20 February 2016

The spider and its saints

A cellar spider picked its way cautiously up the wall, testing each foothold. With eight legs, it’s no wonder the testing took a while. Every now and then the skinny little spider stopped and touched the tip of its abdomen to the wall as it anchored its silken lifeline. The movement looked like a ritual, some kind of benediction, as if the spider had paused to pray to the patron saint of wall climbers, or maybe travellers, or just to St Francis who I’m sure loved cellar spiders as much as any other animal, although you don’t hear about that from the stories that focus on the fluffy animals and little birds. Those saint-marketers knew what they were doing. Who would pray to a saint who loved animals that most people fear?

On the other hand, St Francis did apparently have a fondness for human-eating wolves (so the legend goes), and who wouldn't fear those? Remarkably, too, the saint-marketers decided to recognise a patron saint of spiders, so maybe the little spider's arse-bending benediction was directed to St Felix? More implausible events happen all the time.

This spider was a male, which might have explained his wandering. I could tell he was a male by his long, roughly cylindrical abdomen and the shape of the front of his body: I couldn’t see well enough to make out the detail, but I knew that shape at the front would have been his swollen pedipalps, drawn up close to his head.

I watched the spider’s shadow as the little animal made its slow way up and across the wall. He was thin and long and stringy, but the shadow looked even thinner and longer and stringier — and distorted, too. It looked like the sort of shadow that appears in horror films, except the film version’s invariably enormous and accompanied by screaming.

I like these spiders, not just because we share similar physiques, and they're one of the few I don't instinctively recoil from (jumping spiders are the other exception). Even though I appreciate all spiders, even though I find them fascinating, and even though I know a reasonable amount about them and will seek them out because I consider them ..., well ..., awesome, I still get a mild fright if I encounter one close and unexpectedly. I have no fear of handling cellar spiders or jumping spiders (although I prefer not to disturb them), but to handle any other kind of spider is probably more than I could manage.

I think this fear is (mostly) learned[1], though, and it's learned when you're very young. That's why, when three small friends visited a few days ago and wanted to know what the spider was that was lying under the hammock next door, I went over and picked it up and put it on the palm of my hand and showed it to them without showing any trace of fear or squeamishness.

It helped that I knew the spider had been paralysed and abandoned by a mason wasp, and I explained this to my small friends, but they seemed unimpressed by the thought that the spider had been destined to be eaten alive by a mason wasp grub. Still, I hope they picked up on the way I picked up the spider, and maybe if they'd begun to learn the too-common fear of spiders, seeing what I'd done might have helped them unlearn it a little. I hope so.

[Update: I've replaced the first photograph with one that looks less similar to the second.]

1. For another interesting discussion about whether fear of spiders is innate, inherited, or learned, see: Buddle, C. (2014, May 8). Explainer: why are we afraid of spiders? Retrieved from http://theconversation.com/explainer-why-are-we-afraid-of-spiders-26405

Photos: Another male cellar spider, photographed a few days later. It's possible it could be the same one, but, if so, he'd undertaken an impressive journey through the house, with only limited opportunities to negotiate a closed door. Maybe he had help from his saint.

Photos and original text © 2016 Pete McGregor


Avus said...

My English daughter-in-Oz has learnt that never there should one put a hand into dark places. It's not the impressive and large Wolf spiders that are the threat (they are harmless to humans), but the small female Redbacks that pack a venemous bite (also need to be aware that dozy snakes could be coiled up in there!
I dislike snakes - something NZ is not "blessed" withI believe.

pohanginapete said...

Avus, New Zealand's very lucky like that. Maybe Australia got our share of the dangerous animals as well as its own ;-) Interesting you should mention snakes, because I don't have a reflexive fear of them. I respect them, but my reaction on the few occasions I've been lucky enough to see one (overseas, of course) has been delight and a desire for a closer look.

Relatively Retiring said...

This is the ideal time of year for Granddaughter and me to examine spiders' webs (both indoors and out). I hope she's appreciating that spiders can create amazing structures, and do other remarkable things. Even more I hope that when other people scream and grimace she will be able to put them straight.

pohanginapete said...

RR, I can imagine her putting the screamers and grimacers straight. Thanks for guiding her in the right direction, too.

Zhoen said...

Spiders in large profusions would bother me, but then so do ants and moths and gnats and mosquitos. Singly, I have no issue with any small creature, and most of the spiders I've known tend to be loners.

Geese, now, those buggers are mean.

pohanginapete said...

Zhoen, I was terrorised by a gander when I was very small. It's one of my earliest memories, yet I never developed anatidaephobia. (That's likely to be the only opportunity I ever get to use that word. Thanks!)

Roderick Robinson said...

Given that you invoked "More implausible events" I feel emboldened to say DT is amost certainly no friend of spiders. "Why those little critturs are forced to work for their living. Do it smarter not harder, I always say. All that darn spinning when they could be copying me: shoving money this way and that and bullying people. Here's what I think of those eight-legged immigrants."

Splat! He squashes one. Forgetting that we may not know the mind (or body) of God who may just turn out to have eight legs himself. And what we do know from the OT is He can be vindictive.

