A Cape Cod Notebook 7/1/08

ListenSpiders in My House

BY Robert Finch

One summer several years ago, I stayed in a house where my desk stood in one corner of the bedroom. The wall and ceiling above it were festooned with the cloudy, shapeless webs of several large, non-descript, long-legged spiders. In the evenings when I worked, I could look up and see half a dozen of these spiders in the lamplight above me, hanging upside-down in their webs, spinning tirelessly, like a bunch of old women, wrapping silken shrouds around their latest insect victims.

That was the first time I recall observing spiders at length. And though I've never become a serious student of arachnids, each summer I quietly celebrate the return of spiders in our house. The old unfinished part of our basement, for instance, hosts many long-legged cellar spiders. These arachnids prefer dark places, where their pale color and long slender legs give them a spectral appearance. There they build their loose, net-like webs, where the females carry egg sacs in their mandibles, looking as though they are blowing large frothy masses of bubbles.

Upstairs I frequently encounter smaller spiders of the family of so-called jumping spiders. Unlike most spiders, which have poor vision and rely primarily on touch, jumping spiders possess excellent eyesight. They do not make webs, but leap out into space at their prey, spinning out a silken dragline behind them as they jump, so as to pull themselves back up when they miss. Plucky, aggressive little creatures, they will leap out repeatedly at your finger when teased.

And of course we have the common long-legged house spiders. These are small brown spiders with large, sac-like abdomens streaked with black. House spiders are responsible for most of the cobwebs that are the bane of tidy housewives. They are the opposite in temperament of jumping spiders, shy and cautious, scurrying away into corners when approached.

But the most common spiders that inhabit our house are not technically spiders at all. These are the familiar Daddy-Long-Legs or harvestmen. Unlike true spiders, whose bodies are divided into two distinct sections, Daddy-Long-Legs have a single oval body section of a tan-orange color. They spin no webs and spend most of the day splayed out upside-down under the roof overhangs. By night, however, they become active predators, patrolling the outside walls of the house about the windows, where light attracts their prey.

So, from top to bottom, from cellar to ridge board, these spiders benevolently exploit my house in summer. Each seeks its own niche, each goes after its own prey. I do not begrudge these spinning creatures their small corners and recesses, for I know they must be making an insect living of some sort, or they would not be there. Far from annoying me or making me uneasy, I find them comfortable, companionable presences. Their silent activity lends a subtle current of industriousness to the house that I would miss. I can't exactly say that they inspire me with the same renewed courage and perseverance that the legendary Scottish hero Robert Bruce was said to have experienced when he watched spiders in a cave where he was hiding, but I do feel a certain affinity with them. Perhaps it's simply the connection that a writer feels with all fabricators, whether in words or in silk.