A black, hairy tarantula with a brown rump and a small waist
When I was six, I was reading Wind in the Willows in my bedroom. Suddenly, something alerted me to danger, and I looked up just as a tiny spider crawled down the wall toward me.
Mustering all my courage, I stayed still and watched as it scuttled closer and closer and closer. Finally, I could stand it no longer and let out a blood-curdling scream which brought my parents at a dead run.
Once Mom saw the reason for my terror, she told me never to scream like that again, but Dad laughed and took care of the spider.
I tried to defend myself since the spider had threatened my very existence, but no one stuck around to listen.
That intense fear of spiders stayed with me into adulthood, and one of my worst nightmares became a reality when I moved into a damp basement apartment full of them.
Although I meticulously checked the bedclothing nightly, they still crawled over me in bed, sending me straight up to the ceiling. The spiders lasted longer than I did in that apartment.
My arachnophobia persisted until I married Ted. He didn’t stomp on spiders with wild abandon or hit them with a shoe until they were mashed beyond recognition.
Instead, he said he believed we would someday be judged for the way we treat God’s creations and left the arachnids in peace.
Fortunately, a friend finally taught me the technique of trap and release, so I began capturing God’s eight-legged creations and transporting them outside.
As I did, my phobia lessened, and gradually, very gradually, curiosity took its place.
In late November, that curiosity stopped me in my tracks on the west side of Westwater. A black, hairy tarantula with a brown rump and a small waist ambled beside the trail.
I grabbed Oggie’s halter, but the tarantula sensed the threat and began walking in erratic circles, waving its front legs, and rearing up.
Although I didn’t count, it seemed to have more than the allotted number of legs. Later I found that in addition to their eight legs, tarantulas have two extra pairs of appendages.
The first set is called the chelicera, basically housing the mouth parts and ending with fangs. The second pair, also located at the front of the body, are called the pedipalp which look like short legs, and are used to grip, cut, and crush prey; and, in the case of males, mate.
This big fellow was waving his pedipalp and extending his fangs as a warning. I didn’t know then that American tarantulas also often flick spiked bristles, called urticating hairs, off their abdomens as a defense.
The barbed hairs irritate the skin and cause serious damage if they penetrate the nose, mucous membranes, or eyes. I also didn’t realize its peculiar behavior was a precursor to an attack.
I finally decided we’d upset the tarantula enough and headed up the trail, but after a few minutes, I stopped, secured Oggie to a rock, and went back to take a cell phone picture.
This time, the tarantula, probably a male, didn’t threaten the phone hovering over it, but scurried into the rocks.
After Oggie and I arrived home, I started researching these creatures who, with their eight eyes, look like aliens from another dimension and found that they don’t create webs, but rather spin silk out of their spinnerets to line and strengthen their burrows, create silken platforms for a complicated mating process, and encase their eggs.
They’re also unique because they spin silk out of their feet which tethers them to slippery surfaces, much like the famed Marvel version of Spider-Man although his superpower is technology, not nature based.
After the encounter, I couldn’t help but think about the original Spider Woman and Spider Man from the Navajo creation stories.
When Spider Woman was in the third world, according to one version by Barbara J. Toth, Ph.D., the holy beings told her she had the ability to weave the “map of the universe” and the patterns of star beings, but they didn’t give her any instructions, so she didn’t know how.
One day, she put her hand on a tree, and when she pulled it away, a silken thread flowed out of her palm. She did that over and over again until the branch was covered with webbing. Finally, she broke the strand and moved to another branch.
After she practiced creating many patterns, she went home to the top of Spider Rock in Canyon de Chelly to tell her husband, Spider Man, about her experience.
She eventually taught the skill to Changing Woman who passed it on to the Navajo people.
Spider Man also played a vital role in this exquisite art form by teaching the Diné how to create looms out of sacred materials.
When Oggie and I encountered the tarantula along the trail, I felt no fear, just curiosity though I was later relieved I had kept Oggie at a safe distance.
Certainly, my phobia didn’t disappear overnight, and I have to admit just looking at the internet pictures of a tarantula posed to attack gave me cold shudders, but sometimes facing our fears, with a healthy respect for actual danger, helps us develop the reverence and responsibility Ted talked about.
Those entities which once made us shudder can help us weave our own map of the universe and understand the web that connects all things.