The Spider in My Life

Jul 23, 2018 by


The world is on fire, but the tiny creature in my family room is a balm against the human chaos outside.

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Margaret Renkl

By Margaret Renkl   nytimes

Contributing Opinion Writer

NASHVILLE — A small gray spider has pitched an elaborate camp at my work space in the family room. She is not an orb-weaver like E.B. White’s famous Charlotte. This spider’s web is a multilayered hammock-like construction strung between the leaves of the orchid I got for Mother’s Day and anchored by silken strands to the window frame in back and to an African violet and a desk lamp on either side. I don’t like to disturb my new deskmate, so I don’t water the plants. The orchid, a pink-and-purple confection with wide, glossy-green leaves, needs hardly any water. It is perfectly suited for this task. The African violet has seen better days.

The spider’s web is decorated with insect carcasses — three houseflies, countless fruit flies and one desiccated former spider. The dead spider appears to belong to the same species as the living spider, an act of cannibalism that makes a special kind of sense during a week when the president of the United States has performed an act of treason on the world stage.

A better housekeeper might be distressed about sharing space with a spider, but I love her. The world is on fire. Our government is owned by the gun lobby and the obscenely wealthy. “Breaking news” is a term that has no meaning anymore — it’s all as broken as broken ever gets — but the tiny spider in my family room goes about her bloody business in the perfect order of things, unaware of the chaos unfolding beyond that window. An insect blunders into her web, and she eats it. Then she repairs the web, just as spiders always do, and waits.

In disheartening times, in times of fear and grief, it is tempting to assign human meaning to natural systems. How many people have told me that a loved one has returned to reassure them in the form of a mockingbird singing at midnight outside a silent house or a swallowtail butterfly lighting on a freshly carved tombstone? When the world has lost its still center, we grasp for any reminder that it is nevertheless spinning exactly as it must.

But my spider — for of course she is my spider now; one of those anchor lines has attached itself to my heart — is more than a symbol of the enduring natural order. She is more, even, than merely herself, performing the same motions her kind have performed for eons. She is also the linchpin of a flourishing miniature ecosystem.

A few feet from the spider’s orchid bower, at the end of my work table, sits a worm composter. It is populated by several thousand red wigglers who eat up our garbage. Every few days, I open the top and dump in a bunch of coffee grounds, banana peels, and vegetable parings, plus some shredded newspapers and junk mail, and the worms go to work making compost. A few weeks later, I take the compost outside and spread it in the garden I planted for pollinators.

I know where they come from. Beyond the window where the spider has set up shop, there are two hummingbird feeders: one is the usual kind filled with sugar water; the other is a newfangled kind filled with rotting fruit. Fruit flies lay their eggs on the fruit; as the newly emerged flies exit through the slits in the feeder, the ruby-throated hummingbirds in my yard catch them and feed them to their babies. In autumn, those baby birds will fly across the Gulf of Mexico.

The process works fine with ordinary overripe bananas, but it works faster with pre-primed fruit from the worm composter. Thus will many of the fruit flies that begin their life in my family room make it to Central America transformed into a young hummingbird’s feathers and bones. Any fruit flies that escape in the transfer from worm composter to hummingbird feeder are dispatched before they reach my kitchen by the spider on my work table.

This kind of circular structure is what I love best about nature, even in its most violent reality. (Outdoors, my spider’s web might have been destroyed by hummingbirds, who build their nests partly of spider silk, and the spider herself might have been fed to the baby hummingbirds.) Everything goes to some crucial use; nothing goes to waste. It makes sense. And things that make sense are particularly reassuring when the human world has turned itself upside down.

I remember a time when Republicans wanted to be the party of fiscal responsibility and personal integrity, the party of patriotism and old-fashioned accountability, but those Republicans are gone. The zombie Republicans who have taken their place are racking up a monstrous national debt while simultaneously propping up an incompetent president who lies to his own people, who insults our allies and disparages our institutions, and who has broken — personally or by proxy, through policy — all but one of the Ten Commandments. (Honestly, though, what do we even know about whether he honored his parents?)

And those are just the conservative values that Republican leaders have abandoned.

There is only so much information a person can take in during an emergency. There is only so much active resistance a person can engage in without succumbing to despair. Sometimes a body needs to rest. In the face of a country gone mad, we cling to any recompense we can find. I have friends who pray more now, friends who drink more now, friends who read more fiction and watch more television, friends who have taken up yoga and needlework and gardening. I have friends who wanted to adopt a kitten and then found that so many people had the same idea they had to get on a waiting list. A waiting list for rescue kittens!

I have tried some of these distractions myself, but I am taking my greatest comfort in a plastic bin full of earthworms turning garbage into food for flowers, in one small spider crouching among a hundred silken strands that gleam like silver in the sunlight, in a cloud of fruit flies on their way to becoming a baby hummingbird’s wings.

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Margaret Renkl is a contributing opinion writer. @MargaretRenkl

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