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February 18, 2006

The cursorial life

Some spiders don't spin webs or lurk and lie in wait beneath the leaves. Instead, they roam the countryside and stalk potential meals. Wolf spiders are an example, named as much for their habits as for their furry exoskeletons. There are wolf spiders outside my house, and I greet a few of them for every hour I spend in the garden.

Inside the house, it's jumping spiders you're more likely to find ranging the veldt of the living room rug. Jumping spiders, members of the family Salticidae, can leap several times their body length to catch their prey. The family name has its root in the Latin word "saltare," to jump or leap. There are more than 4,000 known species of jumping spider in the world, with 300 or so in North America north of Mexico.

The one that swaggered across my desk just now was probably of genus Sitticus. I was without reading glasses or hand lens, and the spider moved too quickly for me to go get the field guide. But its relatively short legs and stocky body made me feel more or less confident in identifying it at least to the genus level.

That, and the fact that it jumped three inches from a bottle of naproxen sodium to a stack of CD-ROMs.

It was dark brown and fast. It swept back and forth across my desk, and Becky's next to it, like a dog hunting a tennis ball in an unmown outfield. One pass, and another, and then four more in succession just five inches from my keyboarding fingers, and I called it to Becky's attention. She said "hey, that's the same one I saw across the room ten minutes ago." "I guess he lives here," I said, making a risky guess as to the spider's gender.

Twenty years ago I was in the habit of stopping at the local suburban chain bookstore near the Rockville, Maryland nursery where I worked. I suspect I spent at least a fifth of my income on books in those days. I'd punch out, pick up a book or two, and read them on my long train ride home to Arlington. I usually chose gardening books, but a good title on wildlife or politics or history would often catch my eye. At most two days later I'd have finished it, and would return for another book.

One evening I picked an interesting new arrival on the shelves to take to the train station. The book was Natural Acts, a collection of essays by David Quammen, first published twenty years ago next month. Quammen had a voice I found utterly engaging, informative and almost intimate, appealingly self-deprecating but deeply learned. He wrote of places he'd lived in Montana and Arizona, of the startling intelligence of octopi and crows, of the strange life of Tycho Brahe and the reproductive strategy of agaves. He wrote a natural history column in Outside Magazine, and I subscribed almost on the spot.

It's exaggerating a bit to say that reading that book changed my life. But only a bit, as if I hadn't I might not have read his next book, The Flight of The Iguana, published two years later in 1988. And that book changed my life. More specifically, the first chapter of that book changed my life, and much of the impact the chapter had on me was due to its first sentence:

One evening a few years ago I walked back into my office after dinner and found roughly a hundred black widow spiders frolicking on my desk.

Quammen was living in Tucson, black widow heaven. A female had built an egg sac toward the back of his desk and he dithered over how to handle the situation, and then the babies all hatched. He revered diverse and wondrous forms of life, but was stricken with arachnophobia. The essay explored his reaction to finding the poppy-seed-sized baby spiders, some of them already rappelling off the sides of his desk, and went on from there to discuss, without a hint of sanctimony, the proper human relationships toward creatures that can hurt us.

It wasn't so much that reading that essay made me want to become a writer. It was more like this: By the time I finished that first chapter, I knew I was a writer. Something in his tone, in the deft way he wove one theme with another, tying them all up at the end, but not so much that it felt tidy — suddenly I had to do that too. It took about a year for me to actually start writing, a mere technicality. And so this disreputable avocation began as I read his books on the Red Line train somewhere beneath Bethesda.

Me, I'm not particularly afraid of spiders. This is not necessarily a good thing. We have a mortgage on the territory of at least a thousand black widow spiders, and their preferred habitat is the space where I am always about to stick my ungloved hand: undersides of wind-blown trash, garden tool handles, under the barbecue grill lid. We have an uneasy detente worked out, but clumsy as I am I'm certain to violate that treaty one of these days. A dose of arachnophobia might make me less likely to get black-widowed.

Jumping spiders, on the other hand, are both significantly more aggressive than black widows, and far less dangerous. The one on my desk was antic, leaping again to the pill bottle and then to a slip of paper with a phone message written on it. It ran behind my monitor. I lost myself momentarily in work, switching between word-processor and web browser. It is nearly an automatic movement these days, bringing the cursor up to the top of the screen to switch between programs, scrolling left and then right, so it took me a moment to notice that the Sitticus was pacing on the top margin of the monitor frame, chasing the little black arrow back and forth across the screen. I have a wide flat panel monitor, and the spider chased that pointer from one end to the other three times.