I welcome this unwonted flow of creativity and I like the speculative way your mind works. Mine's off in another direction. As an ex-rock climber (and very bad I was at it too) I see spiders wiping out the sport, invalidating it totally. Out there on some vertical slab on El Cap and being able to "stop and touch the tip of its abdomen to the wall" - why it takes away all the fun, Spider spoil-sports, I say.

Grown to man size and playing rugby it would be the same story. Even another spider would have difficulty tackling eight legs. Formula One? Haven't worked out that one.

One thing I do need to tell you. Number One in the face photos said to be members of the Pahinga-Pete cult, has a familiar look. Caress him with the cursor and the name Barrett Bonden appears. Is this in any sense relevant to you? Well for one thing (SPOILER ALERT!!!) he's dead. BB was the bosun of Capt. Jack Aubrey RN, co-hero of the 20-novel series by Patrick O'Brien, a great read by the way. If that's confusing do you know the guy in the photo is: Graham Greene, that's who.

It's a case of "How all occasions do inform against me." (You being a WS fan won't need that explaining.). My first blog, called Works Well, intended to deal only with technology. Because I'm manually incompetent I chose an ironic blogonym since Bosun Barrett could do anything the Royal Navy required of him. Later I switched to music and my blogonym became Lorenzo da Ponte... but that's enough of that. In those days I didn't show my face wanting to live only for my art. When I was forced to I chose GG because it has more gravitas. If you're happy with the status quo, then so am I.

Profligate again, I fear.

Zhoen said...

I'm frightened of geese to this day. Menaced by one along the Riverwalk in Boston, went home very shaken and wary.

pohanginapete said...

Zhoen, they're big, strong birds. Fear of geese seems far more reasonable than fear of (most) spiders, which makes it all the more surprising that, despite my childhood experiences, geese no longer scare me.

pohanginapete said...

Roderick — another resonance: I used to do a lot of rock climbing too, and loved it. I felt it was the sport I was most suited to, and although I reached a moderate standard, I never made into the top rank, even at a regional scale. I drifted away from it after injury and overseas travel and the gradual deterioration of the local climbing gym (real rock was several hours' drive away, and plastic's not a proper substitute). I miss it, and if I lived closer to the real thing or a decent climbing wall, I'd get back into it. But, ...

So that's who the most recent 'follower' is. I'd wondered, but the name wasn't familiar. Now I'm keen to re-read one or two of Grahame Green's novels, two of which I read and enjoyed at school.

I'm so relieved you spelled 'unwonted' with an 'o', not an 'a'. Thanks. ;-)

Lisa Emerson said...

I'm frightened of pigs. When I was about 8, my father took us to visit a small ruined castle that we'd often visited before. He hoisted me over the old stone wall of the castle grounds and I walked confidently towards the castle - only to have a herd of pigs run out at me. That was probably the fastest I've ever run (or climbed a wall)! What's the name for someone who is frightened of pigs???

But I do think it's strange that we're so frightened of spiders. Today, I found a praying mantis walking up my shirt, and instead of freaking out (as I would if it were a spider), I picked it up in my hand and took it outside to find a nice interesting bush, talking to it softly all the while. It has so many of the same features as a spider - it moves unpredictably and quickly, it has long legs - but somehow it just doesn't elicit the same response.

pohanginapete said...

Lisa, fear of pigs is apparently 'swinophobia', and you're in good company: Orlando Bloom reputedly suffers from the same fear. (Who'd have thought Legolas, the fearless elf, would fear pigs?). However, he's also rumoured to have denied it, claiming he loves pigs, so there's hope for him yet. Whatever the truth, it's wise to be cautious until you know the pig well, though, because they can be dangerous. You were right to run (and climb).

I'm afraid you'll have to steel yourself to read my next post, though. Pigs will be prominent.

Your praying mantis observation's interesting, too, and it reinforces the conclusion that we still don't know conclusively what causes the widespread fear of spiders.

vegetablej said...

Not really afraid of spiders, though I dislike the thought of them walking on me in my sleep; that sounds weird unless you've regularly slept on a futon and seen the size of house spiders in Japan, but what to do with them all in winter? They regularly get in our bathtub and I wonder where to put them. If it's outside, in the subzero weather then will that be better than squashing them? Which I absolutely hate to do, because I wonder if they don't have loves and lives and if they aren't someone's mother or dad or..? We have no cellar to speak of, only a small space, which is absolutely crowded with them already. Any suggestions on a more compassionate end? Luckily spring is around the corner.


pohanginapete said...

vj, I don't have a simple answer about what to do with spiders in your situation. Putting them outside would almost certainly kill them, although the death would probably be painless (being cold-blooded, they'd just slow down, become inactive, and eventually die). When they're inactive, though, they'd be easy prey for birds. Maybe putting them outside somewhere they could quickly find cover (a woodpile, for example) might be an option?

I no longer kill whitetailed spiders. I catch them and release them on the verandah, where they can crawl under the house. They're safe there, and the likelihood I'll see them again is very low. I like living with these cellar spiders, though, and always feel a bit down if I inadvertently drown one in the shower. I'm sure some people must think I'm a weirdo.