Source to Sea

Black Widow
by Mark Downey -- August 26th, 2013

It was right before dawn, but the desert was already light enough for me to recognize the telltale crisscrossed web disappearing black widow-style down into the small cave of my boot.

I paused for a minute, turning the shoe around and upside down, pointing the hole towards the brightening east, trying to see the spider actually down in there. Sure enough, it was sitting right where my pinky toe would have landed, staring back at me. It was black of course, with a smooth gloss on its marble-sized abdomen and down its elegantly arched legs. Though the way it crouched I couldn’t yet see the scarlet hourglass on its belly, what else but black widow could it be? Even in my shabby boot, the thing glowed darkly elemental, the very idea of “spider” incarnate. I felt remarkably unhappy that I had to shake it out of there.

Environmental ethicist Holmes Rolston hopes that those contemplating the natural world “would not see themselves in fur and feathers, but try to see what forms of being are present in fur and feathers.” Keeping that in mind, let me go ahead and say that I liked that spider for what it showed me about my place in the universe. I liked that it found my boot in the night and thought to itself, “This could work.” Which is essentially the same thing I had said to myself the previous evening when looking for a place to pitch camp. We were both just looking for burrows. And at that basic, unqualified level – without talking about any supposed adventurousness of Mr. Spider or the human invasion of Nature – I could see that our “forms of being” shared something.

It’s those connections I came west seeking. For the last eight months, now, I’ve been living in southern Utah and Nevada, camping, actually, as part of an organization that teaches folks survival, self-reliance, and self-discovery through experiences in the wilderness. When our participants are not rubbing sticks together to make fire or dodging lightning under a handmade shelter, much of their time is spent pulling meaning from interactions with both the natural world and their community – those of us in the thick of it with them.

Natural world? Community? Actually, the lines are blurry out here. We get all kinds of things, not just black widows, crawling into our personal spaces. I had a tarantula stumble up my arm one night, right as I was slipping into dreamland. I said, “Get off me, tarantula,” friendly enough I suppose, but with accidental volume, so that several folks heard and reacted by squirming and mumbling paranoiacally for the rest of the night.

And scorpions, too, sure. They seek out warmth, actually. Like freshly discarded jackets, or the neck of a sleeping bag, or even the soft chute of a pant leg. Pick up any rock in these hills and there’s a decent chance you’ll find a scorpion. A fun fact: scorpions’ carapaces glow different neon colors when exposed to black lights. So, next time you’re in the deserts or mountains out West, bring a black light, sit around the fire, and wait for a beautiful neon rainbow to crawl your way one pixel at a time.

Grace and danger all tangled up. Like sunrises, for example: I was up and about before dawn that morning because this place gets so blazing hot by mid-morning that all you can do after is huddle under some patchy juniper shade and wait for evening. The red sky was beautiful, and it also meant the heat was coming. Sun, spiders, scorpions, humans, everything – the “forms of being” found in all of nature are neither purely beatific nor only savage, but both absolutely.

That wonderful mess – it’s why our participants come camp in the desert’s sandstone crucible. They allow themselves to be stripped of the conveniences and distractions of front-country life so that, maybe for the first time, they can experience how the world actually operates.

So what does it mean, existentially speaking, that I found a black widow in my shoe? Just this, that a little spider thought my size-thirteen-arachnid-mansion boot seemed an appropriate den, and that I ought to keep checking my shoes every morning. And after recognizing that I share something in common with the spider, I can respect it just for living out its spider-life. Also, I hope it’s able to spider-respect that I needed my boot back.

It clung hard – I really had to slam the boot on a rock before the widow dropped out. Many times. It turns out that I’ve been doing it wrong this whole time – nominally waggling my boots every morning from habit but never hard enough to dislodge any spiders. Guess I’ve just been fortunate so far. If this black widow hadn’t been so productive spinning its web for me to see, I would have stuck my foot right into its fangs. Now I know.

1 Comment

  1. Matthijs
    Sep 3, 2013

    Hey dude, sounds like you are having an interesting time. What is the website of the survival education organisation you are working with?

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