Friday, July 18, 2008

No Miss Muffet, I.

So a little personal secret to share. I have, at times, been a raving arachnophobe.

Not only that, but a very selective raging arachnophobe. Tiny little house spiders didn't phase me...the type of miniscule little fellows who might skitter across the top of a table at what must be high velocity to one the size of a pen tip. The largest fellows didn't really affect me either...the huge hairy tarantulas and such. I have a healthy respect for them, but they didn't really inspire in me the GET'EMOFFMEGET'EMOFFME's like the middle sized ones. The long, spindly legged garden spider, the viscious-looking evil-bit-sized orb weavers and such.

I admit it isn't the rarest of phobias. I'm not in the same league with the fellow who's, say, deathly afraid of swiss cheese, or won't go outside, or is chilled to the marrow of his bones by Barry Manilow (then again, for the latter, who isn't, really..). But it is fairly specific in terms of arachnophobia to be scared of just one size of spider, I suppose.

I'm not a fearful person in general.
I like the dark.
I've jumped out of a perfectly good airplane.
I live in Texas.

However, there's just something about these type of spiders that really filled me with an irrational dread.

I'm not sure how or where the fear arose. I grew up in the country...I'm certainly no city-dweller sheltered and fearing of beasties from a forest primeval. And it would be easy to blame part of it on more rational causes. I read once that humans instinctively tend to react negatively to spiders, because of the patterns of their movements. That alien way of locomotion apparently triggers some menace in the pattern recognition elements of our brains. Those who are arachnophobes, the article mentioned, may possibly be (all other factors controlled for) more attuned to this pattern recognition warning. I would love to think of myself as having this sort of highly attuned spider sense (with all apologies to Peter Parker), but I don't think that's the case.

At one point I blamed it on that childhood in the country. We lived in a large old farmhouse..the type of place locals still refer to by the name of the original owner, or at least the owner three or four owners back, regardless of who inhabits it currently. To them, it was less a real dwelling with living owners, and more a mythical landmark from their childhood. The old "Douglas Mansion" sat on a small outcrop just above the floodplain of a small creek. It backed up to woods and wetlands that went on seemingly without end. In the dead of summer, when the black flies and mosquitos close to blotted out the sun, and the dragon and damselflies danced over the marsh, the night belonged to the spiders. I remember as a child, waking in the night, watching the shadows of small things dangling in the moonlight outside the window. If one turned on the lights , one would be greeted with the sight of a window literally dripping with large spiders of all varities...hairy fishing and nursery web spiders, garden spiders brightly striped in the black and yellow colors of warning signs, and all manner of long limbed unidentifiable arachnids fighting for space in the insect rich gathering grounds near the outside lights and windows. I remember going down to our kitchen one particularly hot evening (hot because, unlike the air conditioned surreality of the City, we lived in the heat of the season, with only a patched and chugging box fan in the window making its feeble drone against the sultry, stagnant air.) and turning on the lights. In the kitchen there was a large series of picture windows, covering the majority of one wall, looking out over fields and stands of birch, with the lines of old growth pines standing sentinel against the sky miles away. In the day, I could sit and stare out those windows all day, watching the hawks circle over the hay fields and the deer pass tenatively across the highway. But at night, they became something more sinister...if my bedroom window dripped with spiders, these windows pulsated with them. The lights brought the insects to the windows, and there were times at night, for the spiders and the webs, that you could barely see out of the large panes. There are few moments in my young life that were quite as horrifying as the first time I turned on the kitchen lights one hot summer night, only to see the windows squirm in response, a sudden motion of dark crawling things, as if the black of night had suddenly come alive, writhing against the window, coming to get me. All the nightmares and imaginings that lurked just beyond the edge of the nightlight in my young head were suddenly real and tangible.

While nights like that were acute in the horror they inspired, it was the basement that really formed my chronic dread. Our house was old, as I said, built by settlers who had hewn stone from the virgin earth, and dug deep, building foundations of solid rock beneath supporting beams of roughly hewn whole trees. Our cellar was not a basement of the finsihed, suburban variety. Until I was a bit older, I'm not sure I even knew such things existed. Our basement was the archetype for cellars. It was large, occupying a good portion of the space under an equally large old house. Its walls were built of the fieldstones and rock quarried locally, uneven and irregular. Its floor was cobbles loosley strewn over dirt which scarcely covered the bedrock below and was consistently damp. Its extent and recesses, barely lit by a single, dangling 60 watt bulb, held alcoves and side passages whose original purpose was lost to us, serving only now to heighten the forboding we felt at descending down the rickety staircase to its depths. And it was strewn with spiders. In every way it was far more akin to the average catacomb or dungeon than it was to a living space. It's as if, like the Tolkein's dwarves, the builders had dug TOO deeply and greedily and their carelessness had unleashed an ancient menace into the caverns below our home. I would have been just as happy to seal this place away and never venture there, except that the unfortunate placement of the washer and drier connections meant routine expeditions into the darkness. The sense of descending into a world you do not hold dominion over only served to heighten the fear of the arachnid denizens that dwelt, in mysteriously large numbers for the seeming lack of prey, therein. If I have any speed or skill at sprinting, I credit it largely to the land speed records set in the dashes in and out of that dark place.

I like to think my childhood is part of the reason that I'm skittish of these spiders in adulthood.

