A typical day for Stephen Schabel is spent teaching medical students how to read
X-rays at MUSC’s radiology department.
But at the moment he can’t wait to tell me about roadkill.
“The first known roadkill in the U.S. was a turtle on the Oregon Trail,” Schabel says. “A little girl was keeping a diary. In it, she wrote, ‘We ran over a turtle today.’ Roadkill is often something you’ve never seen before, certainly that you’ve never been able to get close to.”
When you do, you find that its “anatomy is beautiful,” he says.
Schabel has been obsessed with roadkill since the age of seven, when he spotted a dead porcupine on the side of a desolate Montana highway and asked his grandfather to stop the car. He still has the quills to commemorate that event. Schabel turned his fascination into an art as a new radiologist, having earned his medical degree from the University of Chicago in 1972. As a resident at the University of Rochester, he began X-raying flowers and exhibiting the radiographs as artwork. It didn’t take him long to move from flora to fauna.
“My family would drive to our farm in Edisto, and there would be dead animals by the side of the road, usually dead birds. I kept Ziploc plastic bags in the car, and we’d pick the animals up, double-bag them, and then freeze them,” Schabel says. “Then I would bring them in and X-ray them.”
One aspect of roadkill that has captivated Schabel is the opportunity to view minute details with which he would otherwise never come into contact. That same sensibility drew him to radiology. For Schabel, his X-ray art, as well as his medical career, is part of a way of life that constantly centers on the natural world. He sees his role as a doctor who treats the human body, but also studies nature as a whole. Schabel spent his childhood in Birmingham hunting in the woodlands that bordered his house.
“I would take my rifle and go to the woods every day,” he says. “And I studied animals. I knew birds. I knew everything about rocks and plants.”
Schabel says his role model is John Bachman, a 19th-century Charleston physician and naturalist whose daughters married the sons of John James Audubon, the quintessential American naturalist. Indeed, it’s difficult not to compare Schabel to Audubon, the man who attempted to paint and describe all the birds of America.
While the Audubon Society of today states as their mission “to conserve and restore natural ecosystems,” its namesake spent much of his life killing wild animals so that he could catalogue them. The knowledge of wildlife afforded through the breadth of Audubon’s work has created a more sympathetic awareness about those animals.
In the same way, Schabel’s relationship with nature seems part predator and part appreciator: He somehow manages, like Audubon, to maintain a balance. Unlike Audubon, though, most animals he X-rays are already dead when he finds them. He has killed some himself — but only by
“I was driving down to Hampton in the middle of the night on medical business,” he recalls. “There was nobody out there, and I was flying along at a huge rate of speed. As the road took me down into the swamp, I see this flash of movement and then hear the kerthunk.”
The doctor shades his eyes as he shakes his head.
“So I stopped the car and backed up, and there was a barred owl. I picked it up. The thing that’s amazing about owls and all raptors is that it doesn’t weigh anything. It’s a big feather duster with this tiny animal inside. I set it on the front seat of my truck and drove on.”
At the hospital, Schabel put the owl, now breathing lightly, into a box and took it into the radiology department with him while he read the films laid out for him. When he next looked inside the box, the owl was sitting up and looking around, with one wing dangling to the side.
That evening, Schabel took the owl to the Center for Birds of Prey in Awendaw. With the help of the center’s part-time veterinarian, Schabel X-rayed the owl to find a dislocated wing and broken humerus. Schabel left the owl in the care of the center’s executive director.
“Two weeks later, I got a letter that the owl had been operated on — a pin put in the humerus — and recuperated. It turned out the owl was a pregnant female, and the center had taken her back to the swamp and released her to her natural habitat.”
Schabel has used his roadkill X-rays extensively as an educational tool, in teaching about radiology or wildlife — and sometimes both. But beyond his talks to the Sierra Club and Audubon Society, as well as the occasional children’s group, he hasn’t pushed to exhibit his X-ray art very much.
For him, the spiritual experience of dealing with nature on such intimate terms is as important as the visual interest in it, and so it has remained a largely personal exercise. He intends to pass on his huge collection of roadkill art to his son, now the educational director at the Center for Birds of Prey.
“Nature is my religion, my god,” says Schabel. “I don’t know what the correct name for my faith is, but I look at the beauties of what’s around me, and it’s inspiring.”
He tells the story of when two Mississippi kites, a species of bird rarely seen in South Carolina, took up residence outside his home on James Island.
“They were flying and singing to one another, and they mated in the sky, in the air,” Schabel recalls. “The female eventually laid eggs, and they raised their chicks. We’d sit there at the dinner table every night and watch these chicks being fed by their mother and father, and then fledging and flying off.”
He is clearly moved by the memory of a bird family and his own family existing side by side.
“I told my kids, ‘We’ve been blessed by nature — people usually don’t get to see this sort of thing.’ When that sort of thing happens, you can’t help but say, ‘I have been chosen.’ ”