Living Things: Spider
At a family reunion last year, eating meat sandwiches on a molding picnic table, a massive black fluorescent flying beetle lands on my shoulder. It’s a shock. I jolt, perhaps release a yip. I am at a table of elders, great aunts and uncles, all of whom overreact in choral unison. A few elders defy their bodies and leap from the table. Our responsive roars and screams a family trait.
After a breath or two I regain composure and gently wipe the beetle off toward the lawn, assuming the event will conclude, and attention will return to masticating our soggy sandwiches.
But no, a great uncle takes to the lawn, his face full of red fury, stomping ferociously on the beetle, over and over again. Exerting a terrifying, “Raaaaaawwwww!” as if battling a titan. Breathless, his revulsion shudders through his body. “Yuck! Nasty thing!” He returns to the table, tucking his shirt back in, letting us know we’re all safe. But he can’t let it go, “That thing was disgusting!” The elders thank him as he wipes his sweated brow with a carnation napkin.
Everyone returns to their slimy bologna; my jaw remains dropped, unable to recover from this sudden unwarranted act of violence. Albeit, the beetle could have been invasive, but this aggravated performance was not in response to any knowledge, but rather a feeling historically nurtured toward nature: bellicose fear and unmitigated ignorance.
I inherited this performance from an early age: the quick inhalation of breath, the screaming, the jumping and swatting, the leap from the chair at the faintest ghost touch that might be a bug. I have worked to exorcise this behavior, though the sensation of tiny legs crawling on my body, or the imaginative presence of a pest sucking my blood, still has places me in fit of overstating danger. I, the massive destructive beast, losing my grip over a spider in the corner of the room.
This was an inheritance.
The judeo-christian myth, inscribed upon the imagination through the colonization of the mind, is to fear the dark. That the forest is a space of evil magic, and that the Earth in its totality is a carrier of temptation and desire, initiating from the genesis of Adam, Eve and the ill-fated snake; the snake which has been writ as the unfortunate carrier of a false demon. The colonization of the mind has a coercive and creeping power — even as I write this, I swat at my bare ankles for phantom spider legs. This utterly ridiculous distraction is not a mistake, it is the neurotic egocentric result of our species’ war on nature.
My own nature nightmare has been the arachnid, whose stalking has felt purposeful and orchestrated. My clumsy and overreactive encounters throughout childhood in Kansas with black widows, brown recluses, and wolf spiders further propagated this myth.
I take you to a Boy Scout camp site by Perry Lake in the summer of 1996 where my best friend constant bed bunker sits on the cot across from me, watching my hysterical antics as I attempt to murder every daddy long leg in our tent with a small metal canteen.
“You’re never going to be able to kill them all,” he states.
I don’t care and I continue in the futile expedition, only stirring further panic and anxiety, which hours later expands and leads me off course on a nature walk, in manic panic attack, and into the web of a black widow spider. This is only further fuel for my anxiety, and I cry the entire night, zipped up completely in my sleeping bag, hyperventilating from the lack of oxygen and the fear of daddy long legs. But there is no other way, it seems. The spiders (nature) are out to get me.
This ego-centric space of “I” at the center of the story is the stuff of martyrdom and sainthood: this must be happening to me for a reason.
And the story continued until early adulthood: brown recluse spiders infesting my basement bedroom, biting me multiple times in the ass, taking me to the emergency room. (The scars remain.) Wolf spiders in my bed, in my blankets, in my shoes throughout college years in Lawrence, KS. Massive desert spiders taunting me in a porous casita in the South Valley of Albuquerque.
It seemed I would die on the hill as a martyr of the spider. The spider who seems so puropseful, so suspicious, up to something, a nefarious foe intent on my destruction.
For the majority of my journey I have carried the demonization of the natural world unconsciously through the stories I told myself. This reckoning with Spider has been the most challenging to overcome. It has meant an absolute unpacking of the myths I tell myself about my own supremacy, and thus removing myself from the center of these stories. As ecofeminist Donna Haraway argues[i], it is a mistake to define this epoch as the Anthropocene as it once again asserts that humans are the main character in this Earthly drama. This is a myth to undo immediately, and with embracing tools of imagination, joy, and inclusivity.
In tidying up a home, the corner is reserved for spider.
A clean home is a home with many spiders.
A web is an architecture supported through neglect. Leave it alone.
A Jersey Buddhist who lives in the high desert, and whose home is regularly overwhelmed by black widows in the fall, assertively and joyfully exclaims, “Get the fuck outta here! Get the fuck outta here!” She laughs as she does this. “I can’t kill them, so I just let them know I’d rather not have them here in the house.”
Do they listen?
She’s never killed one, they’ve never bit her.
There is much to be said for intentions with the more-than-human world[ii] and how we react to our environment. I no longer have abrupt and anxiety-ridden encounters with spiders, rather, instead of reacting to their appearance as a surprise, I am always prepared for their presence. They are, in fact, everywhere.
We can temper and resolve the inheritance of harm with breath and grace.
These capacities I am still just barely beginning to learn.
As I began writing this missive, a spider appeared on the window ledge and hung nearby, providing medicine to carry me through this effort. The spider can be anchor for wisdom, a carrier to witness our fears and misunderstandings with the natural world, a conduit to better understand all the more-than-humans that deserve to be centered in our stories, our monuments, and our relationships with one another. Not to fear the venom, but to relish in its warning, its pain, and to see the story in their weaving, their invaluable place in the web.
“Spider…weaving webs of delight // Weave me a peaceful world. //Carrying creation in your web, //Waiting to be unfurled.”
[i] Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Donna Haraway. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016.
[ii] A phrase I will continually appropriate from naturalist philosopher David Abram. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World. David Abram. Vintage Press, 1996.
[iii] A book of animal medicine handed down from the teachings of elders in the Choctaw, Lakota, Seneca, Aztec, Yaqui, Cheyenne, Cherokee, Iroquois, and Mayan Traditions. Medicine Cards. Jamie Sams and David Carson. St. Martin’s Press. 1988.