I remember, years later during grad school, visiting my wife, then girlfirend, at university in Madison, WI. It was in the fall, and some particular type of orb weaver, one of the vaguely uniform and ubiquitous grey and brown, long legged types, had infested fairly large amounts of the street we walked down. Every awning sheltered large webs, and spider dangled from invisible threads at face level. I spent the better part of what should have been a lovely fall walk dodging awnings, looking up with dread, and realizing as she calmly sauntered past them that I, the boy who extolled the virtues of nature and wore his childhood in the country as a badge of honor, was an arachnophobe.

At first it angered me. I was a naturalist at heart, a man of science, and not someone who considered himself prone to irrational fears. How could I be reduced to this skittish mare by something I clearly outranked on the evolutionary scale. (for those of the camp that all living things are equal, I make my judgement of placement in evolutionary hierarchy not in terms of inherent worth, but in more simplistic comparisons of who could squash whom.) It did not help that at that time, it had been a good year for the large black-and-yellow garden spiders (argiope aurentia, I believe, in this case) where I lived, and my existential struggle was played out against a backdrop of large decidely evil-looking spiders everywhere I went. It continued to bother me for several years. I think everyone, to some degree, feels uncomfortable in situations where they feel out of control, helpless. The specifics of my life, outside of spiders, only lend themselves to accenting that aversion to helplessness. So for me, not being able to conquer that fear became more than a minor annoyance, it became a real issue.

I'd like to say that I had a miraculous break through, that all my problems were solved by a clear and firm application of manly will. Unfortunately, I still get the willies to some extent. My antidote now is photography. When I moved down to Texas I encountered spiders as proportionately large as everything else in this bloated, overblown state. But in several forrays out into what passes for the natural world here, I began to notice that when there was a camera between me and spiders, even the huge and unquestionably menacing looking Golden Silk spiders (nephila clavipes, for the sciency folk among you), my fear dissapated. My curiosity overtook me, and the lens gave a sense of empowerment. It may seem juvenile, it may seem a crutch, but now I actively seek out spiders. I still get that tingle of dread, but the desire to record, to classify, to name the unknown pushes it aside. I'm still not to the point of some of the rangers I have befriended at Brazos Bend state park, an area literally awash in golden silk webs, who are quite content to handle and play with the fist sized spiders, but I am more calm now in their presence.

It makes me think, in a more general/abstract sense, how we face fear, how we handle that ongoing battle between our rational thoughts and irrational impulses...when a crutch changes from a tool to a hinderance. To take it to a more absurd level, it reminds me of the progress of mankind in general...the drive to take back the night of fear by pushing superstsition to the boundaries of the light, classifying, naming the nameless, and in doing so , taking away its power.

I look forward to the day when I may be able to deal with the spider as it is, without fear, and without the crutch of the camera and the label, as just another critter sharing space with this slightly larger critter. And to me, that hope echoes the one I have for our society in general, if I may risk pretense for a moment. We have pulled ourseleves out of the night of superstition and fear of the supernatural lingering at the edge of shadow, but we still seem to have an innate need to name, to classify, to draw a box around things. This endless drive to assert our dominance by burying things beneath enough words. Everytime there is a tragedy, a natural disaster, we soak ourseleves in the 24 hour news cycle, taking what solace we can by wrapping the sharp edges of our pain in blankets of words and expert opinions and classification. I'm certainly not suggesting that such things are detrimental. I'm just wondering where the balance between the survival instinct of fight or flight as directed through a ravenous desire to beat our fears down with knowledge, and the ability to accept our fears, our pain, as they are without action, and therefore release ourselves from their effect. I think Hubert was pretty spot on in his fremen littany against fear...fear is a mind-killer. And conquering fear is not as much a case of fighting against it, crawling on top of the mountain of words you bury it in (and yes, I realize the inherent irony there given this post length), but a matter of looking deep into the place where people fear to look, and coming to terms with it. As long as fear and pain keep you running in circles to "deal" with them, they still has power over it.

Well, another ramble ends in existential hoohah. As before, I hope the following examples of my growing ability to deal with my particular fear will serve as compensation for reading. (Apparently blogger crops these to some degree, so I apologize about how the come out. Click on them to see the originals)

bottom view, Laucauge Venusta/Orchard Spider?
Orchard spider (underside)

Ominous Spider
silhouette, golden-silk spider (nephila clavipes)

Spiny Backed Orbweaver
Spiny-backed Orb Weaver

Female Golden Silk Orb Weaver (Nephila Clavipes)

spider 2
Unidentified Jumping Spider at 1:2 macro

Courtship (nephila clavipes/golden silk spider)
Female (large) and Male (small) Golden Silk Spider (nephila clavipes), the largest North American true spider (not counting mygalomorphs like tarantulas), non-macro

Dark Fishing Spider (dolomedes tunebrosus?) 2
Dark Fishing Spider, non-macro

Buffalo Bayou - Wolf Spider/Egg Sac
Wolf Spider with Egg Sac, ~1:2 macro

Long-jawed Orb Weaver Spider (genus Tetragnatha, species?)
Long-jawed Orbweaver, 1:1 macro

Wolf Spider
Some variety of Wolf Spider, in shallow DoF, 1:1 macro

Jumping Spider B&W
Jumping Spider, unclassified as of yet, 1:1 macro

Spider Macro 1
Unknown tiny spider, at ~1.5:1 macro.

Road to Hana- HUGE Argiope
Hawaiian version of our common Garden Spider (Argiope Bruenichi?)

spider 1 bw

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