Why was I walking around my backyard in the middle of the night with a flashlight? It started with a mix up over cats. Our yard has become a popular hangout for some neighborhood cats. No surprise there, surrounded by all the area lawns our weedy, shrubby yard border is no doubt the best spot for cat exploring and seedy cat hanging out. One particular bruiser, a big black and white long-hair, and I have developed a bit of a rivalry. Its crimes: sauntering about like it owns the place, taunting our indoor cats by grooming itself right in front of our windows, using my freshly laid mulch as litter box material, digging up and killing moles and then leaving those moles for me to find on what should be pleasant backyard strolls, and never showing any interest in my friendly overtures. The previous owners of this house never used the yard and I understand that cat has probably ruled this quarter acre since it was a kitten. But whatever, I live here now, and I’ve decided some more aggressive defensive measures are needed to balance things out.
When my wife noticed a black and white cat slink under the overturned canoe out back I figured it was the longhair, and I headed outside to do some territorial posturing. I was heartbroken and deeply remorseful when a few good raps on the top of the canoe sent not the chunky beady-eyed longhair but a skinny roughed-up looking stray scurrying. It dashed into a pokeberry patch and in full conciliatory mode I crept close enough to see that it had a serious mouth infection to go with its matted fur. But I had gotten things off to a pretty rough start and while I was inside getting cat treats it slunk away. I spent the rest of the day concocting various cat meals and leaving them around the yard, and keeping patient vigil for any sign of its return, only drifting off as darkness fell.
Around midnight I had a vision of this sickly cat curled up under some cold bush and the image made my heart race. I grabbed a flashlight and began canvassing the shrub border and bam! I nearlywalked right into a terrifyingly large and hairy spider suspended at eye level. An aside here: I have everything to learn about the world of spiders and in my lack of knowledge this specimen was terrifying. Probably if I knew otherwise it would still make my skin crawl, some things are what they are. When it swept into view in the beam of my flashlight it seemed as big as my head. I felt phantom bristly hairs scrape over my face from a full two feet away. I had the almost universal thought: what if it jumps! Instead I jumped, shuffling backwards, trying to control the urge to claw my head and arms for silken webbing just in case.
Sometimes ignorance really is bliss. I’ve gone on many a nighttime walk through the woods without flashlights, and running into spider webs is just something that happens. Sometimes you think you may have felt something soft and squishable on your head or arm, and you just shiver, do the get it off me shake, and move on. The above images are not ones that I try to carry with me while stumbling around in the dark. It took a few minutes to look past the web’s creator and let the web come into view. Funny the way perspective shapes size. After I stepped back far enough to digest the almost invisible strands, covering an expanse broader than my living room wall, the motionless spider in the center was hardly visible, a motionless, unassuming blot.
The center of this web was a good five feet off the ground, and the nearest tree limb easily ten feet above it. I’ve watched the time lapse videos showing how they build them but my awe has been unaffected. Earlier this year a spider maintained a web in the space below the power lines feeding my house for two weeks. The central network of webbing, revealed every morning by the glistening dew in the sun’s glancing early rays, seemed to hover in another realm. It was surely tethered to the power line, 10 feet above, and to what else? The ground, 15 feet below? The juniper bush or my house, 20 feet on either side? Some mornings the spider was visible, a smudge made humble by the scale of its own work, how many hundredths the size of its overnight creation?
There is the revulsion first, then the admiration, and finally for me, a celebration of having predators in the yard. Probably the easiest gauge of ecological function is the presence and frequency of predators. Before there’s enough food here to warrant a stop from a passing hawk there has to be enough to entice some robins and songbirds and before I can count them as regular visitors I need to revel in spiders and wasps and robber flies and anything that eats something else. Besides I want this yard to house the unexpected. The food chain is a dark and sticky business and written into our existence. How exhilarating to encounter, 100 feet from my back door, an experience that elicits the same push and pull, intrigue coupled with fear, eyes helplessly wide even as my neck hairs stand on end, rush of adrenaline usually inspired by perilous mountain slopes and building ocean storms.
I spent a half hour or so alternating between backing away and inching as close as I dared to study the web and the spider. Then I left so as not to ruin an entire night of hunting and completed my round of the yard. I never saw that stray cat again. It crosses my mind once a week or more bringing with it a pang of guilt. The canoe stands as a sad reminder. I have thought of moving the canoe to another part of the yard to start anew. Underneath its old spot will be dead grass and come spring whatever grows up from the fresh ground. There are many stories waiting to emerge in a textured and living landscape.