I changed direction, and brought the pointer up close to the spider. It started a bit, then tried to grab the arrow with its forelegs. I teased it for a moment or two as if it was a kitten fixated on a length of string. At last it leapt for the kill, an inch down onto the screen, right atop the cursor. A cat will attack the same piece of string, or the bright spot from a light pointer, over and over again. Sitticus learned faster than any cat I've known. I tried to tempt it again, making the pointer move slightly and quiver like a dying fly, but the spider was no longer fooled. Instead, it ran straight down the monitor's sheer cliff face, rappelled without a moment's hesitation to the monitor shelf, and ran straight for me and to the edge of the shelf, a foot and a half from my nose. It stared me down, eight eyes to my mere two. For a full minute it waved its forelegs at me. Spiders use a small set of modified legs, pedipalps, to "chew" their food and examine small objects, and the males of many species, including jumping spiders, use these pedipalps in often-elaborate sexual display. This spider vehemently waved its pedipalps at me, gesticulating as though cursing me roundly. It was close enough that I could see the individual light brown hairs on each palp, which moved up and down with some vigor. Was this a threat display? Or — the notion slowly dawned — was this a male spider that had mistaken an unrelated arrangement of black pixels for a female? Had I cruelly aroused the poor guy with computer porn, with no chance of release any time soon? I guess I won't find out, as the spider darted behind the computer and out of sight.

On the old nature show Wild Kingdom, host Marlin Perkins was saddled with the responsibility of straightfacedly reciting clumsy segues from the show's content to the main sponsor's advertising. They were uniformly broad and embarrassing. "The elephant's thick hide protects it from the harshest elements. You can protect your family from disaster with Mutual of Omaha's five-point coverage plan." Even as a child I imagined him wincing inside as he read them into the camera. Writing about the natural world I keep bumping up against what I think of as "Mutual of Omaha Moments." A piece of animal behavior, or a trait of some plant species, or the geological history of a mountain range will suggest some clunky metaphor. It takes all my determination to avoid it.

Layering human metaphor onto the natural world is a risky pursuit. There are no crabs, no queens, no hunters in the night sky. Frustrated in a world without appparent meaning, we fill it with stories as if it were a blank slate. When challenged, we will admit that the constellations are mythical, that the patterns are merely random pinpricks of light, as if a "mere" unimaginable immensity of insanely violent balls of fusing gas, hot and large enough to bend Newtonian physics, the light now reaching us thrown off by them before we had learned to bang rocks together, was somehow more prosaic than a dog or a bear. There are layers within layers of remote, unattainable meaning in the most commonplace events, a housefly landing on a rock wet with rain, an aspen leaf flickering in a momentary breeze. They little need our assistance in freighting them with meaning, and yet I do so anyway. It is a constant discipline to restrict the metaphor to just that amount sufficient to carry the image to the reader. I do not always succeed, not the way I'd like to, and yet I still run breathless after that frustrating goal.

And Mutual of Omaha will try to mate with your illusive female jumping spider with its comprehensive range of homeowner's insurance policies.

About ten years after I bought Natural Acts — ten years ago this April — I went to hear David Quammen read in San Francisco. He read from The Song of The Dodo, his then-newly released book on island biogeography, still the best work for the lay reader on that subject. As he signed my copy later, I handed him an issue or two of Terrain, hoping he'd be impressed enough to offer to donate some writing. You can't fault a guy for trying. He looked at it for a moment, this gift of an amateurish, low-budget magazine he'd never heard of, said something gracious, and put it in his briefcase. There was a long line of readers waiting behind me, and he faced many repetitions of near-identical short conversations before he could relax. I thanked him, started to leave, and then stopped.

"I really ought to tell you," I said, "that an essay you wrote had a strong influence on my writing." He was a little taken aback. "Really? Which one?" "The first one in Flight of the Iguana, about the spiders on your desk in Tucson."

He got quiet for a moment, and just a little wide-eyed. "I'm really glad to hear that," he said. "I really... thank you. Thank you for telling me that." We shook hands.

Black widow spiders live for about a year, and may breed twice or more before they die. Some black widow spiders now living in Tucson may be fifty generations removed, or more, from the intrepid poppyseeds that rappelled from Quammen's desk. Dispersed by competition, or wind, or flashflood, or by climbing into the rear seat of a car driving to Phoenix for dinner, the descendants of that egg sac on his desk could range from here to New Jersey. Who knows how the world would be different had he killed that first spider? Life and fortune and the elements are inexorable engines of saltation. A friend sent me a note a few weeks back to tell me she was enjoying my book. She was reading it on the way to work and back, she said. Words I laid down in a hurry or idly amused, a dozen or a hundred at a time, and she enjoyed them, and I was glad to hear it, imagining her reading of pruning saws and poison oak as her Red Line train rolled beneath the streets of Chevy Chase.

