O What a Tangled Web We Observe
When First We Practice to Conserve
Reprinted from New Times • Dec. 3, 1998
Maurice captures the spiders in our neighborhood. He accepted this responsibility as an act of charity, but it has since dragged him through the fires of public scorn, sucked him into the bowels of philosophy and thrust him toward uncomfortable conclusions about our species.
For each human in our neighborhood, we have many spiders. Most are Pholcidae, the daddy-long-legs that many people have come to accept as inevitable house guests. Other spiders have proven less welcome.
As we sat on my front porch, Maurice told me the story of one unwelcome spider. The story begins three years ago in the spring when he was planting a rose bush. He heard screams from two women named Jenn who rent the house next door.
“Maurice!” they yelled. “Maurice!”
He ran to their yard armed with his shovel. “What is it?”
“That,” they said, cringing and pointing at some unseen evil in their front yard.
“What?” Maurice asked, shovel cocked like a baseball bat. “Where?”
“There,” they pointed at the air. “That HUGE spider!”
Maurice adjusted his focus and the creature appeared suspended in air. It was an orb weaver, enormous perhaps by garden standards, but tiny compared to a tarantula. It rested on its web with its slender hairy legs curled around a fat, juicy abdomen. It looked, Maurice thought, like a Butterball for a bird. Maurice is no arachnologist, but he thought it might be a furrow spider, Nuctenea cornuta, and a female at that.
The day slouched toward dusk, and she had completed her web for the night. She began with guylines that ran from the eve of the house to the hedge at the front of the yard—a good 25 feet. More of these thick lines stretched from the hedge to the grassy lawn and back to the eve. They supported a frame of smaller lines upon which she had woven the intricate array of her web.
She must have worked for hours to cover such distances. She must have given much of herself to produce so much silk. And Maurice knew she built her web anew each evening. Now she sat centered in her creation, awaiting dinner.
“Kill it!” Jenn yelled.
“Hurry!” yelled the other Jenn.
(I know it seems stereotypical and sexist to portray the Jenns in this manner. They were college students, no less, who should know better than to fear spiders. But this is how the story unfolded, and so this is how it must be told.)
“I can’t kill her,” Maurice said.
This was the moment at which Maurice’s troubles began. Until this moment he had maintained a minor but enviable place in neighborhood politics. He said his hellos, he minded his own business, and he served infrequently as an unofficial deputy.
He eyed the strangers and responded to occasional incidents of hooliganism with confidence and authority. The Jenns, noticing this, had begun calling Maurice to report strange noises and suspected prowlers. He would emerge from his house prepared to pummel.
In each case, the alarms proved false. A white face they had seen peering in their window turned out to be an opossum cruising a fence top. Other searches produced equally benign solutions to the neighborhood’s mysteries. These young women seemed assured that Maurice had dispelled the danger, and he felt warm in some primal corner of himself for having faced an imagined danger.
Then came this spider.
“Beautiful?” one Jenn said. “It’s hideous. If you don’t kill it, we will!”
She dashed into the house.
“How can you say it’s beautiful?” the other Jenn asked, a shiver rippling through her bones.
“To another spider she’s beautiful,” Maurice said. “It’s all in how you look at it.”
The first Jenn emerged from the house with a can of Raid.
Maurice felt his reputation in jeopardy. The Jenns eyed him as though he had just descended from a spacecraft or clawed his way up from a grave. They regarded this spider as something akin to a stranger peering in their windows and yet Maurice, their hero, hesitated.
Maurice, meanwhile, could not abide the destruction of a creature remarkable both in appearance and accomplishment. She had picked an unfortunate location to express her creativity. Her web dominated the front yard of two arachnophobes. Maurice knew they could not coexist.
He lifted a hand to the Jenn with the can of Raid. His reputation, he decided, was unimportant.
“I’ll take care of it,” he said. “I’ll be right back.” He hurried back to his house.
The Jenns seemed relieved. Perhaps to them even spraying a spider with Raid could be perilous. You never know. It might leap from its web into your hair, penetrate your skull with an ovipositor and implant thousands of microscopic eggs in your brain, where tiny spiders will feed and grow until they gush from your nostrils in your sleep.
Maurice returned with an empty pasta jar and its lid.
“What are you going to do with that?” Jenn asked.
“Catch it?” the other Jenn said. “What for?”
“She has a right to live.”
The Jenns backed away as Maurice held the jar above the spider on one side of the web. With his other hand he reached through an opening between cables of silk and held the lid behind her. Slowly he brought them together, jar and lid, until he had captured a circle of web that stretched now across the mouth of the jar, the spider still resting in its center. She had risen on her legs in alarm, but Maurice moved with such care that she settled again into place. Nuctenea cornuta, he knew, is practically blind.
He tightened the lid and pulled the jar from the web. The long suspension lines stretched and snapped. He felt criminal for having destroyed her web, but he felt better for having prevented her death.
He freed her in a nearby creek bed, hoping she would find a better place to spin her web tomorrow in the relative wilds of the creek.
Maurice returned satisfied, but not for long. His solution had created new problems. “Where did you put it?” the Jenns demanded. “What creek?” “It’ll just come back.”
Maurice had become a disappointment to them. Try as he might, he could not restore himself. He could not make them understand why he spared the spider. Other neighbors heard the story and joined in the questioning. Maurice was certain that everyone now regarded him with suspicion. A traitor, on the side of the spiders. A neighborhood loon.
He failed to persuade them with logic. Even the old “spiders are our friends” argument failed. The neighbors would sooner live with the mosquitoes and flies. So he began offering irrational explanations.
“It’s against my religion,” he said. “In my religion, you must spend a lifetime as every creature that you kill.”
The neighbors fell silent, glanced about, then nodded. “Oh,” they said, and they returned to their houses.
That had satisfied them. That had ended the public debate. But Maurice remained tormented. Why, he wondered, should that explanation satisfy them?
“I don’t know if it’s all humans or just Americans,” Maurice told me as we sat on the front porch. “They can’t understand any action unless it has a selfish motive.”
Sparing the spider for its inherent value made no sense to them, he said. It only made sense that he should do it to escape some far flung spiritual punishment.
Maurice’s brow furrowed with worry. I tried to console him, but the more I thought about it, the more I agreed.
Then Betty walked by. Betty has lived across the street for about 20 years. She was shuffling toward the house where Mrs. K has lived for about 50 years. She cares for Mrs. K’s Persian when Mrs. K visits the grandchildren.
Betty reached Mrs. K’s front porch, then froze with her hands before her face like the ingenue in a 1950s horror movie poster. “Aauugh!” she yelled. She cast about the neighborhood until she spotted Maurice and I.
“Help!” she called to us. “Will you kill this spider?”
Maurice rose wearily. As he strolled toward the place of terror, I heard him say to Betty, somewhat condescendingly, “Spiders are our friends.”
“They’re not my friends,” she said. “I hate spiders.”
A few moments later, he passed by with a jar in hand. “Araneus diadematus,” he said. “Common garden spider.”
To my surprise, he didn’t go to the creek. He carried the spider to his own front yard. Betty watched from across the street, horrified. I could hear the engine of gossip revving.
“Don’t do it, Maurice!” I yelled to him. “You’ll be an outcast!”
He nodded and unscrewed the lid.
‘Maurice!” I yelled. “No man is an island!”
He freed the spider on his rose bush, looked at me sadly and said, “To hell with them.”
The story you have read is true, but some of the names have been altered to preserve neighborhood harmony. Jeff McMahon watches the world from Chorro Street.