Bird in a Drawer

December 7, 2021

Poetry Off the Shelf: Bird in a Drawer





Helena de Groot: This is Poetry Off the Shelf. I’m Helena de Groot. Today, Bird in a Drawer. Keats Conley is a poet and a biologist. A marine biologist, actually, who happens to live in Idaho. But even in land-locked Idaho, her work keeps her tied to the ocean, because she studies fish that live in the ocean and travel inland each year to spawn: the chinook salmon, for instance. Chinook salmon is now considered an endangered species, and Keats Conley spends her days figuring out what we can do to save them, as a researcher for the National Forest Service.


I wanted to know a lot more about that, but since federal agencies have pretty strict rules about their employees using their job for private gain, we’ll keep the job talk to a minimum. What we are going to talk about is her poetry, because in July, Conley published her debut collection: Guidance from the God of Seahorses. On the cover is a picture that captures her collection really well: a tiny seahorse, bobbing around in a gorgeous blue ocean, clutching a piece of garbage—a Q-tip.


When I sat down to talk with her, the first thing I wanted to know was when she decided to become a biologist.


Keats Conley: I knew I wanted to be a biologist from a very young age. I just remember as a kid always saying to my parents that I wanted to be a marine biologist or a veterinarian. And I’ve actually ended up trying to be both. One with more success than the other. I went to graduate school in marine biology. And then after my PhD, I decided I wanted to become a veterinarian. And so I actually got into vet school and went for a brief period of time at Washington State University, but I had my daughter at that same time in my life. And so I started vet school with a nine-month-old, and that ended up being too much to take on. So then I just decided, okay, I’ll just be a marine biologist. So yeah, it’s been a wonderful career path.


Helena de Groot: And so just to quickly pick up on that moment that you thought you were going to be a veterinarian after all, were you thinking, “Oh, I picked the wrong out of one out of the two”?


Keats Conley: No, not necessarily. I think that I’m just someone who loves learning and was finishing one path and felt like, okay, now what do I want to do next? And just felt like, you know, the sky’s the limit. I still want to be a veterinarian, too, and I’m just going to keep going.


Helena de Groot: And so, just tell me, how did you first get interested in this underwater life?


Keats Conley: Yeah, it’s kind of funny, because I grew up in Boise, Idaho, which is very, of course, far from the ocean. But my mom and I used to go for about a week every summer to the Oregon coast, and I think that that really was a big factor in my interest in the sea from a young age. I just have very vivid memories of going to the Oregon Coast Aquarium, and just sort of that childhood sense of awe and wonder of that other world that exists under the sea, that’s kind of going on all the time that we’re otherwise oblivious to. And yeah, the ocean definitely felt far away from my reality through much of that period of my life. But I had the good fortune of being able to work with people who were very gracious and, you know, very willing to sort of guide me and mentor me and work with me as this, you know, small town kid from Idaho who really didn’t know anything about the ocean. (LAUGHS)


Helena de Groot: And was there, besides the one week a year in Oregon with your mom each summer, were there other ways in which you were growing up just kind of thinking of the natural world or that your life was really closely tied to the natural world?


Keats Conley: Yeah, my dad was a river guide. So I had the good fortune of being able to join him on a lot of river trips growing up. And I think that that definitely instilled in me sort of this fascination about, you know, reading water. Like, my dad was definitely someone who knew how to read water and kind of think about how do you route a raft through this turbulence and get everyone through it, you know, at the end, still in the boat. (LAUGHS)


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS)


Keats Conley: And sort of looking at water in a different way, that was still always very intriguing to me. And I had a lot of other formative experiences with the natural world, and I’ve just always been very deeply associated with animals and was always that kid who was like, bringing home snakes and katydids and putting things in jars and, you know, hiding them in my room.


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS)


Keats Conley: And once I brought a duck home when my mom was out of town and she came home and found this baby duck that had been living in our bathtub. And like, I don’t know if you’ve ever had any experience with ducks, but they’re really, really smelly and like our whole house smelled like this duck—


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS)


Keats Conley: —that I’d been keeping in our bathtub. And my mom was like, “You can’t have a duck, we live in a townhouse.” And I worked at a wild bird rehabilitation center for many years in high school and early in college, and so that’s where the duck came from. I didn’t just, you know, get it out of—I didn’t steal it!


