Monday, March 15, 2004

I dust off this old essay as my contribution to Ecotone's "Spiders and Place" topic this week.

How a spider finds its way into our bathtub, I confess I don't know. The occurrence is common enough, in our house at least, that I have to think these creatures are particularly adept at getting themselves into such situations. They are not, I'm finding, particularly talented when it comes to getting themselves out, however.

Even as I write this, a spider struggles against the porcelain world in which it finds itself imprisoned. It came sometime during the night, was there when I rose this morning, two and a half hours ago. Its day, thus far, has been entirely devoted to scaling the sheet white cliffs that surround it - or, rather, attempting to scale them.

Our tub is of an ordinary variety, twenty-eight inches broad, fifty-eight inches long, and - most telling - thirteen perpendicular inches deep. To me it would appear to be not an especially attractive tableau upon which to play out one's little drama - no food, no water (at the moment), and no hiding place but the drain, no obvious footholds - but I am not the spider and my choice of landscapes might seem likewise as peculiar to him.

So one of the eight-legged wonders of the world has wandered into our tub again and, resourceful as this one is, there it remains. Eight legs, he's discovering, are not legs enough to pull him out of this little mess he's gotten himself into. He knows now, I believe, that there is no easy escape, for he has circled the tub entirely, testing its boundaries, facing steep walls everywhere.

When I first saw him this morning, he was madly flailing his legs, on the theory perhaps that simple hard work would be sufficient to free himself. Hard work, he quickly discovered as he made no progress whatever, was not the answer, as is generally the case in these Sisyphean dilemmas.

If not hard work, then cunning perhaps? While I watched from my distance, the spider appeared to massage two of its front legs with its mouth and feelers, coating them - I assume - with some of its homemade rosin. First he carefully prepared the front-most leg on his right side, then the second leg from the front on his left, testing each as he finished. He employed the two legs he had gummed as anchors, fixing them to the wall of the tub and holding them in place while scrambling about with the other six. He made half an inch progress, as far as he could move with those two legs set; and then his anchors failed him and he slid backwards to the bottom of the tub. And there he sat.

A few minutes later, he moved about six inches toward the front of the tub and proceeded to apply his rosin to two of his hind legs - the hindmost leg on his left side, the second from the rear on the right. Again he rested, and then again he moved himself forward and upward, using the rosined legs not so much as anchors but as the main driving units of his climbing machine. His other legs seemed to move more lightly and quickly, while the rosined ones were brought deliberately forward, alternately, with each bit of progress, and were used for upward thrust. Of course the attempt was only as successful as the previous, and soon he was back the half inch to the beginning.

The next time I checked his progress, he had moved almost the length of the bathtub, crossing above the drain and resting to the right of it, in the corner. His position afforded me an especially good view of him as I set my elbows on the side of the tub and bent to observe him more closely. This, it began to appear, was to be his most ambitious assault yet, for as I peered from above I saw him place each of the front four legs into his mouth (or so it seemed), one at a time, working them in and out, painstakingly slowly in and out, massaging each with his feelers, testing each and applying more rosin when the results seemed unsatisfactory; then he started work on the four hind legs. From my position, I was unable to tell whether these went into his mouth or not, but I noted his mouth was moving energetically all the while, in a kind of sucking motion. Soon he had the hind legs readied.

Very slowly, almost resolutely, he headed upward again, one leg set carefully, then another, until he had gained nearly an inch and a half. The attempt ended in mid-step, when all the legs lost hold at once and he slipped again to the bottom. He sat perfectly still then, and if I were one to attribute human characteristics to eight-legged creatures, I'd venture to say he was disgusted by the futility of it all. I left him to his fate, poured myself another cup of coffee, and listened a while to some Beethoven on the radio.

Since I started writing these few pages, I've checked on the spider's progress every ten minutes or so, to see whether, wunderbar, he has succeeded in extricating himself from his rather hopeless circumstances. Often, as I enter the bathroom, he simply appears to be resting - sometimes in one corner, sometimes in another, or anywhere along either side. He had, I'm convinced, tested every conceivable route of escape. Once, as I entered, I saw that he'd made a snatch of progress by anchoring one hind leg to a piece of grit attached to the side of the tub. Yet even as I stood observing him, that tenuous foothold gave way and he slid backwards. Another time he was running somewhat sideways along the wall of the tub, as if to use centrifugal force to hold him against the porcelain. This attempt, too, was futile.

I do feel a bit foolish every time I descend the flight of stairs from my office to check on his efforts. And, too, I do feel somewhat foolish expending the energy and hours (for I am a slow writer) needed to record this insignificant little tragedy - an inconsequential struggle that matters little to the rest of the cosmos.

I am not one to believe very deeply that spiders and such are inhabited by the souls of our ancestors, nor that I too shall be a spider or cat or cow someday. I am not particularly fond of eight-legged creatures, and have no more empathy for the animal world than most of the rest of men. Yes, I am a meat-eater, a custom I have inherited and one I have thus far found enjoyable. Yet the whole morning I have noticed myself wondering if this is a metaphor for our existence in the universe. Is life a continual struggle to roll the stone to the top of the mountain, only to see it roll back to the bottom, again and again? Some days it surely seems that such is the extent of human existence. Then again some days life seems to hold much more than that.

On my most recent trip down the stairs to observe the spider, I found him motionless, his legs splayed around him. I watched for seven minutes and he didn't move at all. Without apparent reason, then, he moved a few steps forward suddenly, stopped; turned one hundred eighty degrees and moved a few steps, stopped; turned ninety degrees and moved a few steps more. He stood motionless for an instant, then went round in a circle, then another. He was motionless again for a minute or so, before he started applying the rosin to one foreleg, then another. By this time I'd watched his struggle for five hours and here he was, back to the beginning, putting rosin on exactly the same forelegs as when I first observed him.

What sensations had he felt, I wondered, while he sat motionless those seven minutes. What befuddlement caused him then to move first in one direction, then another, then still a third, and finally to walk in circles? What silver thread of instinct told him to start preparing his legs with rosin again, for another assault on the white cliffs that surrounded him? I confess I don't know. I had been content to observe his fate. It was apparent now that he didn't recognize the futility of his efforts. A spider in the bath tub is condemned to one of two, or possibly three, destinies: if he remained entirely undisturbed, he could scramble and scramble until he had no strength left, until he starved to death; or, should one of us in the house want to take a shower, he would end mashed against the porcelain or washed down the drain; or if he were adventuresome to a high degree, he might try his luck in the drain, make his way through the standing water in the curve of pipe, find his way to the sewer and, through a manhole cover, to daylight and freedom. Those were, it seemed to me, his possible fates.

For myself, I know I'd be immensely unhappy to think there is no possible rescue from my own stupidities. How a spider finds its way into our bath tub, I don't know; nor am I always cognizant of the routes I'm taking into silly predicaments of my own. I, too, have walked in circles, frustrated.

As the spider was applying rosin to the second leg, readying himself for yet another attempt, I took a piece of cardboard, got him onto it, carried him to the garage and left him there to fend for himself among the flies and wasps. This action was not - and was not meant to be - consequential; it was simply a personal affirmation of some sort, one made against my intellectual desire to observe the spider's natural fate, an affirmation, perhaps, that there is more to living than the mere avoidance of death. Something. It was a gesture I felt the need to make, the way one raises his fist against a threatening sky.

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