Thursday, September 6, 2007

Stardust to Stardust

Lacey the garden orb spider was hanging in the corner of the window last night when I went to sleep, and (surprisingly) she was still there this morning when I woke up. I assumed progress, as she was moving her legs a bit - (I hoped) in preparation for spinning a web, although she has always done this at night before.

I got up and went to make coffee. When I came back, five minutes later, she was - dead? At least she appeared dead, and even more puzzling, she appeared desiccated. Her legs, almost transparent, were stretched out full-length, gathered at the tips. Where her body had been there was nothing. A lifeless black dot the size of a mung bean hung beneath the legs. It looked like the husk of a fly she had cleaned out.

Oh, dear. But I puzzled. A bird would have gobbled her whole. Only another spider could have done this and how could another spider have eaten her so quickly? I've seen her eat a fly, and it's a slow process. Half an hour at least. I'd only been gone from the window five or six minutes.

Then the black dot stirred and unfolded LEGS. I realized with a start (and some sense of relief) that I was witnessing her shed her skin! It wasn't an easy transition. She would struggle for a few seconds, pulling herself with great difficulty out of her old skin. She'd then hang motionless for five minutes. But with each struggle more of her emerged. Eventually she was free and her old skin was only a small, transparent husk, with threads for legs, and a tiny, pin-head sized shell of a body.

She hung below the empty skin, exhausted. Her legs twitched occasionally, but otherwise she didn't move. Then she drew her legs up to her body, and swung back and forth on her single thread of silk for several minutes.

We wondered. Would she eat the skin, as orb spiders eat their webs? Or would she throw it away? Slowly she climbed up to the husk, and it was hard to say what she was doing, till suddenly she had it by a single leg. She lifted it and let go, and it sailed away on the breeze.

She flexed her legs and stretched herself. Her legs are longer now, but her abdomen is empty. She will need to eat soon. But for now the morning's work is done. Time for sleep and recovery from what must have been an ordeal. She crawled away to her spot between the window frames. Tonight I am betting she will spin a new web.

In my (Tuscarora) family no one killed a spider which had gotten into the house. It was said that the "Old Ones", our ancestors, might come to visit, dressed as a spider. It was okay to put a spider outside, where it could go its way unharmed, but to kill an Old One in spider disguise would make the Heet'-nunhk (the thunder gods) angry. Mother always said when it thundered on a clear day that someone had killed an Old One.

There are reports from Europeans of Tuscarora funerals in the 1600s, where a flame rose from the departed one's body, hovered 10-15 feet over the grave during the ceremony, then rose to a height of 60-100 feet and moved into the forest. This flame was said to then turn into a spider, which held the spirit of the deceased until reincarnation into a new clan member.

Buddhist philosophy says that life and death are cyclical in nature, that life is an active phase, and death is a period of rest, a time of preparation for yet another life. Both phases, life and death, are seen as blessings. Implicit in that belief is that we not just cycle, we recycle.

Spiders are safe in my house. They do get relocated, but I didn't even kill the Black widows we found daily in our last place. It was fascinating to see Lacey go through an entirely unexpected transition. Climbing from an old skin must be something like dying and waking anew. We all cycle and recycle, stardust to spider to spaceman.

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