Helena de Groot: You didn’t just pick it up from the pond. (LAUGHS)


Keats Conley: Yeah, I didn’t, no. So yeah, I just, I worked around a lot of people who were very interested in animals. And yeah, that definitely affected me.


Helena de Groot: And did you also learn the names for, you know, different creatures early on? Like, did your parents kind of tell you or did you just have a ton of books that you read about that? Or how did that go?


Keats Conley: I have always had a fascination with names, and I think it comes from a mix of my mom and my dad. My dad is more of a naturalist. As I mentioned, he was a river guide, and he’s also like a hobby birder. So he was definitely always like identifying birds and plants and trees and taking me on nature walks along the river. Like that was very much the influence of my dad. Whereas my mom is kind of less of a naturalist, but she’s a poet, professionally. She teaches poetry, and then she’s published several books of poetry. And so, those two different perspectives sort of merged in me. So, yeah.


Helena de Groot: Like, what’s a favorite name? Even irrespective of the creature, if you’re into this creature or not, you know, but just the name that you think it’s good or funny or, you know, or has a good image sort of locked inside it?


Keats Conley: That’s a great question. I’m thinking about it now through the lens of my daughter who is learning the names for all of these things now, too, right. My kids are two and five. And so they’re at that age where they’re still learning language and still learning what everything is named. And so I’m trying to think of one that my daughter would identify with, because they have the best perspective of that because it’s all fresh and new.


Helena de Groot: Yes.


Keats Conley: And sometimes as those names sort of age, we lose that initial appreciation for just the beauty of the word.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Keats Conley: Um … Okay, here’s one. Chickadees. I love that word. (LAUGHS) Do you know?


Helena de Groot: I don’t think I know what that is.


Keats Conley: Chickadees are a little black and white bird. They’re about the size of, like, a sparrow or a finch. And they’re really cute. They’re kind of fluffy and just these little black and white birds. And the name sort of, I think, comes from the sound of the call that they make. They make a song that goes kind of chickadee-dee-dee-dee-dee, chickadee-dee-dee-dee-dee. And it’s just such a fun word to say, right? Chickadee, chickadee.


Helena de Groot: It is really fun.


Keats Conley: It’s such a big word for such a small bird.


Helena de Groot: Yeah, yeah, that is good. But it’s also a very cute name, right? Because it has the word “chick” in there, you know? So it does look like this like round, fluffy, you know—


Keats Conley: Yes.


Helena de Groot: —just barely born, yeah, chick.


Keats Conley: Yes.


Helena de Groot: Yeah. As I was reading your poetry collection, Guidance from the God of Seahorses, I was just struck by the good names of some of the creatures that you write about, you know, like even creatures that, I know that, but I don’t sit here spending my days thinking about how cool the names are. Like daddy longlegs, like what, who ever came up with that? Why the “daddy,” you know? It’s so—(LAUGHS)


Keats Conley: Yeah! Yeah, that’s a good one. And then it has another name, too, which is the harvestmen, which I don’t think people use as much to associate with it. So, yeah, I’m very interested in names and sort of the history of where those come from, and does naming it that sort of change how you perceive it or how it exists in the world, right? Like if you called a daddy longleg a spider, people would probably not like them as much, but because we have that funny name for it, daddy longlegs, like, it’s the one sort of spider-like bug that we don’t seem to have that same level of repulsion towards that we do of other, you know, similar looking insects, right? And that’s sort of intriguing to me.


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS) This is very true. I have a longstanding argument with my husband, you know, what he calls and you would call “roly poly,” which is a very cute name, that creature, we, in Dutch call that “pissebed,” which means like, “pee bed.” Pee like, you, you know, urinate in the bed, you know? So I think it’s a disgusting creature, you know? But he thinks it’s very cute because, roly poly, look at that.


Keats Conley: Yeah! It’s so funny that you say that, because roly polies also just came to my mind as one that we have a very sort of cutesy name for and kids really like them. But they also have another name, which is a pill bug, which is kind of a less nice name. And when I think about pill bug, you know, they sort of seem to be gross. But when I think about them as a roly poly, I just kind of want to poke them and turn them into that little ball. Yeah.


