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.