Thursday, July 21, 2011

Eight-Legged Love

The move to our new home has eaten into my writing time this week, so I am calling up an older piece to stand in for my regular blog. Since it was inspired by the home we just left, it feels appropriate to share it now as a way to say thank you to the place that nurtured my family and me for the last four years.  


I have grown to love spiders. They are creatures of immense fascination for me. I used to cast out their webs with abandon. I used to cast them out as intruders to my home. I didn’t yet understand what they could teach me about the creative work I do every day.

It started in college when I lived in a first floor dorm room with a wall of windows overlooking an arboretum. My bed ran along those windows, and on occasion, a majestic daddy long legs would make its way across my bed and sometimes my pillow. It was a little startling to have this visitor, but since it was back east in New Jersey, where there are no poisonous spiders, I had little to fear.

When I moved to Los Angeles, I discovered the black widow spider. She was first introduced to me as she climbed the leg of a chair in which I was sitting. My husband, having grown up hunting for lizards and snakes as a child in California, identified the predator immediately and saved me from my foe. I became leery of spiders after that and had my most panic-filled encounter when I discovered a black widow on the wall of my bedroom as my daughter (then 7-months-old) played nearby on the bed. Without any sense of calm I removed that spider from the house with a pair of plastic-wrapped tongs, killing it in the process.
Photo by Kathleen Keagy

When we moved to our home in the Village Green, I discovered that it was not only a grassy, tree-covered oasis, but also an amazing spider playground. I began a quest to identify the spiders in my yard. I learned that the glossy black spider that lives under the leaves in the corner of my patio is a false black widow, a harmless, non-native spider that is thought to be driving down the population of black widow spiders in the area. She looks like the black widow but without the trademark red hourglass. I learned about the cellar spider with its slender body and long legs. These spiders like damp spots and reside under my kitchen and bathroom cabinets. And my favorite, the wolf spider, a creature who doesn’t spin a web but catches prey using its great speed.

My research led to a fascination, and I began to befriend my eight-legged friends, leaving them under my kitchen cabinets or safely transporting them out of the house if they made my daughter uncomfortable. I began to joke with myself that they were telling each other about our home, a place they would be allowed to stay for awhile in safety.

In the weeks prior to Halloween an orb weaver spider took up residence just outside my front door, spinning the most exquisite web between the door and the hedge beside it. At night his web would shine in our porch light, and by day we would squeeze out our front door so as not to disturb the handiwork. After weeks of watching I found the place my orb-friend would hide when not on his web. At the back of the hedge, he had done a little spinning around a leaf and retreated to that spot during the day when his presence would have given away his webbed trap. He and his web were our Halloween decorations, and he stayed with us until just after Halloween, as if he knew his work was done.

In the spring, Charlotte visited us. Outside the jam of our dining room casement window, Charlotte, a cobweb spider, made a small web and was spinning a nest. My daughter and I would watch Charlotte from inside the window. One day we found the outside of the nest covered in hundreds of baby spiders so tiny they were like grains of sand. Days later they were gone. But we protected Charlotte making sure that we didn't spray the window when watering our plants, and she rewarded us with yet another nest and yet another scene of springtime renewal and birth. We never asked her to leave, but I assume that after her role as mother was complete she, like Charlotte of the famous story, moved on.

One of the things I learned in my research is that traditionally spiders are symbols of creativity. Intensely fragile and resiliently strong, spider webs are works of art. And when their webs are broken by life, spiders recreate or create somewhere new. Their work reminds me so much of the creative work I do every day. I cook; the food is eaten. I clean; the floor, the table, the pair of pants are dirty within minutes. By the end of a day there is often little physical evidence of the creative work I have done; and yet, the work has fulfilled the most basic needs of my family. Most days we walk right by spider webs or get annoyed when we accidentally walk through them. Every once in a while, though, we take the time to stop and admire the immense creative effort and functional beauty of their art. So now when I see spiders, I feel different. Their amazing webs remind me that my domestic work is a vital creative art. And so, I have grown to love spiders. Together, we make art to survive and survive on our art.

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