Helena de Groot: Yeah. Yeah, I really love that. I mean, also, I think the reason why daddy longlegs, I was thinking about that earlier as I was, you know, reading your poetry and I thought, why are they so cute? Why do I have such affection for them? I think it helps that their legs are not hairy.


Keats Conley: But other spiders have legs that aren’t hairy, right, like just house spiders.


Helena de Groot: Yeah, that’s true, but their body is so much more fat.


Keats Conley: Right. Yes, there is definitely something unique about the way that daddy long legs move, and that’s kind of also what the poem is about, too. So, yeah.


Helena de Groot: Yeah. Do you want to read that one?


Keats Conley: Sure. Okay.




The God of Daddy Long Legs


Every ten days, split your body and drag new legs from the casings. After each meal, draw every leg to your mouth and floss your jaws. Repurpose your legs as eyes, ears, nose and tongue. Move with the grace of forget-me-nots—on the line between insect and seed, tripping the light with an octagon of toes. Keep your nerves to the ground and your thorax to the air. Samba down sidewalks. Breathe through your tracheae. Swing dance like a sermon, like a quarter note turning to a semibreve. Pitch toes-first to the wind. If your legs detach, keep moving; keep bristling land with your broom feet for another half-billion years.


Helena de Groot: It’s such a lovely poem. Can you tell me a little bit about like the quote-unquote “facts,” you know, that are in here? Like, what is real about this? Really, every 10 days they split their bodies and drag new legs from the casings?


Keats Conley: Yeah, you know, I had to do a fair amount of research for most of these poems. And it’s been a while since I did that. And so, I’m going to try and keep my facts straight as best I can. But yeah, that piece is true. The half billion years, I think, is approximately true in terms of how long they’ve been in existence on Earth.


Helena de Groot: Wow.


Keats Conley: But yeah, that is how they grow larger, by sort of splitting their body case and re-growing. You know, in terms of an exoskeleton and having to shed that exoskeleton to grow larger, similar to what crabs do.


Helena de Groot: Right. But this is a joke right? “After each meal, draw every leg to your mouth and floss your jaws.” This is not—they don’t do that, right?


Keats Conley: I don’t think so, though they could! Their legs are long enough. (LAUGHS)


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS) Okay, I was just—they are, they definitely are. And it has also, I mean, like, it’s so lovely, the “Samba down sidewalks” and “Swing dance like a sermon.” They do dance a whole lot. Do you know why that is? I mean, do they just sway in the wind or is it more purposeful than that?


Helena de Groot: It’s hard to say if there’s purpose to their movement, but I worked in a lab at the University of Oregon that’s focused largely on the movement of plankton, and plankton are defined by being moved by the currents, and that essentially, we view plankton through the lens of the sea is what’s making the move, but actually, my PhD advisor has done a lot of work showing that they have more control over their own movement than traditionally we’ve thought. And so I guess looking at it through that lens, I think that the way that animals move is often more intentional than maybe we are able to see or appreciate from the perspective of the scale that we’re living in. Sometimes it’s hard to know, you know. I mean, no matter what we study, we’re always studying it through our lens as a human. And I think there’s certainly a constraint there.


Helena de Groot: Yeah. I remember this one thing that I read where they had tried to figure out the intelligence of monkeys by giving them faces to distinguish. And the monkeys were really pretty bad at it, so they concluded, well, you know, they’re not so smart, these monkeys. And then, I think a woman scientist came to them and was like, “Okay, but did you try to give them monkey faces? Because you gave them human faces.” And these scientists had honestly not thought of that! No, they had given these monkeys human faces. And as soon as they gave them monkey faces, they were as good at it as human beings are, you know?


Keats Conley: Yeah, that’s a great story. It makes me think of something that a professor once said in an invertebrate zoology lecture that I’ve never forgotten. It was in relation to octopuses. But he said, “We measure intelligence by the ability to use objects.”


Helena de Groot: Huh.


Keats Conley: And by that metric, of course octopuses can be perceived as being intelligent, but that’s just always struck me as, you know, there’s probably a lot of other things that contribute to intelligence, but that are very difficult to measure. And it’s also a very human-centric way of measuring intelligence.


