I Am Spider-Man
Alright, now that I have your attention, I’m not really Spider-Man. I was never bitten by a radioactive one, I can’t shoot webs out of my hands, and I’m afraid of heights, so scaling buildings is right out. I am a spider man, however, and it wasn’t always thus. As a child I was terrified of them. I have a dim memory of a dream where they were crawling all over me. Maybe it’s a common childhood night terror or something. I avoided them at all cost. And do you know what cured me of my arachnophobia? It was a spider.
I must have been ten or twelve, somewhere in there, sitting on the front stoop on a sunny day. I looked down and saw a small spider near my hand. It didn’t move like a spider, though, it made little hopping movements. I’d never seen a jumping spider before, so rather than jerk away, I was fascinated by its movements. It hopped closer, then jumped onto my finger and looked up at me. I wasn’t frightened at all; the little creature was absolutely adorable. I played with it for a bit, then put it back on the ground. I couldn’t get over how it had looked right at me, creature to creature. I’d collected and observed lots of insects, and none of them had ever given me the feeling they were looking at me; it was more like whoa, this thing looks big, I think I’ll get out of the way.
Spiders are not insects, as I hope most of you know. They are arachnids, and have eight legs. They also have eight eyes, in four pairs. Unlike insects’ compound eyes, which see a hundred or so images, spiders’ eyes are more like our own. The way they are arrayed across the top of the head enables them to see nearly 360 degrees around them. These smaller eyes mostly act as motion detectors. The two big principal ones in the middle top row are the main headlights. They have a large, fixed lens, while the boomerang-shaped retina provides high-res images in both color and UV. That’s why I felt that jumping spider was making eye contact with me. My fear of spiders vanished after that, aside from the automatic flinches each August when I walk my face into a new spider web. Of course it’s natural to be startled at the sudden appearance of a spider walking across the skin, and other unexpected encounters. Here, I’ll show you. The world’s biggest spider is South America’s Goliath bird-eating tarantula, whose body can measure a foot in length or more, and has fangs an inch long. Did you feel that little shiver? I Think it’s in our DNA.
A few months ago I was sitting in the recliner, writing. I use a thin piece of plywood as a writing board. It had only been days since I’d heart a report on NPR about how city spiders are growing bigger and faster than their country brethren. So there I was writing, and at the far edge of the board a pair of legs, followed by more legs and a body, crept up onto the board. It was a huge wolf spider, the biggest I’ve seen, maybe fifty-cent sized with its outstretched legs. As it gained the top of the board, it looked at me. I could almost picture it wearing a motorcycle helmet with steel spikes. For some reason I thought of Michelangelo’s David. I’ve seen the original in Florence, Italy; it’s about 18 feet high. The expression in his face is best described by legendary mythologist Joseph Campbell: “I think I can take this guy.” I hoped it wasn’t thinking the same thing. “Okay, take it easy, big fella,” I said. “Nobody wants any trouble.” I carefully picked up the board, slowly turning it as the spider tried to escape. Opening the door, I dropped it outside with a fond farewell: “I think we’ll both be happier with you out there and me in here. Good hunting.” That was really a gorgeous spider.
My most memorable interaction with an arachnid was seven years ago. I was painting my landlady’s two-story house. I was up near the top of the extension ladder, sweeping out the corner under one of the eaves with a broom, and I saw something move. It was a very large barn spider. They have beautiful markings, too, and a distinctive body shape. I turned the broom around and coaxed it onto the handle, then dropped it off on the horizontal part of one of the downspouts. It looked at me for a moment, then lifted its two front legs and shook them once, turned around, and walked away. There I was at the top of this extension ladder, thinking, “Did I just get flipped off by a spider?” I couldn’t blame it for being angry that I’d destroyed its home, and didn’t expect it to be grateful for my sparing its life. I still consider it one of the finest back-handed compliments I’ve ever received.
We should remember that as scary and ugly as we may perceive these creatures to be, their primary occupation is to eat bugs that bug us, like gnats, flies and mosquitoes. So let us appreciate them as our allies, not treat them as our enemies. They’re on our side.
In Greek mythology, Athena was the Goddess of Wisdom, but she was also the weaver of the Olympians. The beauty and complexity of her work was unparalleled, or so it was thought. Then came the news of a Lydian girl named Arachne, who considered her own work to be superior. This is another cautionary tale of the perils of hubris, of humans challenging the gods. A competition was arranged, loom to loom. Skein after skein was woven, in rainbow colors with silver and golden threads, until they both finished at the same moment. Athena’s work was marvelous, but Arachne’s was just as good. The Goddess went into a fury, beating the poor girl mercilessly with her shuttle. Arachne, humiliated and disgraced, hanged herself. Seeing this, Athena replented and lifted the girl’s body from out of the noose,sprinkling some magical substance upon her. She came back to life, now transformed into a spider, and Athena ceded all the weaving to her.