Poetry habitat

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O.K., so why am I attempting to improve on nature by writing poems on seashells with a permanent marker? Once again, this is Dana Guthrie Martin’s fault. Who else, learning about the plight of hermit crabs, would immediately think, “Poetry to the rescue!”?

Did you know that, worldwide, hermit crabs are experiencing a housing shortage? About 30 percent of all hermit crabs live in shells that are too small for them, and up to 60 percent can’t find homes that are the correct size in the spring when they experience their growth spurts.

Artists like Elizabeth Demaray have called attention to this problem and are creating alternative housing for hermit crabs. She points out that two factors seem to be involved in the housing shortage: environmental pollution and the collection of sea shells. Elizabeth’s work led me to think about my own role as a poet and what I might be able to do to help. Some of my poet friends and I thought it might be nice to invite people to send us any sea shells they’ve collected over the years – no questions asked.

We’ve set up a PO Box where people can mail in their shells for use in the project. We’ll take the shells you send us and write poems on them (in nontoxic ink of course) before whisking them off to beaches and placing them on the shore so hermit crabs can move into them.

Visit Dana’s new site Shore Tags [dead link; removed 11/09] to learn more about how to contribute to this project, including what kind of shells to send, how to contribute poems even if you don’t have any shells, and what kind of markers to use if you decide to try your hand at a couple yourself, as I did.

Now, I’m sure my more utilitarian-minded readers are wondering why the heck hermit crab shells would need to have poems on them. Surely the crabs don’t give a crap. Couldn’t we get more shells to more crabs more quickly if we skipped that step?

Well, I suppose. But it seems to me there’s nothing wrong, and everything right, about asking givers to put a little of their heart, soul, and imagination into their gifts. If charity and welfare have become bad words, I think it’s because they perpetuate such a gulf between donor and recipient. The recipient of charity always risks becoming an object of condescension, and the utilitarian approach further reinforces the objectification, I think. It’s weird. We take it for granted (ha!) that dependence on charity is an unfortunate thing, even though every living being is utterly dependent on the grace of God or Lady Luck at every moment.

Hermit crabs actually teach this lesson better than most organisms, come to think of it. They are by nature naked and homeless and dependent on other creatures for shelter… not unlike a certain, virtually hairless species of ape trying to live in a temperate climate.

To suggest that we can and should learn from the beneficiaries of a conservation project is to go at least part-way to restoring a balance between donor and recipient, don’t you think? It’s no longer just a one-way exchange. And by entering the imaginative space necessary to make poems for another being, one engages with that being in a whole new way. So my hope for the Shore Tags project is not just that it will help thousands of crabs find better, more comfortable habitat, but that, by encouraging children, especially, to contribute their most prized skills as human beings — the power to make art and find meaning — it will help inculcate a deeper respect for the rest of creation. Given such respect, perhaps, we might not have collected seashells so heedlessly in the first place. It might’ve occurred to us to wonder if they were really ours to take.

8 Comments


  1. Oh my. This post is so lovely. I am crying, Dave. Your ending is so poignant and so right on. Thank you.

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  2. A fantastic post. I’m fascinated by your point that we engage with another being and the world in “a whole new way” by entering the imaginative space of the poetic (or of art in general). Absolutely right. What an important point. This is the key, this connection that artistic creation can make that lifts us out of the simple roles of givers and receivers. This is really at the core of the impulse to make art isn’t it?

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  3. I’m not sure how much the few shells gathered by humans would help, and I worry if those scribbled poems might be… conspicuous. (That is, interfering with the crab’s camouflage. Clearly, the crabs don’t care!)

    On the other hand (claw?), that synthetic-shell project has real potential! I’d be happier if the shelters were nicer-looking — maybe the pictures aren’t so good, but those look pretty boxy.

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  4. David, thanks for your comments. If I may jump into the discussion, we know we can’t solve the problem with this project. Our hope is to raise awareness about this issue through education.

    We’ve taught some classes to K-12 students here in Seattle as a pilot for a larger program, and this is a great way to talk about human behavior and the effects of our behavior — our choices — on the natural world. We also address the environmental component, talking about the effects pollution has on shoreline ecosystems, one of which is that fewer shells are available for the crabs. And, ultimately, we want kids to know that art in general — and poetry in particular — can be an active response to the world and the issues that we face, whatever those issues may be. So we’re not just raising awareness about the hermit crabs, but also about ecology, the environment and the potential role of art in our culture.