Helena de Groot: Yeah. God, that, I mean, it sort of explodes your brain when you try to think of that, right?


Keats Conley: (LAUGHS)


Helena de Groot: Like it’s, you want to break out of the mold that is your own way of seeing things. But it’s ... I don’t know. I don’t know what another way of measuring intelligence or even conceiving of it would be, you know? But I felt like a lot of your poetry also did that, kind of exploded my brain a little, you know?


Keats Conley: (LAUGHS)


Helena de Groot: The way, I mean, you know, I thought I knew daddy long legs. As a child, I’ve paid so much attention to them, of course, because they’re kind of funny looking. And, you know, as you write, they dance a lot. But the way you write, “on the line between insect and seed,” it really just, you know, exploded something in my brain, because I thought, “Wow, that is exactly what it is!” You know? It just looks like a little seed caught in the wind, basically. But it is an actual insect, you know, can walk around and stuff. It’s beautiful. I think the best images kind of make us see the world anew. And this one definitely did that.


Keats Conley: Thank you so much. I mean, I feel like that’s the power of poetry. You know, I think that poetry sort of bends language and plays with language and calls attention to those sort of places that maybe we’re failing to perceive or notice in our day-to-day world and in other forms of writing. Poetry just has that power to … to play, really. And in sort of that play space, I think, is where magic can happen. And that’s why I love poetry.


Helena de Groot: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. And your poems were so affecting, too, because, you know, they’re strung through with joy, like the kind of joy that you take in language, the joy that you take in reveling in sort of the interesting qualities of all these creatures. But then there is also such a layer of grief, you know, throughout the book. And yeah, because you talk about like the extinction of certain species and or their near extinction. And I was wondering if you can talk about that, like, how did the book come about? Was your grief always already a part? Like, was that why you wanted to write it? Or did that come later as you were researching and finding out what happened to a lot of these? Like, can you talk a little bit about how this project came to be and how grief factors into that?


Keats Conley: Yeah. I came up with this idea driving in my car in the dark. I was living in Blackfoot, Idaho, at the time. And just had that sort of quiet time to myself in the car, and just had this vision of poems formatted as these sort of advice columns from a series of gods, sort of looking at extinction through the lens of the creator. And I think it came about from the photograph that’s featured now as the book cover, which is the seahorse clutching that Q-Tip. My dad sent me this photograph. He often sends me just little clippings of things from newspapers and stuff that he sees. He sends them in the mail. And this one just stayed with me. It’s just such a powerful image. And so just those sort of two ideas kind of collided in my brain driving in the dark on my way home. So I just set about that night when I got home, and I wrote the first poem about this seahorse.


Helena de Groot: And can you tell me about what it was like for you as you started writing these, yeah, like, advice columns almost from the perspective of the god who created, you know, the creature of that poem, what it was like for you to imagine almost like a constellation of gods? Did that change how you thought about these creatures and their … their fate in the world that we’ve created for them? I mean, or the world that we have forced them into?


Keats Conley: Yeah. First of all, getting to speak as if God was very fun. That was just a really fun narrator to get to try and be.


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS) Mm-hmm.


Keats Conley: And getting to sort of think about animals as if you’re the—I want to say person—as if you’re the creator, is certainly, for me, allowed me to feel an even deeper sense of grief and sense of kinship, I guess, to these different animal species than I do through my own day-to-day world. And that’s not to say that I don’t feel a deep sense of grief in my own perspective as an individual. I certainly do, but I think that there’s some value in speaking from a different narrator than yourself. Just that process of trying to step into someone else’s brain, I think is useful for the creative process. And I think it’s also useful for readers, because it invites other people to also step into that space and to feel all of that.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Keats Conley: And it just, it allowed for a different headspace, I guess, to feel all of these emotions and in their fullness and the weight of them.


Helena de Groot: Yeah. What I think is so interesting, too, is that, when you take the stance of the creator, you’re not—god, how to say this. If a human being is the one who does the talking, right, then you also have to assume the guilt that comes with that. Like, human beings have wrecked this planet in more ways than we can say. And so, I don’t know what it would mean to write about a creature while you’re carrying that guilt. But if you inhabit the perspective of the creator, it’s so different. It’s as if, you know, you write a poem, either as the murderer of a person or as that person’s mother, you know? And you took the perspective of the mother.


