I was going to call this the year of the spider. When we lived in NJ, we had spiders crawl into forgotten corners, spin webs in light fixtures and occasionally venture onto the kitchen floor. But nothing prepared us for North Carolina, where brazen representatives of arachnids march across our bed, nestle in soap dishes and dare to disrupt our efforts at meditation by dancing across the floor in the direction of our folded knees. Most of the time we capture “Grandmother Spider,” as my husband Ron occasionally calls these eight legged gate crashers, using a glass and a postcard. Over the years, glasses and postcards have multiplied in other rooms. A sighting of a particularly frightening specimen usually provokes the cry of “Whoa! Big Spider, Big Spider!” We often stand in awe at the sight of hundreds of spider webs dotting our back yard, glistening with dew in the dawn, like jeweled versions of Charlotte’s Web, or a Halloween decorator gone mad.
Knowing nothing about the hundreds of varieties that have come to call our abode home, we treat each one as if it is a brown recluse; gingerly approaching with the glass in hand. We apologize if we crush a leg, scold if they escape us. Usually sometime in the summer, Ron gets really tired of the whole thing and goes on a search and destroy mission with some toxic substance I don’t want to know about.
This has been a banner year for spiders. In the past, I titled years by their insect invasions: last year was crickets. They hid behind the washing machine, under the piano, in the air conditioning vents, chirping as if their lives depended on it. Another year was the plague of the Japanese beetles. As I was about to dub this The Year of the Spider, competitors appeared.
First it was the ticks. At parties, in classes, people were complaining about ticks. “I found one behind my ear!”
“There was one crawling on my leg in a restaurant.”
“I think it’s from the mild winter.”
“I think it’s the end of the world.”
And then came the ants. Flying ants, swarming ants, giant ants marching into my bedroom (My Bedroom – what the heck is there to eat there??) Piss ants (did you know they smell like pee? Who is going to get that close to one of those teeny fellows to find out?) created a swirling galaxy of madness on my kitchen counter, expanding and contracting like a virtual model of the Milky Way as they attacked an abandoned basting brush in the sink, only to sacrifice themselves, trapped by the sticky goo of last night’s barbecue sauce.
In David Attenborough’s fabulous series Life in the Undergrowth, he turned a slug mating dance into a slow motion ballet, extolled the architectural skill of wasps and revealed the devious strategies of rogue spiders. It would be hard not to find parallels in human behavior in almost every insect’s example. The tyrant Queen Bee ruthlessly tromped through the hive killing babies and smashing eggs to squash her competition, only to be massacred at the end of the season by an uprising that made the Bolshevik Revolution look tame. Ants on the march, carrying their helpless young were guarded on their route by vicious looking soldier ants who not only held the flanks, but stood on each other, mandibles locked to form an arch over the road as the streams of immigrants passed. The twentieth century philosopher P.D. Ouspensky once proposed a cautionary tale. Perhaps in the distant past ants and bees had been larger; an evolving and intelligent species. They became so good at what they were doing that they believed they were the masters of the universe. Instead, their behavior became mechanized, and nature shrank them.
The psychologist Jonathon Haidt proposed in a TED talk that we are indeed hive creatures. The difference, he says, is that we are “duplex”. There’s an upstairs to our consciousness that makes us long for contact with something higher. Working in harmony for a cause, be it soldiers in a war, protesting a war or going to church, is a hive activity that makes us feel good. This, apparently, is our evolutionary possibility for what he called “transcendence.” He suggests that how we participate in our “hives” will determine whether we transcend or descend to the mechanical world of hive building and battling enemies.
But what if? What if ants and bees, flocks of geese, elephant herds, planets and stars are all “duplex?” Was my panicked spraying of Windex on the ants (“Quick! Do something! Water! Insecticide! Anything!”) the ant version of a toxic tsunami? Is my slipping a postcard under a spider and lofting him out onto the patio the equivalent of a magic carpet suddenly appearing and whisking Mr. Spider to distant lands? What do they tell their families?
According to David Attenborough, when ants meet and touch each other’s antennae, it’s like saying, “Who are you and where are you from?” Is it possible that we just can’t see the “duplex” nature of those who live on the microcosmic scale? Perhaps their lives, which pass like a flash for us, are as rich and complicated as we perceive ourselves to be, while the grand passage of the cosmos perceives us as the ants of the universe.
The other night, Ron and I were sitting on the patio as dusk fell. The fireflies began their evening ascent. Suddenly, what had appeared like random blinking became a clearly choreographed event; fireflies ascending and descending. A hundred lights went on. Then blackness. Then simultaneously dozens of lights flashed. Then blackness again. A few single notes, then a chorus of lights blasted the air.
“How do they communicate?” I asked Ron. He shrugged. And then it occurred to me, they were talking to me. (No, no drugs were involved.) “You see, human? Everything goes up and down. All is illuminated.”
In the book, Meetings With Remarkable Men, by G.I. Gurdjieff, (also a film by Peter Brook) a priest and a woodworker greet each other.
“What is God doing just now?” asks the priest. The woodworker grins and says,
“God is making double ladders and fixing happiness on top.”
“And why is God doing that?” asks the priest.
“So that people can go up and down,” answers the woodworker.
Ah, that’s what the fireflies were saying as they rose and fell!