Sunset bison

Sunset bison
Sundogs

Saturday, October 14, 2006

In the boneyard of beetles

Reading too much Walt Whitman can lead to a preponderance of exclamation marks, a feeling of hopeless bewilderment and an overblown sense of self. As the latter comes hard for me and the former is a no-no for modern English usage—and the middle describes my normal state of being—I’m left dizzied, wearied, frazzled, flummoxed, perplexed and astounded at the poet’s reach. It’s taken me a dozen tries and more to wade through his magnum opus, Song of Myself, and now that I have I’m not sure how much of it was absorbed, how much lost, and how much skimmed by a mind grown glazed with incomprehension. Nowhere in it did I see a mention of spiders.

It’s probably not for lack of trying. Within those stanzas can be found oxen, elk, moose, tortoises, horses, chickadees, turkeys, wood ducks, prairie dogs, soldiers, farmers, hunters, pilots, deacons, carpenters, contraltos and escaped slaves. “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” he begins, and his song encompasses the entire universe and the commonality of man. One sentence in particular resonated in ways I could never have imagined, though certainly old Whitman would have clapped his hands in joy had he known of it.

Last Thursday I went to work as usual. I admit that I wasn’t singing of myself, or even to myself, though if a Bruce Springsteen song had come on the radio I might have followed along. At 3:30 a.m. it’s hard to feel anything but exhausted. The descendant moon was ringed with clouds that intensified her cold luminance, and the trees along the river gone pale in their autumn dress reflected it palely still.

At the office I shook out rugs and vacuumed, using the detachable hose to suck up the desiccated carcasses of beetles, millipedes and crickets. Every October it’s the same, an endless cavalcade of insects crawling into the building in search of warmth and finding instead only starvation or a giant’s lethal tread. The vacuum works best as the legs of the insects tend to stick to the twined fibers of the dust mop, making them harder to shake loose. As Murphy’s Law dictates, the bodies also tend to drop from the mop after the floor has been swept clean, but only when you don’t notice. I find them there on a return pass and have to sweep again, instigating disgruntled epithets more than celebratory yodeling.

The basement is different. Lacking carpet, there’s little reason to drag the heavy vacuum down the stairs, so the broom must suffice. After placing chairs on the folding tables, I swept everything into an untidy pile. Then I switched to a hand broom and dust pan. Besides the usual grit and dirt there were beetles of various species, some dead, some half-dead and others very much alive, millipedes dead or rolled into armored balls, and something small that waved its front legs as if in total indignation.

Setting the dust pan down, I knelt and put on my glasses. What before had been a thrashing object now became a fuzzy-legged jumping spider about the size of my thumbnail. It withdrew into a posture that was both defensive and offensive, staring me down with its huge eyes. All four of them.

I’m used to finding spiders at work, though jumpers are uncommon. The usual assortment of recluses, crab and wolf spiders inevitably lead me to a moral conundrum. Do I destroy them or let them live? This is never easily decided. Some mornings I feel benevolent and others less so, but one rule I always adhere to is that wolf spiders are to be unharmed. Not due to any particular love for the species, but because of their fearsome size.

Seeing them could lead one to believe that all spiders are colorless and drab. Here was an anomaly. The jumper was brick red across its back, the color dulled from the white gypsum powder it had been swept up in, with colorful banded legs, the front two being longer, more powerful, and held wide in an I-can-take-you-with-three-legs-tied-behind-my-back stance that soon changed to a timid tapping or feeling as it explored its new confines. Being pressed for time, I flicked the spider from the pan and emptied the contents in the trash.

When I turned back the jumper was facing me. Again I went to my knees and studied it. Once it determined I was harmless—or scared of it—it moved off, probing the ground with its two front legs. It reminded me of a blind man using a cane, and for a moment I wondered if the dust had blinded it. But there was nothing in its composure that would suggest anything other than a supreme confidence and curiosity. “I exist as I am, that is enough,” it seemed to impart. Whitman’s words. It tap-tapped its way along the wall, pausing occasionally to inspect something invisible to me, and continued slowly on as if possessing an infinitude of time. Which I did not. When I returned later the spider was gone.

I had hoped the jumper would turn out to be Phidippus whitmani, Whitman’s jumping spider, but the scant information I could locate suggested a cousin, Phidippus apacheanus, the Apache jumper. Both are similarly colorful but the field marks pointed to the latter. Whitman’s jumper would have been more appropriate.

Though spiders play no part in Song of Myself, Whitman did pen a poem about them. In A Noiseless Patient Spider, the author begins by watching a spider descend a thin filament and concludes with a comparison to his own thoughts, “ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing…till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.” When I read it I couldn’t help but laugh. And for a moment, silently, reverentially, I celebrated Phidippus, I sang it, and its song was my song in that way Whitman describes as “Every atom that belongs to me belongs as well to you.”

O my soul, that was certainly worth getting out of bed for.

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