Keats Conley: Yeah, that’s a great analogy. Yeah, I mean, it’s a chance to step outside of yourself. And again, just getting back to that theme of what are the limits of our own perspective? What weight do we carry as a human, and how does that shape how we see the world, as opposed to trying to see something just for what it is? And so, taking that perspective of God was an attempt to try and do that, just to see things as what they are, as close as I possibly can.


Helena de Groot: Yeah, yeah. I was wondering if you want to read another poem. I was thinking … god, there are so many good ones. Let’s go with “The God of Horseshoe Crabs.” It’s on page four. Because I thought it was really a poet’s creature, you know, with all the moons and all of that.


Keats Conley: Sure.


Helena de Groot: And maybe before you start, do you want to just, for people who don’t have a horseshoe crab fresh in mind, can you just kind of describe it a little bit and maybe say why are moons relevant when you talk about horseshoe crabs?


Keats Conley: Yeah. I’m going to pull up a picture here so that I can kind of look at it while I try and describe it. They look kind of like a fossilized helmet (LAUGHS) with a tail.


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS)


Keats Conley: They’re quite funny looking. And they’re another creature, you know, that sort of hovers on that edge of, you know, what is an animal versus what is a fossil versus what is a seed. You know, there’s just sort of this fun gray area where things are just alive and … you know, just sort of exist on their own. Of course it’s an animal, but it, it just looks very prehistoric.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Keats Conley: It also sort of looks like a Roomba. That would be cleaning your floor, you know?


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS) That’s so true.


Keats Conley: They just sort of move around in the sand, and—


Helena de Groot: They would just bump into things.


Keats Conley: Yeah, yeah.


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHING) Totally. And what is their relationship with the moon? Can you just talk about that?


Keats Conley: Yeah, I’ll speak to it I guess on just a very general level but, you know, the moons are very much interrelated to the sea and to tides, and a lot of organisms cue to tidal cycles, and in particular, horseshoe crabs, I think, spawn in relation to tidal cycles. And that’s sort of what this poem is alluding to.


Helena de Groot: Right.


Keats Conley:




The God of Horseshoe Crabs


I felt the need for nine eyes: two for mates, and the rest for moonlight. Two thousand photoreceptors demanded two-thousand titles: Snow Moon, Seed Moon, Egg Moon, Oak Moon, Sprouting Grass Moon. A moon and a month are cognates, like shadow and shade, strange and extraneous. They are the pooled blood of language. A month should be based on a Moon’s movement relative to a star. A mouth should be based in the center of the legs, amid the flavors of salt, fish, and grit. Sprinkle your next generation, polish sand into emeralds until every grain is your own Green Moon.


Helena de Groot: Yeah, I mean, I feel like it’s such a poet’s poem, you know, with the two, you know, “nine eyes: two for mates, and the rest for moonlight.” I feel like every poet is like, “Yeah, that describes me.”


Keats Conley: (LAUGHS)


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS) And then, I mean, it’s just so fun: “I felt the need for nine eyes.” And then further, “A mouth should be based in the center of the legs.” I love that it’s like said with great aplomb.


Keats Conley: (LAUGHS)


Helena de Groot: You know, like this is how it’s supposed to be, okay, a mouth, that’s where it goes: “center of the legs, amid the flavors of salt, fish and grit.” It’s really funny and really good.


Keats Conley: Yeah, and that’s exactly what I mean about that fun perspective of just trying to think about, you know, why does this animal look like this? And what does it feel like to have your mouth be right in the middle of your legs?


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS)


Keats Conley: You know, and I spent time thinking about that, and I was like, Well, it’s probably really gritty, because they’re running around on the sand all day.


Helena de Groot: Oh yeah. Yeah. Yeah, I made the mistake to look up horseshoe crabs. And I’m saying it’s a mistake, because then you get all these articles about the sad things that human beings do to them. And I don’t know if you know this, but did you know that they are used by the pharmaceutical industry?


Keats Conley: I did not know that.


Helena de Groot: Yeah. So apparently, horseshoe crabs have blue blood.


