My relationship with the spider (Araneae) species has a lot of ups and downs. It’s a lovingly hypocritical relationship that both inspires my aesthetic whims and plumbs many of my darkest, twitchiest fears.
Walk through a web, sputter and wave and look around frantically for the construction crew, a small price to pay for living among trees and what slivers of nature manage to wriggle out from between the row houses and flip cribs in Strathcona. Watch as the annually inconsistent weather favors different breeds of bugs and subsequently the spiders that would eat them. Last year a multifaceted myriad of large bodied beauties preying on gnats and moths, this year a bevy of tiny orange silk spinners spanning surprising stretches with slim strands while aiming to lasso miniature horse flies the long, damp refusal of the climate to acknowledge summer has empowered. Couple years ago long, delicate weavers ensnared butterflies, replaced later in the season by burly black and tan post show bruisers looking for opportunities around the buffet the night lights bring to the board on the front porch.
First spider I remember really seeing close up and at any length had long, hair thin legs that tickled as it walked by and brushed the country boy off white skin of a country lad scuttling around in the pine nettles and fairy dust of a state park by a picnic table on weekend early enough in summer to need a corduroy jacket and floppy patchwork denim hat. I also remember that trip as the first time on my watch that my bio-Dad saved gas by setting his VW van into neutral and turning off the engine to let the thing coast all the way back down Bays Mountain from the park and nearby planetarium.
I had watched the granddaddy longlegs with intent curiosity, the tiny dot of a body suspended in the middle of such fine legs that nearly vanished when the spider crest the table top and crossed in front of the sunlight filtering like kisses from a deity through the leaves overhead. Scanning around beneath the benches and along the concrete struts supporting the bench planks and well weathered wooden table top, I found more, spiders seemed to fade into view from the surface of the concrete, as though seeing one gave me the secret key unlocking discovery of a whole civilization dwelling invisibly in plain sight. The patterns on the concrete weren’t cracks and pits, and as I paused to watch or blow a bit of breeze with a silent awed whistle, spiders would spring to life and hasten to move on, a pretty magical thing and initially not creepy at all, just something new to watch and wonder about. I left the encounter with no ill will towards spiders, just a sense that granddaddy longlegs were pretty cool and vaguely reminded me of an eyeball robot I’d seen once on the Johnny Quest cartoon once.
A short while later, couple months or more, I ran face first into a web for the first time and formed an entirely new opinion of spiders, albeit judging from the dark, spinning, leg waggling blob that dropped down just in front of my left eye, presumably letting himself down from the wreckage of his former home now entangled in my 70’s era mousy brown madly mish-mashed mane.
Let me explain something about my hair. Stayed blonde for a long time, turned brown with age, eventually skipped black and went straight to silver, though that’s decades later.
My Dad once said that he’d taken me as a young kid to a cow pasture to see the dairy cows, and that he’d shown me a cow lick and warned me not to lick it. According the his recount, I asked what the cowlick tastes like, and he said salty. So when he turned away, I ran over and licked the cowlick. And just so happened a big old Bessie, too old to see very well, shambled up, pooping at the same time as cows are apt to do, particularly elderly ones, and not seeing so well the mistook my round head for the salt lick and licked me a good three or four times before my Dad could see my plight and shoo old Bessie away long enough to pull me clear of her huge, agile tongue. According to him, the hair with multiple crowns a Korean hairdresser I went to once considered akin to that of a husky and likely a gift from aliens, is simply the fate of a naughty boy trying to taste a cowlick and getting licked instead.
I recall seeing that fat little spider with the flailing legs dangling right in front of my eye and no matter how much I scrunched up my eyes and squealed falsetto and shook my head furiously, when I’d stop and slowly, cautiously open my eye he’d still be swaying there, looking back at me, clearly in just as much shock as I was. Eventually I swat him away and discovered that doing so would simply transfer him to dangling from my finger, as stubborn as a summertime booger, no amount of flapping jazz hands seemed to fling the fellow free.
So I ran to find Mom.
Growing up in Eastern Tennessee meant growing up with ticks, fleas, lice, and chiggers.
Ticks came with worry about Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, something kids all thought turned you into polka dots, or Lyme disease, which I believed as a child to be “Limestone Decease” enough to burst into tears when learning my family intended to move from Telford to Limestone, as I felt sure there would be no refuge for me from that cursed tick disease in the town the disease had been named after! After playing outside you would pat down your legs and arms to check for lumps that might flap like old scabs, could be a tick, or could just be an old scab. Last you’d check your hair, and inevitably if I got a tick, somehow, that’s where it would be, and then off I’d go to find my Mom or parental unit to burn it off with a cigarette and pluck it clear with a pair of tweezers. You had to be careful about getting the head first and not squeezing the body, didn’t want the head breaking off and burrowing in, and didn’t want backwash out of the tick’s body squeezing back into you.
Fleas and lice were same as anywhere, no more or less than anywhere. Fortunate to encounter minimal fleas in my childhood, unavoidable in warm climates with outdoor pets and 70’s shag carpet. Lice missed me all together, though got my sister when she was in elementary school years later in Kentucky. Mom had always been quick to discourage me from trying on other kid’s hats or using other people’s combs or hairbrushes, and even today I’m reluctant to try on hats in stores or buy hair care tools not blister packed and marked with something medical looking enough to believe the packaging environment had been a sterile environment. Have I ever mentioned I’m a bit of a mysophobe as well?
Chiggers got me, though. A teacher spot me scratching and sent me to the principle who sent me to the nurse. Not sure why that order had been followed, perhaps she thought I’d been clowning, not sure, just remember the principle, a man I knew all too well, lifting my shirts and scrutinizing all the red bumps on my pot belly, dots I actually hadn’t noticed myself until just then, though reminded me of how the kindergarten staff had established that I’d contracted chickenpox using much the same technique. Sent home and salved with harsh smelling ointments, my Mom told me what chiggers were and I knew I really wanted to move out of the South. Also called berry bugs and micro-ticks, they drop eggs in your skin that cause the itchy red bumps as their offspring use your flesh for fine dining.
Vancouver has bed bugs in many of the older apartment buildings, a thought that instantly makes me itch and squirm, because bed bugs and chiggers are distant kissing cousins, and that’s enough to send me packing, for sure.
Spiders though, that’s a whole other thing. More on that tomorrow.