Arachnids have always fascinated me, ever since I was a kid and the black-brown arthropods would dart across our basement floor, scaring the bejesus out of my brother and me.
We lived in southern Montana, atop rims of sandstone. The spiders there seemed huge and alien: wolf spiders the size of pickle jar lids; sinister black widows tattooed with lipstick-red warnings; and the too-fast-to-catch wind scorpions that would streak into the house through unscreened doors, bobbing their massive, arrowhead jaws in greeting.
When they appeared, I would watch in awe from the safety of our couch, as the creatures advanced through the white plush of our carpet, like space invaders bent on basement-overthrow. And though most of the arachnid interlopers had simply taken a wrong turn at the open screen door and meant us no harm, my brother and I would greet them with instant, violent death, delivered via my shoe.
This unnecessary carnage was the product of primal fear. These arachnids hadn't attacked or assaulted me, stolen from or insulted me. They'd done nothing to warrant their sudden, gory ends. When I began to feel this fear out, though, I realized it was wound up, wire-tight, with intense curiosity: I'd pick and prod at the creatures' still-twitching corpses, note the spiders' glinting circlets of eyes, the supple, hand-like feelers. Yet just by showing up, they could reduce me to a shrieking mess, marooned on an island of furniture. It was an early lesson in humility, and one that forced me to question my blind faith in society's hierarchy of species.
Arachnids, I began to learn, deserved more credit. Fortunately, my naturalist parents were avid practitioners of the "cup trick," a less gruesome means of arachnid removal. They taught me to trap the creatures between an upturned glass and a piece of paper so that I could observe them, count their eyes, note figure and form; try to identify them. My parents reasoned that the more I knew about arachnids, the more my kneejerk fear would relax its grip and let me breathe, and maybe, be fascinated. So I'd carry the arachnids, in their kitchenware prisons, to the backyard and set them free. Lifting the glass, I half-expected the liberated animals to exact some terrible revenge. Usually, though, they just sat there; leggy shivers of shadow on a square of white paper. Then they'd twitch a few legs, turn like a knob, and move slowly into the yellow-grass prairie that was our backyard in summer.
It took years of performing "the cup trick" to realize my fear had no place in reality. For miles, my road from fear to fascination with these creatures was littered with the crippled limbs of arachnids that made too sudden an entrance in too intimate a space; the shower, say, or the bed. But one day, you realize there is no malice in those shoe-polish eyes, just an inherent drive to live and breed and be. Then you start to hunt them out, to delight in their queer beauty and ingenious survival strategies: webs, nets, decoys; trap doors and bola; perfumes, miasmas, mimicry and dancing. Finally, you may even begin to think of these strange little monsters as underdogs for which to cheer.
Last spring, I had the chance to participate in some citizen science events aimed at finding and cataloging Western species, including arachnids: One, a public spider biology and identification workshop organized by the Denver Museum of Nature and Science as part of its Colorado Spider Survey (an effort to chronicle the state's spider diversity and distribution); and the other, a BioBlitz of the Pryor Mountains in southern Montana.
The events attracted students and naturalists, but also grocery store clerks, retirees, geologists and English teachers. Most knew very little about arachnids, and cold fingers of fear still scratched at their throats when they encountered the eight-legged strangers. But the more they interacted with the creatures, the more curious the volunteers became. Soon, they were happily sweating away their weekends catching and collecting the animals as they fell like sooty snowflakes into their waiting nets. That transition, from fear to fascination, is key to arachnid conservation, and, I suspect, to the conservation of other species that suffer at the twitchy hands of human fear: snakes or wolves or bears.
Indeed, as my parents taught me years ago, it's only when you climb down from the couch, holster your shoe, and let curiosity take over, that you can truly marvel; and, as the dread crawls finally away, you finally start cheering for the underdogs.
Marian Lyman Kirst is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is a former fellow of the magazine who currently lives in eastern China, where the spiders are big and beautiful.