Keats Conley: Oh, yes.


Helena de Groot: Their blood is kind of like a milky sort of blue substance. And they … they drain them. I mean, they just, they take them into the factory and then they cut this vein near their heart, I think. And then they just bleed them dry. And they use the blood, because apparently there is a substance in there. And so, drug companies use that thing that they find in the horseshoe crab’s blue blood to see if there are traces of toxins in vaccines or other injectable drugs, or, like, you know, hip replacements. Or, you know, because if there happens to be a trace amount of like, some kind of toxin in there, yeah, you can, you can die from that. So they bleed these creatures dry, basically, and then they throw them back into the ocean. And of course, a lot of them die. And that’s why now horseshoe crabs are like, maybe not quite endangered yet, but they’re, you know, their populations are dwindling at a spectacular rate. And just seeing that picture of the factory where they’re all being bled, like, it’s so dystopian, you know?


Keats Conley: Yeah. Now that you’re describing that, it is ringing a bell. And again, it’s been a while since I did all of the research that went into this book and sort of reading the story of each of these animals. But yeah, it’s interesting to hear you describe how you felt looking at those photographs, because they’re not an animal that intuitively inspires that sort of charismatic megafauna type of reaction. You know, that instills us with this deep sense of camaraderie towards this animal. I mean, really, it has this very hard armoring of its shell, and it’s kind of an animal that, you know, in terms of the spectrum of animals we intuitively feel the strong emotional attachment to is probably on the opposite side of that spectrum, far from the cute chickadee, right, is the horseshoe crab.


Helena de Groot: Right. Yeah.


Keats Conley: So yeah, it’s interesting sort of depending on the morphology of the animal, I think humans really run the gamut in terms of our reaction to situations like that and what we think is ethically justifiable to do to animals versus what’s not.


Helena de Groot: But there’s just something so sad about the rational, willful environment of a factory. You know, like the way it’s sort of laid out with all these identical machines made out of this hard metal. You know what I mean? Like the human fingerprint is all over that, but not the part of humans that I think is lovable, you know? But the other part, the part that just blasts holes through mountains and goes like, you know, “We need a tunnel or we’re going to just, you know, dynamite this,” that part, the conqueror part, you know. And just to see these animals. Yeah, they don’t look cute. You’re right. They totally look like a fossilized helmet.


Keats Conley: (LAUGHS)


Helena de Groot: But, you know, to see them strapped in to this machinery and then have bottles with, like, this blue liquid that you now know is their blood, standing on the floor underneath them, it’s, it’s, I don’t care how not cute they are, you know, it’s just appalling. I really think it’s appalling. Yeah. I don’t know, I just felt like a lot of the—that was what was so cool about your book. Like, a lot of the creatures are not quote-unquote “cute” creatures, you know, but the way you write about them is just really affecting. I was wondering if you can read the poem, “The God of Pteropods”?


Keats Conley: Sure. Yeah.


Helena de Groot: And again, like, before we start, can you say, what is the pteropod? What do they look like?


Keats Conley: Yeah. Once again, I’m going to pull up an image so that I can—


Helena de Groot: The images are just beautiful! Oh, I couldn’t stop looking at them.


Keats Conley: Pteropods are really neat. So, pteropods are a member of the marine plankton, and they’re often referred to as sea angels or sea butterflies. They’re related to snails, but they’re kind of like snails that can fly through the plankton, not fly through the air. They’re in water, of course, but they’re not attached to a substrate like traditionally you would associate with a snail. And yeah, they kind of look like small ghosts.


Helena de Groot: Yeah. Because they’re translucent, right?


Keats Conley: Yeah. They’re, yeah, generally translucent-ish. And they’re very small, right, you couldn’t really appreciate their morphology unless they’re under a microscope. They’re very ethereal looking. And again, sort of one of these animals that is an animal, but, just kind of looks almost more like a, just a shape or a … a ghost.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Keats Conley: Just floating out there in the ocean.


Helena de Groot: Do you want to read the poem?


