By now, we’ve all seen the incredible spider web video footage and photography coming out of Australia. If you haven’t, you can look at it here and then come back. I’ll wait.
Severe flooding drove millions of spiders inland. Perhaps you remember earlier this year when news footage of spiders fleeing up trees and poles crossed the airwaves? And stories of spiders invading houses looking for dry land? When natural disasters happen, they happen to all of us. Everyone was fighting for dry ground.
The spiders, to get some distance from their flooded homeland, hitched a ride on the wind using their super-web powers to carry them away from the rising water. (A procedure known as “ballooning” or “kitting.”) As they flew across the land, those webs caught in grasses, bushes, trees. The result is the strange, silky, ghostly veil spread across the landscape.
And walking across this veil of silk: spiders.
Millions of them.
I have a, well, complicated relationship with arachnids.
When I was five, I was stung by a scorpion – a member of the arachnid family – and ever since then, I just have not felt the need to be close with any member of that particular family. I actively avoid spiders, scorpions, and ticks.
Age has not diminished my adrenaline-fueled emotional response to these creatures. A few years ago, I lived with a lovely older woman who, in exchange for housekeeping duties, allowed me and my young family to live with her. The back yard of her house abutted the local creek. It was beautiful, with willows and oaks and cottonwoods. And one day, I just needed to step away from the baby and have some peace and quiet.
I brought a book, determined to let my mind wander from the real world for a little while. So, I found a spot of clear grass near the water’s edge. Before I sat down, I stood and admired the flash of sunlight on the rushing water as it swirled around river rocks.
I bent down to pick up a stone to skip across the surface and, as I did, I must have stepped in just the right spot. Sent out just the right vibration.
Swarms of black spiders crawled up from underground. The green grass which I’d determined to be my seat of tranquility, was covered with squirming, writing legs. Some crawled on my sandaled feet. I kicked and screamed – you would have thought someone was murdering me. I managed to back off and remove all the spiders which had gotten onto me. And I ran (I don’t run) back to the house.
In the moment, you could never have convinced me that spiders were beautiful. You could never have persuaded me that spiders were something to admire or appreciate. In the moment, I wanted to stomp all the little black crawly beasties back into the ground where they came from.
Later, in the house, safe from nature, I did have a moment to reflect, however.
After I’d picked up the stone, after I’d stepped in that just right spot, but before the swarm overtook the patch of grass – there’d been a moment when the spiders’ strange movements had been captivating. In those brief seconds, it looked like blades of black grass rose out of the earth, reaching for the sunlight. The ground itself seemed to shift, trying to show all its layers. Then one of the black grass blades moved. Then another. Like a dance, each one shifting around the other. At first, I didn’t know what I was looking at. In that moment curiosity and fascination were the dominant emotions, not the fear which came hard after.
And it’s that moment of curiosity and fascination that sticks with me – that weird, creepy beautiful moment. I feel that sensation again, looking at the webs half a world away. I know that if I were standing closer, I would not have the presence of mind to take video or still photographs. (I’d be too busy packing up and moving.)
But, from here, from the safety of my computer screen, I am free of the flight instinct my body automatically assumes in the face of these arachnids. I can appreciate them.
I can watch the small creatures grasp their strands of silk, waiting patiently for the waters to recede. They appear as infinite and as mysterious as stars.