Spider Season is upon us. I know this because I live in a spider barometer—an old Victorian house, surrounded by towering hedges.
Late night walks with Rufus the Dog Wonder are terrifying this time of year. The gaps between the hedges, my home’s only points of egress, might have spiders hovering between them on freshly-crafted webs. Or they might not. They’re hard to see in the moonlight, and sometimes I’ll pass through what appears to be a clear archway only to have strands of webbing wrap around my forehead, leaving me to wonder if the spider hitched a ride and nested in my hair.
As the season progresses, the spiders get bigger, the webs get thicker, and I get warier. I’ve taken to grabbing sticks and waving them up and down in front of me as I walk, preemptive strikes at web annihilation. The neighbors must think I’m a nutcase, acting out some kind of cuckoo clock scenario, unaware that I am at war with nature. And winning! I can be a real homewrecker as far as arachnids are concerned.
But some nights, I feel guilty about destroying all their hard work. I mean, holy crap! These webs of theirs, you know? All that time and energy spent spindling those parallel strands in octagonal patterns, securely anchoring webs of death from hedge to hedge, all just so they can eat, so they can catch a bug and suck some blood out of it, and then I come along and wipe out all their effort with a single stick swoosh. So instead of the stick method, I’ll shine my flashlight in front of me and look cautiously for fanged warriors floating in the night.
And find them, my flashlight has. Three nights ago, a large, yellow, furry, spider hung ten inches from my face. Had I walked through the archway with reckless abandon, it may have bit me in the eye. I may have died that night. And yet, I refrained from destroying his web. I just wasn’t in the mood. There was enough space to limbo beneath its network, and so I did. I felt pretty good about my decision, to let him eat and live another night, so long as I was left unscathed. It felt like the right thing to do.
But not all decisions are so clear. Life has a way of forcing situations upon us that are rife with moral ambiguity. Like the time I was doing laundry in the basement, and a mosquito eater landed on the nearby narrow windowpane, trying desperately to reach daylight. Spider webbing laced the bottom two corners of the window’s frame—active webbing that belonged to a pair daddy longlegs waiting patiently for their next meals. As the mosquito eater fluttered right and left, its wings brushed the webs of either spider—just enough to bring its presence to their attention, but not enough to ensnare it. Each spider instinctively lunged toward the mosquito eater the moment its web was struck, but then backed into its respective corner when its prey changed its course.
I was watching a dance of death.
Hence, my instance of moral ambiguity. What was my role in this predicament? Should I interfere and save the mosquito eater? Or should I watch and let a spider feed? If the latter, should I make the effort to direct the mosquito eater to the spider on the left because it looked a little scrawnier, and therefore, perhaps more in need of food? Did I have the right to prevent either spider from eating? Maybe they were on the verge of starvation, and by saving the mosquito eater, I was sentencing them to death. But by a lack of action, I was surely sentencing the mosquito eater to death. Was my inaction actually action? No matter what I decided to do, even if my decision was to do nothing, my hands would be forever bloodied. I was present; therefore, I was involved.
I tried to convince myself I should let nature take its course and let the situation be. But then I felt guilty for being a human and crafting this thing called “glass” that made the mosquito eater think it could exit where it couldn’t. The moment the mosquito eater’s wing got inescapably stuck in a web, I couldn’t help myself. Heart racing, I grabbed a blue solo cup from the laundry detergent shelf and slammed it over the winged insect just as the daddy longlegs on the right sprung into action, creating a plastic, human-manufactured barrier of protection. The spider backed away again, and after catching my breath, I wedged a thin piece of cardboard between the window and the cup to pull the mosquito eater to safety. I walked outside and let him go. Again, it felt like the right thing to do.
But as that insect slipped away, the feeling that I had made the right decision, that I’d just saved a creature’s life, slipped away with it. I realized what this winged insect would go on to do next.
It would go on to eat mosquitoes.
The moment stuck with me. It forced me to contemplate the nature of existence and survival, and how so often, whether among the simplest of insects, or among the complexity of humans, we are out to harm each other as often as we are out to save each other. It forced me to think about how most of us try to do the right thing in any given situation, and yet there are rarely ever any easy answers, and that even when we try to do the right thing, we often later realize we may have done the wrong thing. But I have to believe at least most of us are trying. I want to give most people the benefit of the doubt. It’s hard to be sure of anything when competing values are at stake.
As I went back into the laundry room, I asked myself what I would do if I saw that hungry mosquito eater approaching a naïve mosquito. Would I then step in to save the mosquito? But sometimes the answers are obvious, and I responded with a resounding “no.”
Because mosquitoes are just assholes.