A few weeks ago, while pulling weeds near the rock wall next to our house, I caught something moving out of the corner of my eye. When I knelt to look, there it was – an ordinary spider sprawled across a web in a defensive stance. It resembled a linebacker readying itself for the snap of the ball.
I leaned closer and stretched a finger in its direction, accidentally making contact with a single, stray thread. The unexpected movement caused it to lunge towards me, from the back of the web to the front, before it scurried behind a rock to hide. I believe it was politely telling me to back off.
Typically, I’m scared senseless of spiders, and this time was no different. Its quick action sent me toppling over, square onto my backside. “Back off” had been covered in more ways than one. The screech I emitted must’ve startled my two young children, because they were both suddenly by my side.
“Mama, what happened?” my four-year-old daughter asked, her eyes squinted in concern.
“There’s a spider in the rocks. It scared me!” I answered as honestly as I could without frightening them. They have their mother’s genes when it comes to phobias. Snakes; small, enclosed spaces; the dentist. It’s a long list, unfortunately.
My two-year-old son looked on in disbelief. “Spidah?”
After exchanging a knowing brother-sister glance, they sunk down next to each other and pushed their little faces closer to the web. The anxious spider lunged again.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen two kids gasp harder or run faster than they did in that moment. They hustled clear to the other side of the yard, shedding tears and screams all the way. A spider, no bigger than a quarter, elicited a wave of fear normally reserved for much larger creatures. It was impossible not to respect and figuratively high five such a bold, brave speck of nature.
I immediately felt a sense of connection. She – I now assumed – was feisty and protective, and she didn’t let her guard down. She knew how to make the kids mind their manners. My kind of well-rounded gal. Except… How do you tell the sex of a spider? I didn’t even know what kind of spider she might be. Interest replaced fear, and I felt a lifetime of arachnophobia leave my body. What was it about this ordinary spider that had me embracing the eight-legged world?
I’ve always found them to be fascinating creatures, from a distance. But then I’m reminded of the VHS tapes my sixth-grade teacher played during science class. The ones that depicted spiders grossly enlarged, so that every bristle-like leg, daggered fang, and spinneret protruding from an abdomen could be examined left an impression. Nature: up close and personal. I couldn’t look at a spider without thinking of their vampirism and becoming instantly horrified by their alien exteriors.
But this little spider, she wasn’t so bad. Maybe I had let my psyche get the best of me all these years. Maybe she was more afraid of me than I was of her. Maybe spiders weren’t so awful after all. A page in an old book had turned at last, and it felt good.
For the next few days, as soon as we went outside, I checked in on her. My normal routine would have been to sweep out the cobwebs from between the rocks while the kids played alongside, but I in no way felt compelled to destroy her environment. Instead, I wanted to keep her safe, right there in the dark, dusty spot she chose.
My daughter appeared genuinely confused. “Mama, I thought you were afraid of spiders?”
I still hadn’t quite figured out why I had suddenly let my guard down. What in that solitary moment with a random spider gave me the ability to open my mind, take a deep breath, and see things from a fresh perspective?
I guess it’s like any relationship, whether with another human or an entirely different species. Sometimes it takes the right one to spark a change. I also wanted my kids to learn by example. I wanted them to be brave and explore, not be terrified of every little thing that might be lurking around the next corner.
“Well, maybe it takes the right spider to make you less afraid,” I said. “Sometimes the smallest things can teach us the biggest lessons. I’d like to know more about her.”
“Her? It’s a girl?” The bewildered look spun into excitement.
“I’m not sure, but for now, we can assume it’s a girl. Do you want to name her?”
The question triggered an eruption of clapping, bouncing, and shrills. My son chanted, “Yay! Yay! Yay!” while skipping in a circle. To them, naming something meant keeping something. (They had yet to learn about the laws of nature and its aggressive need for independence. We’d save that lesson for another day.)
“What about Charlotte?” I offered up. Suggesting the name was pretentious and self-indulgent, but it seemed perfect. Our little spider had all the qualities of a Charlotte, and a Wilbur. Radiant. Terrific. Humble. To me, she wasn’t just any spider. She was some spider.
Three raised hands later, a unanimous vote, and the little spider had a name. Something to keep, the kids thought.
Later that night, I sent emails to two different spider experts, one at the University of Maine Integrated Pest Management program and the other with the Department of Entomology at Michigan State University. I attached several photos of Charlotte and asked for their insight.
Both wrote back with the same conclusion. We had a type of funnel-weaver spider or grass spider, in the genus Agelenopsis, in the spider family Agelenidae. As their name implies, funnel-weaver spiders make flat sheet webs with a funnel-shaped retreat at one edge, in which the spider hides. The web is not sticky, but when prey approaches and touches a trip line radiating from the web – like my finger or little noses – the spider rushes out quickly to seize the prey.
To humans, funnel-weavers are harmless and retreat when they feel threatened. They are also extremely common and have been reported as dense as two million per acre of grassland. In other words, what we had was an ordinary spider.
One of the experts also kindly informed me that our spider presented “enlarged pedipalps.” I broke the news to the kids.
The next day, the three of us knelt and welcomed Charlie to our clan. He lunged. And we fell into a startled heap. This time we laughed. There were no cries. No screams. No loss of sandals scattered across the lawn. We didn’t run. We hugged and giggled, less afraid…all because of an extraordinary spider.
Charlie, was something to keep. For now.