A Cape Cod Notebook 7/3/07

listenLeaping Spider

By Robert Finch

Last night I was sitting on the couch in the living room when I noticed a small spider crawling up the sleeve of my cotton shirt. I lifted it off carefully and placed it on the tip of the metal floor lamp beside me. It stood there, motionless, on its strange new promontory for a minute, turning its head from side to side, as though to figure out where it was.

The little creature was no more than ½" long from tip to tip, and pure white, except for a lateral line of close-set scarlet eyes, like a miniature necklace looped around the front half of its head. As I watched, the spider began waving its feathery front legs in the air, feeling about into space as an insect does with its antennae.

It stood there, scrutinizing me, it seemed, with its row of ruby-red eyes. I know that most spiders have poor vision, except at close range, but I felt sure that this one was somehow very conscious of me, and its whole body seemed to bristle with awareness of the strange new universe in which I had placed it.

I began playing with the little beast like a puppy, reaching out and putting my index finger close to its outstretched forelegs. It reached out and grasped it for a frozen moment, then jerked back down the lamp stem. It regained the tip of the stem, however, and when I approached it again with my finger, it startled me by suddenly leaping at it from its perch. I drew back with a start, admiring its boldness, and then looked down, expecting to find the spider on the floor.

Instead, I found it still on the metal stem of the lamp, about three inches below its leaping place, attached by a fine silken cord to the tip. Over and over the spider did this, leaping out into space at my finger, extending a liquid silk thread or dragline behind it that hardened with incredible rapidity, so that at the end of its forward momentum it dropped in a soft arc back against the side of the lamp stand. Apparently my little white spider was one of the Salticidae, or Jumping Spiders, a family of arachnids that spin no webs, but possess good eyesight and capture their prey by leaping as much as 40 tines their own length.

The American poet Walt Whitman once wrote a poem about "a noiseless, patient spider" that stood in one place and launched filament after filament of silk into space until it caught somewhere. Whitman's spider was a symbol of the philosophical soul, static, but sending out lines of thought and speculation. My spider's behavior seemed in many ways the opposite of that. It leaped out bodily into the void, leaving behind only the thinnest of lines to guide itself back. But for all that it, too, seemed a very American spider. It was a bold, unphilosophical spider, counting on audacity, faith, and belief in itself. It was willing to fling itself out into the wide unknown against a threat of unknown character and magnitude, spinning only the most intangible and spiritual of anchors behind to guide itself back home.

Broadcast on July 3, 2007