Keats Conley: Sure yeah, now I’m just captivated by these images of pteropods. (LAUGHS)




The God of Pteropods


When I crafted your delicate shell-body from the crystal lattice of aragonite, I was spellbound by the thought of fly-swimming; of a sea snail, flapping a wing-foot freely through ambiguous blue. I never envisioned your death by dissolution, that your ocean-sky might one day corrode you from the outside in. It’s a blurred line between shell and self—who shelters who? Recover from the penultimate whorl. Take your wing-foot and out fly-run acid-base equilibria.


Helena de Groot: Thank you. Yeah, you hear the God of Pteropods, so, you know, the parent of this pteropod say, “I never envisioned your death by dissolution.” Because, can you explain what happens with them?


Keats Conley: Yeah. This poem, of course, is about ocean acidification. And pteropods have become a poster child for ocean acidification, because they have an aragonite component of their shell that’s very sensitive to changing ocean chemistry. And so they literally have been observed to dissolve as the oceans are acidifying. Their shell dissolves. And that’s what this poem is alluding to. You know, from the perspective of God watching this, this creature that you’ve created, dissolving in an acidifying sea.


Helena de Groot: Yeah, I mean, it’s terrifying, right? Because we think so often about agency, right? Like the agency we have as human beings to do something about climate change. I mean, which may feel like not a lot of agency, right, like, we may feel powerless, but we still do have agency. But this creature literally cannot do anything. They just sit in an ocean that corrodes them.


Keats Conley: Yes.


Helena de Groot: “It’s a blurred line between shell and self—who shelters who?” Yeah, I thought it was really, really affecting, especially because then I went to look up a little bit about them, and, yeah, they’re like a critical source of food for all these other creatures, a lot of whom—a lot of which we eat, you know, fish and yeah, so. And then also they affect the cycling of carbon and carbonate in the oceans. So it’s basically like killing off the trees or something.


Keats Conley: Yeah. I mean, the ocean food web is so complex and so deeply intertwined. You know, it’s hard to know how things unravel when you take out a piece of that food web, you know, that we have a very limited understanding of, because it’s so complex and, you know, it’s so foreign and understudied compared to our terrestrial food web. It’s really hard to even conceive of what the analogy would be, because there’s so much active work still going on about how the ocean food web works, and simultaneously, we’re unraveling it. Yeah, it’s, it’s hard to fully appreciate the magnitude of that.


Helena de Groot: But how do you deal with that as a human being? You know, because you went into this field because you thought this was so beautiful. And to then be confronted with the human-caused, like, you know, death of so many of the things that you find most beautiful, how do you not go insane?


Keats Conley: (LAUGHS) That’s a great question. That’s a great question. It actually reminds me of a poem that I recently read at a science conference. I presented recently at the American Fisheries Society Conference. And I gave a presentation on sort of what poetry has to offer science communication and how we, as scientists, can perhaps consider using tools from poetry like simile, metaphor, imagery, to better convey topics like climate change to general audiences. Anyway, as part of that talk, I read a poem by Maya Popa. I’m going to pull it up here real quick. It’s called “Letter to Noah’s Wife”, and it’s just an amazingly powerful poem. And it has a line in there that speaks exactly to what you’re asking about. Anyway, the poem, “Letter to Noah’s Wife” by Maya Popa is largely wrestling with climate change, and it just has incredible lines in it. “Lately, / I’m torn between despair and ignorance. / I’m not a vegetarian, shop plastic, / use an air conditioner. Is this what happens / before it all goes fluvial?” And later in the poem, she has this stanza where she says, “Tucking / our families into the safeties of the past. / My children, will they exist by the time / it’s irreversible? Will they live / astonished at the thought of ice / not pulled from the mouth of a machine?” And she says, “Noah’s wife, I am wringing / my hands not knowing how to know / and move forward.” And every time I read this poem, I just almost break down into tears, because I so strongly relate to this feeling that she’s describing of wringing your hands, not knowing how to know and move forward, and trying to think about your children in regards to climate change. And, yeah, I mean, I just feel that way. That way that’s so beautifully captured by that poem, of just mentally wringing my hands, wringing my head all the time, especially because I have two young children.


Helena de Groot: Yeah. How do you tell them? I mean, they’re very young, right? Two and five. So I imagine that there’s a limit to how much you want to tell them about the bad things human beings are doing to their beloved planet. But how do you teach them awe when you know it will break their heart?


