Mar 8, 2014
While showering one recent evening, I noticed a spider, likely a black house spider, although I’m certainly no expert, crawling along a ceiling beam. If she continued along this slow march, soon she would be directly above the shower stall. I watched the spider’s advance with a reflexive, total-body cringe. My first and only thought arriving in a hot flush of prejudice: Kill it.
The swift finality of this verdict came as something of a surprise. I’m no “spider hater,” or so I thought. I’ve captured many an arachnid, skittering across the cabin floor or well-defended in a web-draped corner, and relocated her outside. My work in the garden, vineyard, orchard and mucking about the forest and meadow picking wild herbs and berries has largely cured me of the creepy-crawly heebie-jeebies. When I find the errant six- or eight-legged stowaway somewhere on my person, as I often do, I attempt to separate us with as little violence as necessary. When I come upon a spider in a web, whether among squash leaves or blackberry canes, my intention is to leave her be. Sure, I get bit and stung, by all sorts of tiny creatures seen and unseen. But over the years, I’ve become rather philosophic about the process. While there’s an undeniable sacrifice of body and blood involved in reaping the fruit of the land, it seems little enough to give for what I get in return. After all, it must be admitted, it's Their World—the garden, the meadow, the forest. I’m just barging through.
But back to the shower. This was My World, and the spider on the ceiling was about to enter the drop zone. I felt—ok, I’ll go ahead and admit it—both vulnerable and harassed, afraid and defensive. I imagined jumping out of the shower, forcing the spider to the floor with the swat of a broom, and then squashing her under my foot. Gotcha! I could already hear the wicked hahaha of triumph.
Really, Dawn? I asked myself. Yes, really. This spider has no business up here in my bathroom. This spider needs to die.
And then something happened. The spider moved to the low edge of the beam, still a few feet from the shower stall, and dropped down into thin air on a slowly unfurled strand of unseen silk. Hanging stomach-up, about a foot below the beam, her legs began working the strand with knitting needle precision. Tying knots? Weaving a leg-hold? I certainly couldn’t see what she created, just that whatever it was involved highly skilled labor. Finally, she spun in circles like a Cirque du Soleil aerialist, caught herself with her two front legs, and climbed the rope of silk back to the beam. She stayed there for several moments, appearing to rest.
Astonished, I gaped at her perhaps ¾-inch length, legs drawn in against her body, huddled on the edge of the beam. She dropped again. Repeated a process my eyes could only barely register. Standing in the shower, where moments before I wanted nothing more than to squash this creature to her death, now I wished for binoculars to better witness her art. How else to describe the athleticism? The full-body grace? I thought of freestyle skiers, gymnasts, high platform divers all of whom share an uncanny body awareness. Even as they fall through space, they know exactly where their limbs are in relation to the structures around them. There is seductive magic realism in such bold defiance of gravity’s absolutes.
But while the aerialist performs with the confidence of someone mere inches above the ground, she knows one wrong move, one instant’s lack of focus, could lead to a plummeting death. What of the tiny spider hanging eight feet above the floor? Does the spider know what she risks? Perhaps, yes, in the sense that such risk is all part of being a spider, and merely doing what spiders do. The risk of building a web, whether in high tree branches or house beams, is simply an inescapable aspect of spider life.
As I finished rinsing my hair, turned off the water, and stepped out of the stall, what made me smile was the realization that her being a spider, merely living her spider life here in my bathroom had nothing whatsoever to do with me. This spider was not out to scare me, much less to “get” me. She was not seeking a plum opportunity to fall off the beam and into my shower. This aerialist artist arachnid was just doing her best to survive in the upper reaches of my bathroom ceiling. Attracted here through cracks in the log walls, through gaps in the window sills, or brought here, entirely against her own preference, on my coat or in my backpack. She’s making the best of it, I thought, as my eyes kept tracking her efforts: drop, knit, spin, climb. She’s doing all she can to make a home here. She wants to fit in.
And you know what? I believe that’s all most beings on this planet want. We want the chance make a go of it, wherever we happen to find ourselves. From diverse immigrant communities in New York City to mixed congregations of predators and prey at watering holes in the Okavango Delta in Botswana, there is manifest evidence of the desire to go along and get along in order to survive. In my very own Brightside garden, a teeming variety of reptiles, amphibians, birds, mammals, insects and spiders live in what largely appears to be balance. While it's true that the meadow voles do, on occasion, take more brassicas and snow peas than I consider strictly fair, I’ve also noticed that the garden ecosystem only grows stronger, producing more abundant fruit, to the extent I refrain from selective genocide. When, godlike, I declare one individual or species “bad” and condemn it to death, I set in motion a chain of events with consequences I, a mere mortal, can’t possibly foresee.
So, if I know all of this, why my Kill the Spider reflex?
When I meet a spider on her turf, I react one way. I’m more than willing to make special effort to let her be. However, when a spider “threatens” my most vulnerable space, my gut reaction is to kill first and ask questions later. My reaction is based on my general sense of spiders as alien and therefore hostile. While intellectually I know spiders to be very important members of the ecological community, while I abide spiders in the garden, vineyard, orchard, forest and meadow, when a spider is in my bathroom, my first response is to lash out. My first response is to assume ill will on the part of the spider, who shouldn’t be here in the first place, right? My first response is to justify preemptive violence on the grounds that if this spider could be trusted, she’d stick to spider-ville.
It’s a tight circle of thought that serves to replace the actual spider busily minding her own business with a “wild thing” of my mind’s creation. When this “wild thing” comes to life in my mind, the actual spider ceases to exist. She is thoroughly replaced by a projection of a well-honed set of biases and fears. Once this happens, only my concerted effort, my focused attention, my willingness, above all else, to watch and wait before acting, can reverse the process.
If this is true in my response to spiders, snakes and even bears, it is surely true, and arguably more important, in my response to humans I’ve come to label as alien and therefore hostile, humans I’ve learned to fear when I encounter them in unexpected places. Actual humans, with names and families and business to tend, that I might rush to replace with a “wild thing” of my mind’s creation.
It is easy for me to imagine that George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn replaced the actual Trevon Martin and the actual Jordan Davis with “wild things.” It is easy for me to imagine these killers so blinded by their projections of well-honed biases and fears about young black men, that they could not recognize the humanity of the boys they accosted. Zimmerman and Dunn were not willing to give the boys the space to demonstrate their intentions because the killers did not see the boys as boys, but as “wild things” out to “get” them. Rather than watching and waiting before acting, Zimmerman and Dunn chose preemptive violence. Kill first—no questions necessary.
Zimmerman and Dunn did not defend themselves against unarmed teenagers, but against “wild things,” menacing, aggressive imaginary creatures.
There, but for the will to wait and watch before acting, but for the desire to see the actual human before our eyes, go we all.