Thursday, July 26, 2007

A Spider's Tale

We noticed a visitor to our second story bedroom window last summer, just after the worst of the August heat wave. A large – for Massachusetts – spider tucked itself into a corner of the outer window frame, building a bit of a nest of silk.

At first, it seemed that the bulk of this mass, about three quarters of an inch across – must be a nest of eggs just inches from the window screen. I did not panic – but I closed the casement window and left it closed, not wishing to invite an invasion of tiny spiders when they hatched.

My husband pointed out that the spider built a perfect orb web on the outside of the window. Opening and closing the casement window did not seem to bother the spider, who remained tucked into the upper corner, as far as we could tell.

Our understanding of the spider’s motives changed a few nights later. Entering the room well after dark, I saw that the spider was now hunting: positioning itself in the middle of the web, it waited for night flying insects to strike the web. As a moth flew in to the web was was snared, the spider quickly moved to the insect, dispatched its prey with no more than a brief engagement – not a fair fight this – and then gave a few twists of silk to wrap up its meal for consumption later. Leaving the prize hanging on the web, the spider returned to its waiting game in the center of the orb.

Another moth flew into the web, and I realized that the spider was capitalizing on the attraction of night flying insects to the light at the window. A drive-up food source and the spider was positioned perfectly to take advantage of the situation.

Watching from inside, it was immediately clear that this creature was much larger than I’d imagined. The spider’s body was larger than my smallest fingernail; its legs would cover a 50-cent coin. The mass seen in daylight in the window corner was not a nest – it was simply the spider itself, curled up and resting. I turned off the light and reported the activity to my family.

What to do, now that the true size of our visitor was apparent? My husband offered to move it the next day, using our 12-foot pool broom. A great idea, I said, "I’ll wait inside!" The spider accepted the ride, and after a couple of strong shakes, eventually dropped off the broom onto the flower box of our garden shed, about 30 feet from the house.

You have to see this, the successful broom-handler said. I approached cautiously. The spider had quickly moved to the underside of the window box, where some other spider’s web was spun loosely. Our visitor could be seen up close and personal: the body and head dark brown, the sturdy legs banded with a lighter tan. Most definitely not one our familiar “daddy long legs,” brightly colored garden spiders, or smaller jumping spiders. A creature is built for business, a predator that can take down thousands of smaller species, adapted for its precise niche in the world.

But what was it doing on a sunny second story window? What is this creature’s natural place in our environment? Having had a recent encounter with a small, delicate spider while attempting to kayak on the Nemasket River, I realized that many spiders live in trees, where they crawl or capture food, presumably some building aerial webs. Was our visitor going to build a web on this other man-made structure, or would it climb up into the tree canopy?

Less than 24 hours later, a new web built appeared just below the window box, about two feet in diameter and attached to the shed and surrounding plants. The builder was nowhere to be found, mostly likely resting, well-fed, and waiting for another night of hunting.

An astute family member, listening to me spin the spider’s tale, pointed out that this encounter consumed my attention because it illustrated the same question I faced in my professional life at the moment: where do I belong? What is my niche? To what professional habitat am I best adapted?

The tensions I bring home and express to my family, in the eyes of this teenager, reveal the slight mismatch of skills and setting, like the spider on a house window. The spider could survive on the window, catching prey, sheltering during the daylight from its own potential predators. By moving it closer to the woods, were we helping it return to its natural niche – or simply out of our own hair?

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