Keats Conley: Yeah, I haven’t gotten to that point yet. As you said, you know, they’re still very young. They’re just two and five. So I haven’t had to really have any of those conversations with them yet. But in my professional life, I feel like I hope that I’m trying to do more. As I touched on, I recently presented at the American Fisheries Society Conference, and I participated in the capacity as a member of the American Fisheries Society’s Climate Ambassador Program. We meet every month and we talk about how we can communicate about climate change more effectively. And one of the themes that’s come out of that is that we think that we need to do a better job of sharing kind of more personal stories as scientists. And that can be difficult, right, because scientists tend to sort of have these hard and fast lines between our science, which is very objective and not personal, by definition, it’s objective, as close to truth as possible, and then our personal lives, they occupy very different spaces. But what people most strongly resonate with tends to be stories and personal experiences. And so I think that there’s very much a place for that in our communication about climate change. And I’m trying to learn better ways to do that and to try and not be afraid of sharing more personal experiences.


Helena de Groot: Okay, so my last question then, could you tell me one story from your own life that always gets for you to the heart of why we need to preserve this beautiful earth?


Keats Conley: Yeah! I have one that came right to mind. And it’s not an aquatic one. But as I mentioned, birds have also been this kind of recurring theme in my life. And if I didn’t study fish, I certainly would have studied birds. I actually came to graduate school thinking I would study marine birds—


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS)


Keats Conley: —which is just another path I didn’t go down, but I do have this love of birds. And I worked at a wild bird rehabilitation center growing up, and I also volunteered at the Peregrine Fund, which is a center in Boise that is premised on recovery of the Peregrine Falcon and other raptors as they’ve recovered from DDT. And they have a museum. And when I was volunteering, at one point, I was shown into this section of the museum that’s off-limits to the public. And they have a drawer in the museum. I just remember them taking me in and pulling out this drawer, and in the drawer, they had a taxidermied passenger pigeon. And I mean, the passenger pigeon, it looks kind of like a mourning dove or a present day pigeon, but they were a native pigeon to North America that were once like, if not the most common native bird species. You know, that would have probably been eating at my bird feeder right outside my window. But they were hunted to the point of extinction when, you know, our country was being colonized.


Helena de Groot: Wow.


Keats Conley: You know, and we didn’t have state agencies dedicated to managing hunting like we do today. They were eradicated. And, you know, now our bird communities look so profoundly different. I mean, instead, I have English sparrows, you know, out eating from my bird feeder right now, which are not native. And it’s just kind of incredible how profoundly human beings have shaped the species composition on our planet.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.




Keats Conley: And so, I just have this recollection of seeing this bird pulled out of a drawer that’s not in the world anymore, and just feeling the power of knowing that this is something that used to be so abundant, you know, it blackened the sky. That’s how abundant passenger pigeons used to be. And now they’re extinct. And the only interaction that I’ll have with this animal is its stuffed carcass being pulled out of a drawer. That’s all that we have left. And … to me, that’s sort of always held this power of an example of the cold truth of extinction. You know, we have this incredibly rich, wonderful, mysterious planet full of diversity that we’re chipping away at. I mean, chipping is not even the right verb. It’s like actively hacking at it, before we even have the chance to fully describe it. So yeah, that’s, that would be it, just pulling the passenger pigeon out of the drawer.




Helena de Groot: Keats Conley just published her debut collection, Guidance from the God of Seahorses, with poems that the writer Terry Tempest Williams describes as “Earth psalms.” Conley holds a doctorate in marine biology from the University of Oregon, where she spent six years researching gelatinous plankton. If you want to see a spectacularly beautiful video based on her research, I recommend Googling “Latticework and Slime.” I kid you not, it is gorgeous. Today, Conley works as a fish biologist for the National Forest Service in Idaho. She lives in Salmon, Idaho with her husband, their two children, a dog, and the many beautiful birds coming to their birdfeeder. To find out more, check out the featured review of her collection on the Poetry Foundation website. The music in this episode is by Todd Sickafoose. I’m Helena de Groot, and this was Poetry Off the Shelf. Thank you for listening.




Keats Conley on smelly ducks, spiders, and the limits of the human perspective.

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