From phobia to philia: A tangled web

Reading Lory Manrique-Hyland’s delightful post on family “pet” Jimmy the Spider brought to mind my own childhood encounters with spiders, including the pet spider I had when I was small.

It may come as a surprise to some readers, but I have not always been fond of spiders. As a child, I was actually quite terrified of them. My mother was rather arachnophobic, and millions of years of primate evolution suggested that I ought to be as well.

I began my gradual transformation the day I discovered a very small spider had made her web in one ceiling corner of my bedroom. I was eight years old, no doubt primed for this experience by the recent release of the classic animated version of Charlotte’s Web. The spider in my room was tiny and far enough removed from my person to pose no immediate threat, and I could lie on my bed and watch her. Although she didn’t do much of anything and was so small that I couldn’t see her in any detail, she was always there when I looked for her, and I found that somehow comforting.

Not long afterward, I read the story about Robert the Bruce and the spider, in which the Scottish hero was inspired to continue the fight for Scotland’s independence by a spider’s persistent web-building. This particular version of the tale concluded by saying that Scots refuse to kill spiders to this day in gratitude for the great service done them by this legendary spider. Having recently discovered that I was of partial Scottish ancestry, I resolved to do the same. My long-suffering mother tolerated my sudden interest in relocating unwanted arachnids, though she stipulated that I had to see to such operations myself.

My relations with spiders remained in a state of detente for many years: I pretty much avoided them and did them no violence when we met, but I still found them rather creepy and horrifying. Then one summer after graduate school, I was unemployed and spending a lot of time at home, an old rental house with an overgrown yard. I seemed to run into spiders everywhere, inside and out. I began to feel anxious and uneasy, my skin always on the verge of crawling.

I went to a conference in the midst of all this where I heard a Native American speaker talk about viewing non-human beings as messengers. Returning home after several days of creep-free living, I took a deep breath and asked myself, “What are all these spiders trying to tell me?” The first thought that popped into my head was, “Stop being afraid of spiders.” The simplicity of it was breathtaking.

I spent the rest of the summer talking to spiders that I encountered. I didn’t try to get all cozy with them; I just said things like, “Hello, there,” and “Since you’re sitting in that chair, I’ll sit in this one.” As I felt less freaked out by the spiders, I started to notice things about them: colors, body shapes, ways of moving. I began to recognize them by type, and because being able to identify something makes it more familiar, I began to feel even a little friendly toward them.

The strength of this new understanding was tested in the fall, when I agreed to house-sit for relatives who were going on vacation. Their immaculate house was spider-free, but when I went to close the blinds the first evening, I found that a very large spider had built a web across the bedroom window. The web was so big that it covered the entire window, and the very large spider was sitting in the center of it. I was startled by this unexpected discovery, and shuddered involuntarily before quickly closing the blinds and resolving to sleep in another bedroom.

When I opened the blinds in the morning the spider was gone, but her web was still there, with several tell-tale holes in it. “Clever spider,” I thought; the light shining through the window at night no doubt attracted all kinds of bugs. When I closed the blinds that evening, the spider was there again, web repaired, ready for her night’s work. I remembered something about manners from the Mowgli stories in Kipling’s Jungle Book and wished her good hunting.

Strange houses make strange noises, especially in the middle of the night. I woke in the darkness, convinced I had heard something amiss. I lay there for some time, heart pounding, barely breathing, unable to decide if it was worse to get up and meet the burglar or wait to be discovered and murdered. After a while, it became clear that there was no burglar, but my fears had been set loose.

The following string of thoughts flashed through my mind: I wish I had a net to capture my fears — a dream catcher traps bad dreams — a dream catcher looks like a spider web — there’s a giant spider web on the other bedroom window — no burglar would come in that window — that giant spider would eat anyone who tried to come into this house. In an instant, the spider had become my protector, and following the incoherent reasoning of the wee hours, I soon fell back asleep.

I dubbed her Grandmother Spider, reflecting both the Native American folk figure and the hyperbolic Gulf War era description “the grandmother of all [fill in the blank].” She was certainly the biggest non-tropical spider I’d ever seen! I looked for her every evening and once again found mysterious comfort in the presence of a spider, of all things.

And that’s how I learned to stop freaking out and love spiders.

(You can read more about my Grandmother Spider, who belonged to the genus Neoscona, in my post about giant spiders.)

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4 responses to “From phobia to philia: A tangled web

  1. I’m chuffed to have inspired these spider memories. I loved reading them. Also, just want to say, our spiders are gone. One disappeared mysteriously and the other(Jimmy) was “escorted out of the building” (via the window) by my husband one evening after Jimmy showed up under a toy and scared the living daylights out of the not-quite-three year old. They only really liked the spiders from a distance.

    • Jennifer Barricklow

      Yes, my relationship with my “pet” spider depended entirely on the fact that we were both very small and consequently remained very far away from one another.

      Jimmy’s unwelcome appearance reminds me of yet another incident from very early childhood — I might have been four — when I picked up a doll with black hair only to have a (horrifyingly large) portion of that “hair” scurry down the doll’s body and across my hand. I believe the shrieking caused people up and down the street to rush out of their houses.

      Needless to say, I have enormous sympathy for your not-quite-three year old.

      Thanks so much for reading!

  2. I have spiders at work that, sadly, have to have their webs removed. I try not to hurt them but when my bosses are in for the day, the webs have to go.

    • Jennifer Barricklow

      Spiders do have a way of setting up their webs without consulting us, don’t they? A runner friend has recently quipped that his spirit name should be “Jogs Thru Cobwebs” because he likes to run around dusk, when it starts to cool off. Unfortunately, that’s also when many spiders are setting up for the evening’s hunt, and my friend seems to catch a number of their webs on his face.

      I’m sure the spider folk at your place of work appreciate the care you take when you are able. Hey, good karma is good karma! Thanks for commenting! 🙂

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