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Settle Down, Miss Muffet

She is the first to know when mail arrives at my house, feeling the letters as they are dropped into the green metal mailbox hanging from the cedar shakes next to my front door. She also is the first to know when someone is approaching to ring the doorbell, or drop off some cardboard-encased delivery. While she has eight eyes to see, most of her observations are picked up through vibrations traveling through her equal number of legs. She moved into the space behind my mailbox with the warming spring weather, constructing a shelter of fine threads that, for their diameter, are stronger than steel. She is a spider and I feel honored and a little safer by her presence.

I first noticed her after taking some mail out of the box in early June. When I put the hinged top down, I saw a white silken tunnel-like structure. It was attached to the back of the top of my mail box and stretched up less than an inch to the overhanging edge of the cedar shake above it. It was engineered in such a way that it tolerated the stresses of the opening and closing of the mail box without tearing. I was impressed. Inside the silken structure I could see a blurred dark image moving its legs, impressions of tiny feet pushing against the sturdy substance, perhaps reinforcing it with more threads at the threat of my presence. At each end of the structure were round symmetrical openings. With subsequent mail gatherings, I noticed how the structure thickened over time. Another spider was settling in around my house.

There are a variety of spiders inhabiting my urban lot. Some make webs among the plants and trellises in my gardens, while others wander webless among the vegetables and flowers. Among those roaming the vegetation are small jumping spiders that can leap vertically about 20 times their length with the aid of a couple of specialized legs that seem spring-loaded. Also wandering the garden are wolf spiders that scurry along the ground, hiding amid the garden debris. In the basement of my house, tiny spiders make chaotic cobwebs among the floor beams and heating-system pipes. In the late winter each year a spider shows up in my bathroom, often tucked into a ceiling corner, seeming to act as an early sign of the spring to come. They seem to be remarkably well adapted to the environments around and in my house, which may relate to their long tenure on this planet.

Spiders have been around for over 300 million years. These animals have developed an impressive range of diversity that has allowed them to adapt arachnid life to most parts of our planet today. One species has even been found hanging out under rocks on Mt. Everest at an altitude of 22,000 feet. They have been resilient enough to survive cataclysmic environmental events over the hundreds of millions of years they have been spinning silk on Earth.

The earliest evidence humans were taking notice of spiders dates back to Paleolithic times when somebody drew the image of one on a cave wall in Gasalla Gorge, Spain. One of the most impressive representations of these critters was made about 2,000 years ago in Nazca, Peru, where a huge spider figure that measures about 160 feet across was created. In the wilderness I hike in southern Utah, I have seen a number of paintings of spiders on canyon walls that are thought to date back a thousand years or more.

While arachnophobia, the fear of spiders, is pervasive in today’s American culture, in many of the indigenous cultures in this hemisphere the spider was revered as a superhero. Among the Pueblo Indians of the southwest United States, a cultural hero known as Spider Woman made humans from the earth and taught them the art of weaving. Not all cultures have portrayed spiders as creatures to fear and kill with the nearest spray can of pesticide.

There are a few standard features common to most of the known 35,000 species of spiders (some researchers claim unknown species may at least triple this figure). Supported by eight jointed legs, spiders come with a two-part body protected by a hard external skeleton, and they scan the scene through four pair of eyes and through sensitive leg hairs that pick up nearby vibrations. Spiders have silk glands that produce a strong, durable and flexible thread that is used in wind gliding, shelter construction, web building, climbing, prey snagging and meal preparation. They also have fangs and poison glands that allow spiders to immobilize their insect prey for consumption. Some spiders, like the black widow and brown recluse, are poisonous to humans, but most species are relatively harmless to us.

Spiders do provide a great service in helping to keep the insect world under control. As the star spider in E.B. White’s classic Charlotte’s Web once said, “Do you realize if I didn’t catch bugs and eat them, bugs would increase and multiply and get so numerous that they’d destroy the world, wipe out everything?” Unlike chemical pesticides, the venom spiders use to subdue their prey varies from species to species in its biochemical structure, reducing the likelihood insects will develop immunity. Their venom is being investigated for the development of new, and perhaps safer, insecticides. Better yet, farming techniques have been developed to foster the natural growth of spider populations to help control insect pests without chemicals.

Spiders have also proven to be environmental monitors of sorts. Due to their eating habits, they concentrate toxins and heavy metals. A lack of spiders about may not be a good thing.

So, as the simple little spider behind my mailbox lives out her short life, she will devour bugs and provide an indication to me that the toxic burden around my home may not be too bad. And for this I am eternally grateful to her and her fellow eight-legged brethren.

—Tom Nattell 

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