The rock, still boasting the tar it picked up en route through the roof, now resides in the Alabama Museum of Natural History, where Petersen travelled as part of her research. The curator removed it from the glass case. „He said, you can touch it, you can take it in your hands‘ and I knew he was looking at me and I thought, I have to feel something now, I have to connect to the history of things, and it was just impossible. Later though, when I photographed it, it was quite different,“ Petersen explains. Petersen has compiled eyewitness accounts from the time, detailing bright flashes and fireballs, smoke, television interference and bicycle accidents. In Phenix City a woman thought it was a flying saucer: she „saw a man get out of it.“ The disparity that exists between these reports is something that came to fascinate her. „People misremember. It all starts with an idealised story that sounds a little bit like a fairy-tale and then you go below the surface and it gets more and more complicated.“
She also includes the transcript of an interview with Ann Elizabeth‘s husband, conducted in 2005. Eugene Hulitt Hodges was out when the rock hit his white-frame house, and returned to find some 200 reporters on the scene. He spent months fighting his landlady in court after she sued for possession. Collectors lost interest, so he used it as a doorstop for a while, then Ann Elizabeth donated it to the museum, against his wishes. They divorced a few years later, both citing the meteorite as primary cause.
Petersen photographed the muddy earth of the impact site. She drove to Talladega forest, the local junkyard, defunct marble quarries. Sylacauga is known as ‚Marble City‘ and huge chunks lie everywhere in the dust. „I liked the idea of the two coming together; the black rock from space and the marble from the earth,” she says. Strange things began to happen. On the day she visited the cemetery to find Eugene‘s gave (he had died two weeks before she came to Alabama) men were assembling his gravestone. When she visited an old slave plantation a dog with one blue eye and one brown came out of nowhere and sat in front of her. „The photographs I took are like apparitions. It felt as if everything just came towards me of its own accord.“
The day following the Hodges incident, a 60 year old farm hand named Julius McKinney discovered a second fragment of the meteorite in the middle of a dirt road. His mule shied away from it, and in the dark he thought it was a snake and left it alone. It wasn‘t until he heard about Ann Elizabeth Hodges that he retrieved it, but because he was black, and this was Alabama, and the Civil Rights Act was still a decade away, he hid the rock under his bed, frightened he wouldn‘t be allowed to keep it. Several months later he told his postman, the only ‘official’ person he knew. He arranged for McKinney to meet a geologist, who in turn helped arrange a sale to the Smithsonian. The money furnished McKinney with enough to buy a farm and a car outright.
Petersen includes cuttings from the Ironwood Daily Globe, and Avondale Sun, the last including a photograph of the McKinney family, with the “black-colored pearl“. She also includes a photograph of the original negative, retouched crudely by the newspaper with white paint to cover the extreme poverty the McKinney‘s lived in. In 1954 Alabama, people liked their reality watered down.
Also included are accounts from an 1833 meteor shower large enough to be visible all over America, including Alabama. “I'm interested in these layers of history,“ says Petersen. Prophet Joseph Smith recalls „the long trains of light... like serpents writhing... it seemed as if the artillery and fireworks of eternity were set in motion to enchant and entertain the Saints, and terrify and awe the sinners of the earth.“ A slave recalls her masters „tellin‘ some of the slaves who their mothers and fathers was, and who they‘d been sold to and where... they thought it was Judgement Day.“
It is the way in which Petersen‘s work swings gently between religion, science and superstition that provides the golden thread binding it together. Her own magical thinking for example, or Julius McKinney believing „the Lord gave [the meteorite] to me“ and a postcard sent to Ann Elizabeth Hodges from a church in Bellevue, Kentucky pleading for the rock. Inserted between Petersen‘s photographs of anthills and cotton plants and discarded snapshots in the dirt are scientific images of planetary bodies far away in the night sky, as she switches ably back and forth between microcosm and macrocosm. The fragility of human life in the face of the cosmos lurches into view.
Next, Petersen will travel to India, where a meteorite was witnessed to fall by two nomads in the desert of Rajasthan. She has already completed the second chapter of her work in a town in Westphalia, Germany where five children found a meteorite in the 1950s. Petersen has no idea how far the project will take her. One thing is certain, she has rich pickings ahead. It‘s impossible not to be fascinated by these stories, which contain as much rich detail about human fallibility as the rocks contain about the beginning of the universe.
Lucy Davies, 2012