“Kids, let me show you something.” Dad was moving a stack of old boards and, just seconds before he spoke, had jumped back momentarily, then recovered. He was now standing, holding up the board, gazing intently at the underside of the rotted wood. We weren’t sure what to expect, but we crowded over en masse to inspect whatever it was that had frightened him. Imagine our surprise when all that met our eyes was a black spider in a messy, almost funnel-shaped, web. Dad wasn’t afraid of spiders. He protected them. There were webs outside the door of the house, right where you would run into them when you walked out in the darkness. You know the feeling…I won’t use any names, but even recently, I’ve heard screams of “Get it off! Get it off!” as the arms are flailing wildly and fingers are frantically scraping the sticky web from the contorted face. Apparently the anticipation of an over-reaching and aggressive spider in the center of the web is enough to trigger this unseemly performance. At times like these, panic outweighs logic for a second or two until the adrenalin rush subsides and cooler heads prevail.
Dad loved having those webs around. More spiders meant less flies and mosquitoes, to say nothing of the pesky gnats that were always attracted by the fresh fruits and vegetables which we thrived on in those days. The spiders were a protected species in the Phillips’ Wildlife Refuge, much like every other wild creature which was smart enough to stay away from the restricted areas. Basically, that meant that the interior of the house was off limits for snakes and rats, or creepy crawlies of any other sort. That’s not to say that we didn’t sneak in a garter snake or two in our day…
Still peering steadily at the spider in its web, Dad spoke. “I want you to look carefully at this one. This spider, you stay away from. Always check before you stick your hand under anything that has been lying on the ground for awhile. If you see one of these ladies, give her a wide berth.” Ladies? How could he tell the sex of a spider? Why would he make such a designation? As he went on, we began to understand his statement. It seems that this was a black widow. Anticipating the questions, he explained that the male of the species is much smaller and that as soon as he has taken care of his marital duties (yeah, I think he used those words…), the female kills him and usually eats him. We were intrigued, but also a little disgusted by the thought. Most of the species with which we were familiar had habits similar to humans – mating and then either mothering, or protecting and providing. All the human families we knew had mothers and fathers who shared the responsibilities of, not only procreation, but rearing and nurturing their offspring. We weren’t sure that we liked this murderous black spider, but we were glad that she was so clearly identified by the bright orange hourglass-shaped marking on her abdomen. It would give us an easy way to identify her and avoid contact in the future.
Would that the males of the species were so forewarned to avoid contact with the deadly lady. It springs to mind that the hapless male spider actually does mate for life! It is a short life, but he sticks to his responsibility, right to the grisly end. The male is a small and unimpressive fellow, brown instead of black and with none of the bright coloration his mate demonstrates. He is roughly one half the size of his female counterpart. The nature guidebooks inform us that the black widow herself often lives to the advanced age of five years old, potentially bearing four to nine egg sacs in each of those years. We are also cryptically informed that “…a male’s lifespan is much shorter.” Talk about a transitory relationship!
I am slightly amused as I consider that another creature we are familiar with, the praying mantis, also has such a relationship. The larger female of that species often consumes her diminutive mate, frequently without protest from the little fellow. For some reason, we don’t tend to assign quite the stigma to the mantis that we do to the black widow, yet the end result is the same. Granted, the mantis is not as dangerous to humans as is the spider in question, but the danger to the mate is identical. He will not survive the relationship.
Applications to the human condition spring to mind and I don’t mean of the “Fatal Attraction” ilk. Those realistic parallels are (thankfully) almost nonexistent, but I do see other similarities daily. While the black widow is actually created to function exactly the way she does, no human being is. Still, wives dismiss and disrespect their husbands, relegating them to nothing more than a footnote in the family hierarchy; husbands dominate their wives, demeaning or disparaging them in front of their own children. Both situations effectively remove the damaged mate from participation in the process of nurturing and loving their offspring. This is not a situation which depends on the sex of either the aggressor or the damaged party; it clearly works both ways. I have also observed the, by now, common situation where one of the parents is completely missing from the picture, often by choice, sometimes because of incredible pressure from the other parent. In humans, the effect is disastrous. The black widow and mantis act as they do because of design and the result is the continuation of their species; the human family acts against the created order of things and the result is chaos, both physical and spiritual, especially for the children, but also for their parents, and extended family, and even for society at large.
I know that it was not in character for my brothers and me, but we were mighty careful to follow my Dad’s instructions regarding the venomous female spider. She always had plenty of room when we were around. We knew her bite couldn’t kill us, but we sure didn’t want to suffer the same wrath her hapless mates encountered.
Sometimes, a healthy respect for things that can injure and destroy is the next step along the path of wisdom.
It’s too bad that not all such dangers are so clearly marked…
“See, I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. So, be as cunning as snakes and as innocent as doves.”
(Matthew 10:16 ISV)
“For many men that stumble at the threshold are well foretold that danger lurks within.”
(William Shakespeare~English dramatist~1564-1616)