Posted by Chris Clarke at February 18, 2006 07:08 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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I needed a jumping spider fix. I had a little zebra Salticus that roamed my bedroom window last summer. Feisty little devil.

I also met Marlin Perkins the year before he died. He and his wife were waiting for a plane at O'Hare and I didn't want to impose, but I said hello and thanked him for "Zoo Parade", and "M of O Wild Kingdom", but he said to sit down and he talked to me for half an hour until his plane arrived. What a gentle and gracious man he was. Thanks for reminding me.

Posted by: OGeorge at February 18, 2006 08:13 PM
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There is something about spiders....

I am assuming this URL is coming my way next week....

Posted by: coturnix at February 18, 2006 08:16 PM
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I've been visiting your blog for awhile, but this is the first time I've posted a comment (blame it on being shy). Enjoyed your essay a great deal and wanted to comment -- on all of it, but particularly on your descriptions of spiders and their behaviour, especially the jumping spider on your desk. It was interesting and fun to read (almost like being there). So few people seem to spend much time observing spiders, so it was a pleasure to read your piece. Btw, I've experienced somewhat the same with spiders around my desk. Last autumn, there was a Parson spider (Herpyllus ecclesiastica) living behind my computer for several weeks and she would run out to investigate every time I moved any nearby object. Late at night, she would wander across the front of my desk, between the computer and I, perhaps feeling more comfortable moving about in the darkened room. From observation, I've found that female spiders can be particularly observant, and also quite brave and tenacious, when guarding their egg cases. I've photographed quite a few and it's clear that they will not back down, even when faced with the sight of a Godzilla-sized being. Anyhow, just wanted to say hello and tell you how much I enjoyed this piece, and all of your writing for that matter. Here's a photo that you might enjoy looking at if you have the time -- a jumping spider that I photographed, guarding her egg case which was wrapped within a curled leaf (hope the link works) -- bev

Posted by: bev at February 18, 2006 08:24 PM
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congrats on the sql fix. welcome back.

now i gotta look up spider pics to id the black and red jumpimg spiders i see a lot, both in wa and ca.
we have had resident spiders in our mailbox, on the rear view mirror of my truck (somehow survives driving and stays there) on the bathroom window and many other places. i do kill black widows in the house, but respect their space elsewhere.

i don't write enough to be influenced much, tho i do admire your writing. my grapevines are better off thanks to your pruning piece.

Posted by: dread pirate roberts at February 19, 2006 08:20 AM
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Chris, this is the best writing I've read in weeks. Thank you for fixing all that technical mumbo-jumbo so that you could share this with us.

Posted by: Orange at February 19, 2006 06:43 PM
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I love it that the spider harangued you.

I used to live in Miami, where anoles run wild and free. They could get pretty sizeable, up to seven inches long (including tail). I adored them. One of the things I adored about them was how the males, when they saw me walking down the sidewalk in their direction, would sometimes not scurry out of the way, but prop themselves up as tall as possible on their forelegs, and bobble their heads up and down while flashing their bright red throatflaps at me. I knew I was being warned off, maybe even challenged to a duel - and it was so quixotic and brave a gesture (never mind Godzilla; we must seem more like a walking Mt. Everest to them) I'd almost cry.

A very similar thing happened with some sugar gliders that were members of Miami MetroZoo's docent outreach animals.

One of my favorite docent jobs was taking care of the outreach critters on weekends: clean their cages, do the food and water thing, exercise and play with them for a while ("- to keep them socialized, of course," we would say most solemnly, while grinning like lovestruck loons at whoever we were petting/playing with/scritching/getting wrapped around by).

Our sugar gliders had recently had babies, which were about the size of one finger-joint. The whole family nested together in a cardboard box filled with shredded/wadded paper. Cleaning the cage meant freshening the paper in the nestbox; freshening the nestbox meant very, very carefully opening the box up and taking the bits of paper out ever so gently and unfolding them ever so carefully to make sure there were no babies hidden inside before you threw the old paper away.

So I very carefully open up the nestbox, and there is Daddy Sugar Glider (maybe the size of my palm) staring up at me, his arms stretched out so their webbing covered his family, his teeth bared, making very sincere threatening noises at me. Again, the sheer courage of it took my breath away. I have no idea what I'd do if ever confronted by something as large to me as I was to him; but "wet myself and faint" is higher on the list of probables than "snarl and act big."

