Thursday, August 09, 2007

Musings of a capricious god

Given the fact that on some days I allow spiders to roam unchecked where I work and on others I squash them on sight, or that one species of spider is granted immunity and another is not (and the next day the reverse is true), it must seem that I am a capricious god, doling out death or allotting life on little more than a whim. Arachnids searching for an intelligent design would be hard-pressed to prove there was a reasoning, calculating mind behind my actions.

Nor does compassion have any bearing. My decision is entirely arbitrary, a human foible to be sure, though glancing at headline news makes one wonder about the capriciousness of God himself. A bridge collapses in Minneapolis and some go into the river, others don’t; an F-5 tornado obliterates one town and leaves another unscathed; an undeserving hack hits the bestseller list while a better writer languishes unknown; and so forth.

But if I have one consistency, however contradictory, it is this: I bring no harm to a member of the crab spider family.

And yet, even in that there is an inconsistency. An unfortunate incident recently proved such claim a lie, though in all fairness I like to believe that it wasn’t entirely my fault. True, a jury of spiders would condemn me for what took place in the predawn hours of last Friday, but if the crab spider had been in its proper habitat, or if it had bothered to put on its reading glasses, both of us would still be walking this earth. Or so I like to think.

Most people have never heard of crab spiders. This isn’t surprising because most people classify all spiders in the same family of things-to-be-killed-on-sight. Plus, crab spiders are small and secretive, usually hiding under a leaf or flower, awaiting suitable prey to wander by. When it does, they pounce and inject a toxic venom that paralyzes the hapless insect, and then proceed to suck its juices dry. Such propensity for vampirism will undoubtedly leave readers squeamish, but nature is often brutish and anyway a spider does only what it must.

More telling than their hunting method is their shape. For many crab spiders, and particularly the family Thomisidae, the resemblance to a crab scuttling along the seashore is uncanny. Their two front pairs of legs are much longer than those behind and are often held away from the body. And like the crustaceans for which they’re named, they can move forward, backward and sideways with equal dexterity. But for all that, they have one slight handicap: their eyesight really sucks.

My introduction to crab spiders was abrupt and violent. After discovering a new butterfly in a neighbor’s flower bed, I belly-crawled to within an inch of the specimen with hopes of getting a photograph. At the moment the shutter snapped a pale spider snatched the butterfly and sank its fangs into the butterfly’s throat. It happened so fast the butterfly barely even twitched.
It wasn’t until later that I realized what I’d witnessed, and then only because of a diminutive brown spider that one morning meandered across the floor like it owned the place.

I’m used to finding spiders in the office. The most common is the brown recluse, followed by wolf spiders, grass spiders, jumping spiders, and others I cannot name. This spider was dinky, smaller than my little fingernail, and shaped just like a crab. It acted as if it either couldn’t see me or didn’t care. A twisted desire to name it “Crabby” whipped like lightning through my thoughts, followed by an echoing peal of how-juvenile-can-you-get. I fought the urge but unfortunately in that degenerate way one’s brain refuses to listen to reason, the idea took root and sprouted. Afterwards it was always Crabby, much to my disgust.

Sometimes Crabby could be found in the lobby, wandering aimlessly across the tiles, and at others he would be downstairs, or in the bathroom or hallway. I had no way of telling if it was the same spider, nor did it really matter. I’d step over or around him, avoiding him with the dust broom or wet mop. And though I went out of my way to work around the spider, the act was never reciprocated. Crabby acted as though I were invisible.

Most spiders hightail it when I draw near. Crabby’s nonchalance was either arrogance or sightlessness, a thought that sent me to the Internet for some research. I found that crab spiders indeed have very small eyes—they appear as freckles across the front of their cephalothorax—and in that irrational way we humans empathize with other creatures whose disabilities match our own, I felt an instant bond with Crabby. Without my glasses, the world is a blur.

I also discovered that Crabby is related to the butterfly killer, though in a different genus. Crab spiders like Crabby are usually found in leaf litter or wood bark and belong to the genera Basaniana or Ozyptila. Crabby must have slipped under the door and either found a home or was trying to escape.

For weeks I worked around him—him being a convenient fiction rather than a known gender—and then he disappeared. My carelessness increased even as my awareness decreased, so that one morning as I was finishing up mopping I jabbed the mop into the bucket and shoved it forward, and at the last moment saw Crabby in the path of the wheels. He never saw it coming.

Admittedly, it’s difficult to get worked up over the demise of a spider. But the fact that we sometimes do, that we occasionally rise above our self-centered natures to respect and esteem our lesser neighbors—even if only in a maddeningly whimsical way—surely borders on the divine.


Anonymous said...

This is really great. I loved this article. I'm the same way with spiders. I kill them randomly and without logic. It's based entirely on my mood, but I do have a weakness for crab spiders. There's a rather large one that's made a home of the neighbor's Mock Orange bush, and my significant other and I like to watch it make its silk bound leaf shelter every year. Or rather, we watch the child of the original. They don't live more than a year, do they?

Anonymous said...

Holy cr**, Tom! I am continually amazed how you weave such beautiful writing out of a moment in time.

It took me a couple of days before I could read this one - since it spoke of spiders and I've been trying to block spiders out of my mind after our e-mail exchange about the brown recluse variety. (Unfortunately, you and the brown recluse are intertwined in my mind and I'm desperately trying to think non-spidery thoughts about you.)

Anyway, wow. What an incredible piece of writing, Tom. Not just how you put words together, which you do so well, but you made this about all of us - our connections to and our feelings about the other creatures on the planet.

And I loved how you wrapped it all up, returning to the divine.

Tom Parker said...

A.T.: I understand the average lifespan of a crab spider is one to two years. Less if a janitor runs it over with a mop bucket.
Cheryl: Um, thanks. Hope you get over your arachnophobia. I also hope someday that you'll see me as a person, not an eight-legged creepy-crawly.