Re-imagining the Lowly Spider
It saddens and sometimes angers me that spiders generate such fear and sense of repulsion. And so it’s heartening to know that there are people who love spiders, who are fascinated by them.
I wouldn’t claim to be particularly comfortable around spiders, but I wish them no harm. In fact, when I know my husband is gearing up to clean our bathroom (the porcelain duty usually falls to him) I sneak in first and remove all the cellar spiders, dispersing them to – yes – the cellar, where they may not be quite as warm, but where they certainly will be safer. I may not love spiders but I have a history with them, and they fascinate me.
It is 1976, and I am upstairs in my self-built Vermont cabin. I am typing (on a typewriter!) at my desk, while wispy filaments, like eyelashes, float through the air in front of my face and around my head. Some of them waft through the rays of the winter sun, and they glisten. In Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin describes it this way: “These, glittering in the sunshine, might be compared to diverging rays of light; they were not, however, straight, but in undulations like films of silk blown by the wind.” I know what has happened; the female spider’s egg sac has split, and the offspring are in dispersal status. I have protected sac and spider from my three cats who are young and curious, and now comes the startling reality that I can no longer protect them. Nor can I imagine how these tiny, hardly visible creatures can possibly survive.
Fast forward fifteen years. It is Easter Sunday, and I leave my house in darkness for my first church service of the day. Although I am running late, when I round the corner of my house I stop for a moment in awe as the sun unfolds its rays and races down the mountain above me. Coincidentally, at the periphery of my vision, I catch the slightest of movements in the garden. I don’t think much about it, as it has hardly registered. Then the sun hits the tops of the bushes, and I see what has caught my attention – literally, the blink of an eye. A small male goldfinch is suspended upside down, not moving a feather; it’s not possible, but there he is. He blinks again. I lay my vestments on the sidewalk and creep into the garden. Now the sun penetrates and lights up the web of an orb spider (and the hungry spider herself), in the center of which is suspended one very frightened bird. I gently release the finch, and make a discovery for the first time: the spokes of the web are not sticky; the rest is. Home again, I do a little research, and learn what I imagine most people already know. It’s how a spider travels, on the non-stick filaments of her web.
It is now 2009, and I am walking with my dog Missy, very first tracks on a foot of fresh snow. Untouched, so that thirty yards in front of us, the dark spot in the middle of the snow covered dirt road looks out of place. Not only that, it is moving, moving fast, in fact. As we approach, I see that it’s a small spider. I wonder how s/he got there; I also wonder where s/he is headed because there is nothing but snow in front of her. I opt for an intervention. I pick her up with my mittened hand, and the spider finds a safe spot between my thumb and fingers, and seems content enough to stay there as we make our way home. I put her among my begonias, and figure she can have a warm enough winter.
A year and a half ago, Jim and I make ready for a major remodel of our New Hampshire home. The preparation seems endless, and it is not surprising to him that I am making it even more difficult. Outside the guest room window is a mama spider, and beside her is her egg sac. I know that ladders will soon be climbing that wall, and so, in a burst of compassion, I attempt to remove both spider and sac. But they drop to the ground. I peer down and can see the sac, but not the spider. Suddenly the sac begins to move, and I realize the mama spider is dragging the egg sac across the lawn. I am spell bound. It takes her a long time, but she is obviously determined. I see the egg sac make its way up the sturdy stalk of a comfrey plant, and then it disappears. Curious, I follow the trail and peer under the highest leaf on the plant. There is the sac, and the mama is affixing it well to the underside of the comfrey. Truly, I am dumbfounded, and wrestle with a sense of guilt for quite a few days.
And at last, this summer, after a day of pouring rain, I step outside and find a large spider – an uncomfortably large spider, dead on the deck floor, her eight legs wrapped around her egg sac. I gently lay spider and sac on an index card and add it to my box of “treasures”.
I am both saddened and fascinated by my intimate engagement with spiders – in particular, the last two close encounters. What compels a spider to drag her offspring fifty yards across the grass? What compels a dying spider to wrap her arms around her egg sac? These two images haunt me, and I am not sure why. It has something to do, I think, with where I began this musing: the bad rap that spiders suffer in the minds and at the hands (and vacuum cleaners) of humans. At first blush, spiders are kind of ugly and creepy. We’re afraid, repulsed, and therefore we hate them. We teach our children to say “I hate spiders.” We teach our children to crush them.
Yet spiders are beautiful, and they are fascinating. Close encounters such as these make me want to know more, and so I begin to explore the role of spiders in the ecosystems of earth. I am not surprised to learn that they prey and are preyed upon. As my husband Jim too often remarks, “everybody is somebody else’s lunch.”
This is what I already knew: spiders are good gardening partners, as they feast on other destructive insect populations. And they don’t eat cabbage leaves, or squash blossoms.
What I now know that I didn’t, is that spiders, because of the way the newly hatched move on silken tendrils at the whim of the currents of wind, they are often the first to catalyze the development of ecosystems where before now, there have been none.
The naturalist and teacher Chris Buddle argues this: spiders and their webs represent little pockets of concentrated nutrients in landscapes that are void of much other life. He reminds us, for example, that after the eruption of Mount St. Helens, spiders were the first to repopulate, and therefore the first to catalyze the recovery of the ecosystems of the Cascades.
I am inordinately pleased by this idea. It reminds me of what I already know; all created forms – animate and inanimate – have role and function on this magnificent planet. It is to our earth, and therefore human, peril that we take so lightly the 200 or so per day extinction of earth’s creatures.
Reminds me of Madeleine L’Engle: “How should we be able to forget those ancient myths about dragons that at the last minute turn into princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave … Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.”
(And actually, it was L’Engle quoting Rilke)