I'm not sure critters understand about relative size; or maybe they just ignore it as irrelevant, like medieval artists ignored actual perspective in landscape paintings because they had metaphoric points to make.

Posted by: CaseyL at February 19, 2006 07:37 PM
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I got your share of arachnophobia, I guess -- spiders?????? Eeeeeeuuuuucccchhhhh!!

In my house? They're dead!

Posted by: Carrie at February 20, 2006 01:35 PM
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I try to live and let live, but there is something about spiders that unnerves me. I would much rather hold a snake than have a spider walk across my hand.

One morning my head brushed a spider's web as I walked to my car to go to work. As I drove down the road I felt something lightly touch my neck inside the open collar of my shirt - felt like a strand of hair - no, it was a spider! The fat, flesh-colored and fleshy spider that lived over our back door. I swear I nearly jumped out of the moving car. I shudder when I think about it, two years later. What kind of spider was he, do you imagine?

Posted by: Via at February 20, 2006 03:42 PM
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As my Lakota name Iktomi Hitunkala literally translates Spider Mouse, i have had to accept my near constant connection w/ spiders of nearly every species. Bitten, as i was, by a brown recluse in my youth (and still have a lack of sensation and feeling to this day--45 years later), and subsequent interspecies incidents with lots of spiders, i don't subscribe to arachnophobia but rather to a certain establishment of my personal space versus theirs. This applies to any and all species of them in the environment in which i choose to hang out.

I have been bitten by black widows a few times; i seem to be blessed with a certain high tolerance to their toxin. Definitely painful, necrotic and literally nauseating, but compared to a couple of Australian species, our widows here are pretty mild. For the quantity of other critters they eat, and their own natural fear of us, they are good to keep nearby for the most part.

One little note: If you live in northern CA and are up for some summer spider hunting (or some of the best winter birding ever!!), take a trip out to the Marysville/ Yuba City region. Depending upon which way you are arriving, your goal is to get on either CA 70 North or CA 20 East out of Marysville. On 20 E you travel approximately five miles and turn left on Woodruff Lane. Follow Woodruff west towards the Sutter Buttes; just pass the huge rice grain towers on the left/south, you will come to some very large rice fields separated by a row of elm and oak trees underwhich are blackberry vines. There is a turnout on the left, turn in, get out of your car and walk slowly along the vines. Literally hundreds of orb weaving spiders suspended from the trees and vines collecting insects that transit between the shade of the trees and food resources in the fields. In the course of a summer/fall you can observe through their life cycles and be amazed by the happy symbiotic sharing of their webs with a couple of other species.
If you come up 70 N, Woodruff is approx seven miles north on the right. Turn right, travel east past the tracks, again coming to large open rice fields. Woodruff makes a very sharp (dangerous) right and then after a couple of hundred yards a very sharp (again dangerous) left. Just past this last left turn as you now travel east again, you find the same turnout exits on your right. In the winter these fields are flooded (thanks to Marc Reisner) and filled with waterfowl who have migrated in from Canada.

One other last thing, if you have wolf spiders outside, you have them inside, especially in the under-house crawl spaces, where they can get to be wonderfully huge.

Posted by: spyder at February 20, 2006 04:03 PM
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I loved this entry.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at February 21, 2006 09:57 AM
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kudos, this is great writing. but i have to say, i have involuntarily shuddered about 14 times over the course of reading the piece.


Posted by: kate.d. at February 21, 2006 12:10 PM
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Well, then, Kate, don't read this post.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at February 21, 2006 12:41 PM
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Wow. Great post!

I like spiders--from 10 feet away. (And please don't tell me about any species that can jump that far to get me. Ignorance is bliss.) I tried to make a deal with the spider that spun a huge, beautiful web on my back porch one summer--I'll let you stay there if you ask your spider friends to kindly stay out of my house. It didn't work--but I let the spider live out its life there anyway. Maybe the spider knew I was bluffing.

My favorite part of your post is that part where you discuss anthropomorphication. Nothing like a well-thought out, thought-provoking exegesis that's beautiful to read.

(I also like that you make me reach for my dictionary when reading your posts--but obviously I don't when posting my comments.)

Posted by: Rain at February 21, 2006 01:06 PM
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Well, then, Kate, don't read this post.

I'd also advise Kate to stay away from the post about flying snakes as well.

Posted by: the_bone at February 21, 2006 06:17 PM
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