Splendor in the glass: Life, death, love, and crab shells

Part of the collection. Photo: Laura Grimes


Funny how inspiration can be found in the form of dead crabs.

While walking along the beach I found one crab shell after another and imagined stacking them up in a glass jar. I imagined crab shells all the same size stacked one atop the other, up up up, and enclosed in clear glass. So many. So fragile. So safe. And so dead.


  • I was taken with the pure imagery of it. Crabs and glass in one clean vertical line.
  • The delicate shells displayed so simply yet they have so much texture and immediately evoke a briny musky sense and a deep connection with the vast ocean.
  • Death and the way we stare at it, a fascination we can’t avoid … uneasy, perilous, precarious.
  • A glass jar that’s oddly both fragile and safe-keeping.

I love filling glass jars — an odd passion, I know. I buy them at Goodwill and wash them and then fill them with shells and rocks and sea glass and fossils and wasps’ nests and pinecones and bones and dead bugs and feathers and flower pods and leaf skeletons.

I fill glass jars now the way I filled my pockets with all these things when I was a kid.

When I was very pregnant with my first son I opened a package in front of a room full of people. Inside were three small jars and a note. When I read the note, I had to discreetly turn my face to hide my tears. I’d like to think it was the hormones. My mom had written that she had received the jars when my sister, 11 years older, was born. My mom had filled them with cotton balls and Q-tips and safety pins. The Q-tips were the old wooden kind. My mom was surprised to hear this. She didn’t remember the Q-tips being the old wooden kind. I saved them.

The small jars are now full of agates, lava rocks and old broken tile and are displayed in the old soldered windows of the dining room. The sunlight shines through them.

Everywhere I go I pick things up and put them in my pocket. I call it my disability. I think my jars are a way for me to see all my treasures and bring a sense of order to them. To love them. To see the possibilities. And to contain my compulsion.

Life and death in a jar. Photo: Laura Grimes

When I was a teenager, my family received word that an older cousin was missing. He was near my sister’s age. Besides his grandmother, we were the only family living in the area. My cousin, in his 20s, was a diagnosed schizophrenic. He had visited us. His eyes were big, always open wide. When my dad showed him our garage, which was big enough for two cars, some storage, a freezer and a work area, he said, “Wow. This is big enough for me to build a rocket ship.”

His body was found on a rural logging road at the base of a tree. His injuries suggested he might have fallen from the tree.

After his death, we were given a couple of boxes of his things to deal with. I went down to the basement one day to find my dad had spread my cousin’s stuff out on the pool table. My cousin had at least three duplicates of everything, and everything was stored in plastic bags. Three pairs of identical sunglasses, each in its own baggy, all the sunglass baggies in a bigger baggy. There were lots of different electronic components, always in multiples, always in separate bags combined in bigger bags. Bag after bag.

I think it was his way of organizing the world. Of bringing order to it. Of making sense of it.

I wonder whether my jars are sort of a way to harness nature, to harness its wildness and unpredictability. To have it close by in the smack middle of the city. But safe. Where I can guard it.

And make it mine. Some jars are just tossed with rocks. But most are carefully composed.

Like poetry. A lovely gut feeling. But one that goes only so far.

The jars are just what I can see.

But poetry is a little trickier. It’s tougher. It runs deeper. I have to be more honest with it … and then slide sideways. A harder haul. I’m not always up for that. That’s when my jars come in handy.

And sometimes … jars and poetry work beautifully together. Because sometimes I expect more from artwork. I expect it to express things I can’t express any other way. A release valve of utter beauty. Of love and loss and sweetness and death. Of all the things that run deeper than we will ever understand.

I’m still looking for all my crab shells. I keep collecting them, but much to my idealistic surprise, crabs die in different sizes. I might have to adjust my imagined perfect vertical all-the-same-size line. And I’m still looking for the perfect glass jar to contain them. It’s an ongoing project. Thank heavens. For now.

In the meantime, to make sense of writing poetry (an impossible task) and with those dead crabs in mind, I wrote a poem about it. Think of it as a little gift on a hot summer day.


Crab shells
stacked up
No legs
No heart
No lungs
No underbelly
to know
male from female.

One crab shell
still has eyes,
dried poppyseeds
hard as hills.

Words strung
like beads of barnacles
empty of feathered fingers
free of cement.

Rinse the sand
rinse the broken bits
of shells
dipped in a pool
between tides.

Words worn
on the outside
like lines of poems.

Carapaces stacked up like tides

all that goes without saying
stuffed inside
then scraped away

to feed to gulls
and sand fleas.

— Laura Grimes