During one of his clandestine visits to our house-in-lockdown this summer, my 3-year-old grandson Silas came running through the kitchen to get me.

“A pie-yah, a pie-yah, Mampy, a pie-yah!” He grabbed my hand, tugged me out of my chair and led me out to the deck. He pointed into his blue plastic mini-pool. “A pie-yah!”

A grass spider captured in a vial. Photo by Dana Wilde

Sure enough, swimming around in the 2-inch-deep water where it didn’t belong was a light-brown spider with a long abdomen. Silas reached down and swept the spider toward the side of the pool, where it got a grip with its thin legs and started climbing. It was a life and death moment for the spider, because Silas reached down to grab it. Remarkably, he did not kill it, but instead got the spider onto his finger where it continued to scurry forth, maybe in panic.

Silas reached his hand up to show me. I put my hand beside his and got the spider to transit onto my fingers. A new life. The spider scurried onto my thumb, then stopped to take stock. We looked at it for a minute or so, and then Silas tried to pat it, like you would pat the cat. The spider ended up back in the water, and Silas, having put the world right, went on to the next 3-year-old adventure by the wild roses.

I fished the spider out of the water, brought it knuckle-clambering into the house and herded it into a vial for temporary safekeeping. On its abdomen was a chevron-like pattern of light brown and tan. Maybe it was a female, since its palps, the little handlike appendages in front of its face, were slim and small. In an adult male, the palps are swollen-looking at the end, ready to transfer sperm in mating. The spider’s coloring, shape, eye arrangement and two long, pointy spinnerets at the tip of its backside indicated it was a grass spider, or funnel weaver. These spiders weave the round, flat webs you see covered in dew on your lawn in the morning. They sit in the funnel and wait for unwitting bugs to wander onto the sticky mesh.

Silas’s arachnid friend spun a little bit of silk in the vial, but not enough to make anything in particular. I wondered if this was because it was seized with fear and not in its right mind. Maybe not. But what could it possibly mean to ask if a spider’s in its “right mind?”

Spiders on psychedelic drugs spin strange webs (more on this next time). This implies they have some kind of mental process that exceeds instinct, for lack of a better word to reflect the idea that animals are preprogrammed automatons. Some of them, at least, have little minds of their own.

Arachnologists curious to find out what spiders know and how they know it have shown that some species of wolf spiders, for example, develop individual personality traits involving bravery, timidity and learned social tasks. It’s also well-known that females of most species choose and reject males in courtship rituals (what are they thinking when they apparently “like” some guys and “dislike” others?) and that among a few species, mates live together in the web and communicate with each other by vibrations of thread. Grass spider couples don’t live together, that I know of; the males of most agelenid species die soon after mating.

I kept this little spider long enough to take some photos. When Silas came back in, we tried to let it go. But it stayed in the vial, and wouldn’t be chased out even when Silas stuck his finger in there. I left the vial uncorked on a window sill overnight, and in the morning the spider was still there. Still no web, but alive and huddled in the back. Was it still frightened? If it ever was at all.

Sometimes I get chills when my mind homes in on the fact that spiders are sentient. To me there is no question about it. My own “theory of mind,” as the philosophers call it, wonders what a spider’s awareness is actually like. Most scientists, wrote arachnologists Robert Jackson and Fiona Cross, “would probably agree that talking about spiders being conscious would be going too far. … Nobody in their right mind would assume a spider experiences an inner world like a person’s, but is there any way to discuss experiences and inner worlds at all without being naively anthropomorphic?”

Anyway, I left the vial open so the spider could escape and go back to snaring bugs. The next morning it was still there, alive but still. I felt myself growing inexplicably fond of it, as if it was a cat or dog. I hoped it would stick around. It was kind of a weird feeling. But not unheard-of. “All my relatives,” Eunice Baumann-Nelson taught me to say of the experience of epiphanic kinship with nature that comes over some of us from time to time and permanently gripped Eunice and her Penobscot forebears.

A couple of mornings later I checked the vial and saw that the spider had moved on — but left its outer shell. It had molted and moved, presumably, into its adult life.

Silas will do something like this. Only the molt will take place inside his mind, his emotions, sense of reason and moral disposition. It’s part of the program. What a world.

 

Dana Wilde lives in Troy. You can contact him at [email protected]. His book “A Backyard Book of Spiders in Maine” is available this summer from North Country Press. Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month.


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