    Too often, poetry is presented in classrooms in a way that feels “dead.” We want to present poetry in a way that is active, engaged, and very much alive. It’s been so moving to see the kids step into the role of the hermit crab or of the beach comber (which is one of the exercises we’ve had them do) and then talk to one another from those perspectives. It’s really quite amazing to watch what happens and see the writing that comes out of those types of exercises.

    Your point about the camouflage issue is an interesting one. I will have to look into that. I also plan on having a variation where the poems are written on paper that is then folded accordion-style and placed inside the shell’s opening like a fortune cookie. The paper would be removed before the shells are placed on the beaches.

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  5. Thanks for the comments. Dana, I appreciate your taking the time to fill us in about the classroom aspect of it. It sounds very exciting, and of course i couldn’t agree more with your views on the teaching of poetry – not that I have any experience in that.

    I did want to add something about the poems on the shells. I don’t think they’ll make the shells much more visible to predators than they are already, though I do worry about making them more collectible for unscrupulous humans. In the article about the Hand Up Project, there was a mention of branding the synthetic hermit crab shelters with the corporate logos of the underwriters. To me, that’s a potent example of everything that’s wrong with the mainstream contemporary approach to philanthropy. I’m also not convinced of the wisdom of deliberately introducing plastic into the ecosystem – not that the Pacific Gyre isn’t already filled with floating plastic. Why am I not surprised that their design is based on “the architecture of Giuseppe Terragni, an Italian Fascist active in the 1930s”? The key fact about hermit crabs, I think, is that they have evolved an adaptability to diverse structural types. They often change shells en masse, so it becomes a social event as well. Providing them with industrial, cookie-cutter modules might do more harm than good. But then again, is the well-being of the crabs really the primary focus here? In the last sentence of her article, Demeray says, “The intended audience of the Hand Up Project is someone who, while walking on a beach, might pause to contemplate a slowly ambulating hermit crab, wearing on its back a tiny, man-made plastic house bearing a corporate logo.” (Dana, are you sure that article isn’t satire?)

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  6. Dave, it’s not satire, although Demeray was exposing a paradox by making the explicit connection between her work and the architecture of Giuseppe Terragni. She says that doing so was a way of acknowledging that “such trans-species caregiving may in fact be a form of control.”

    We’ve actually talked about the logo issue in the classroom. The kids dig that discussion. They’ve made comments about wanting to have places they can go where they aren’t reminded of companies and products, specifically citing beaches and wooded areas as places that should be free from those sorts of distractions.

    Your concern about people taking the shells is valid, and I am worried about that possibility. I plan to address that potential issue in two ways. (Heh. Why do I suddenly sound like a politician?)

    First, I plan to put up signs that tell people they are in a “hermit crab housing restoration zone” and asking them not to take the shells. Second, I want to get beach-goers to participate when we take the shells out to beaches. We can make the experience participatory by handing shells out to people then asking them to read the poems that are on or in the shells before placing each shell back on the beach. (Who knows, it might even turn into an impromptu poetry reading!)

    In the process, we have the opportunity to educate the public about the project and thus raise awareness among those who frequent the beaches we take shells to. Those beach-goers will most likely tell others what they’ve learned about the importance of leaving shells on beaches and not collecting them.

    Though some people may take shells here and there, I think more people will be better informed and will actually modify their behavior, thus the benefit outweighs the risk.

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  7. My friend Bubba wants to know if it would be okay if he made some hermit crab homes out of empty Pearl Beer cans. He has lots of empties, having saved them since 1973. He cuts them off at an angle and sort of squnches them into a cone-shaped gizmo. It’s very lightweight, which should give the little crabs a speed advantage. They would also blend in with the surroundings on the ocean floor, which down hyar consists mostly of…yup, you guessed it: empty Pearl Beer cans, though there are some that say Lone Star.

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  8. jorge – The problem is that hermit crabs are not denizens of the ocean floor (hence the project moniker, “shore tags”). I think the environment would probably be better served if you took your empties to the recycling center.

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