In the Mendocino Woodlands lived a spider: this is how a children’s version of my story might start. She was big and black, it would continue, and she had many children.
Here is the adult version: In the Mendocino Woodlands lived a big black insect. It was huge and scary. It did not like the sun, and so clung to walls and other dark places in the woods. The shift in pronoun— from unidentified object to beloved subject— is the fulcrum upon which this story turns. From it to She: this is the start of a query into the nature of the spider, her doings and her fate. The pronoun is the consciousness.
It’s hard to have to insert another pronoun at this point (the maddeningly self-centered “I”) but I have to. I was at the Mendocino Woodlands for a ritual retreat. It was my muddied gaze that entered the woodland and mis-saw things.
This is very un-witchlike, in my opinion. Witches should have gazes that are soft and wide, and sharp and discerning. The gaze is all. The molecular frenzy of objects, the clash and collision of the smallest material particles of making can be sensed, if not seen, by the eyes. Even my beginner’s gaze can’t avoid seeing the systemic failure of rotting fruit, collapsing into mold minute by minute, hour by hour.
I sensed the presence of the spider as an elongated extension of the dark gloom inside the canvass walls of the tent I and my tent-mates slept in. And then the darkness moved, gingerly, in that precise, angular way that insects move. My consciousness leapt forth to meet it. But unwillingly. I didn’t want to greet the angular shadow, didn’t want to see the finicky, practiced movement of one of its (many) legs. I put my glasses on.
She was big and black, with eight elegant legs, and a powerful ovipositor.
It was impossible to miss seeing the largest insect I’d ever seen. Its thin black legs were thrice-jointed and impossibly long. The “body” was enormous and deeply black, so black that it was hard to tell where the shadow ended and the body began. My head reared up; a general feeling of revulsion coursed through my body. Dear reader, does this sound like the start of a bad H.P. Lovecraft parody? No surprise there- the thoughts and feelings I experienced at that dismayed moment were parodic, a cognitive gesture towards knowing without knowing.
“Oh my god, you guys, there is the biggest fucking insect EVER,” I announced, like a callow Valley Girl, to my tent-mates, who promptly shrieked.
I did not know what I was seeing.
She was the oldest creature in the woodland, and the most powerful. Her power went beyond the length of her body: she had power because she knew things. It was said by beaver, salmon, and even raven that she knew everything there was to know about the woodlands. She had crawled inside the deepest holes. She had lived in every branch of every tree. Every leaf was a well-known room. And She was understood to mean not just one spider, but all spiders of her kind that had come before and would come after: the countless generations of spiders; too many to count, all with the same knowledge, the same wisdom that floated above them like a cloud. They shared it and passed it between themselves and anyone who cared to listen. Where She had not gone, her children had and would go. When it was time for a woodmoot, to discuss the woods and what happened there, they would end the long meetings by asking her for stories. She would speak at length and they would listen, far into the dark night.
Later, there were two of the insect-beasts splayed out on the frame of the cabin tent; seeing them, I’d instantly thought of slim San Francisco women, dressed in their best black Lulamon schmatta, striking yoga poses. No urban yogini I’d ever seen could have achieved this insect version of downward dog, so perfectly balanced on the long legs, so sinister in its perfect articulation. My tent mates and I decided to displace the insects (I really didn’t know what it was. The legs suggested a spider, but it was so big that my mind reeled at the thought.) I went looking for George, the camp organizer, a patient man with brown eyes, who was known to be helpful.
“George,” I said tentatively “There’s an enormous insect in our tent and it’s making us nervous.” George looked at me warily. He knew what I wanted.
“Remember that scene from Annie Hall?” he replied. “The one where Woody Allen is trying to kill a spider? That’s me.”
“Yes, I remember that scene, but…” I felt bad asking him. He works hard on behalf of the Reclaiming community. I also felt bad because the ethics of displacing a woodland creature were (even in my deeply phobic state) clear to me. This is wrong, my consciousness whispered. You’re being an asshole. I ignored it.
“Please?” I pleaded. This insect was as big as a Buick. I just couldn’t go near it. I didn’t know what it was. Later, at dinner, I asked him how the insect displacement had gone.
“It jumped around a lot,” he said.
Oh, Christ, I thought. It hadn’t been a neutral experience for the insect-thing-monster, not a clean, surgical operation. It obviously didn’t want to leave the tent.
The woods were big and there were many animals, but there were humans too, and the humans came into the wood. They walked carelessly, picking things up and taking them away; rocks, branches, sometimes even animals. Sometimes they took the trees away, by cutting them apart with long sticks and sharp shiny heads. Later, the men came back with things that roared and belched through the cool woods. It seemed that the whole wood would be taken. The insects, birds and spiders lost the dark holes, or warm nests they’d built, sometimes with their eggs still laying soft and warm in the small private places of the great dark wood. Of these events, the spider sang in her shivering voice.
“Moth’s wings and thistledown.
Twigs and rocks and stones.
Beetle’s shells and river rocks,
These places are our homes
And when the branch is broken
Or when the stone is turned
When the water runs no longer
Or when the woods are burned
Then we build our homes again
I spin my web from beginning to end
From the end to the beginning, I go back again.
From start to finish. There is no end.
“You must return to the place you were, even if it is no longer there,” She told the animals. “There will always be Somewhere.”
I returned to my tent that night and saw that the insect was gone. But a shadow along the board suggested a poised black body which was … still there. A small vibration seemed to shiver from the precise spot the insect had been; a finger of black shadow stretched along the length of the wooden beam, marking the spot where the spider had been resting. Why did you turn me out? The utter silence of the evening was absolute. But the question, a quivery whisper, echoed in my head.
Why did you turn me out?
I felt many eyes on the back of my head as I turned over and down into sleep.
The next morning, Nature flexed her muscles and showed me the strength of her persistence. I discovered a spider, a different species from the creature I banished, hanging in a crack above my head. This spider was immediately recognizable as such: it had the classic arachnid profile of a stout-ish round body, again with those wicked, wicked legs ranged round it and the aura of quiet, menacing complacency that spiders at rest so often have. A black widow? I wondered and then rounded on myself sharply: what the fuck, Elizabeth? Why are you acting like this? Knock it off! Where was this fearful antagonism coming from? Was it real? Why did I feel compelled to act against beings that were no threat?
They weren’t a threat. I knew that: had the Buick-sized monster in my tent been a threat, the tent wouldn’t be there, or I wouldn’t, or the insect wouldn’t. The state of California likely would have posted signage, or the non-profit that ran the Mendocino Woodlands would have. Anyone who’s hiked or camped on California’s coast or in the mountains or along the foothills has seen all the warning signs: mountain lions here. Bears here. Guard your trash! Watch out for Scorpions. For rattlesnakes. (For toxic waste). Watch out for all the animals that creepeth and crawleth on this earth. (are we are all so tragically unreconciled to each other?) Ye shall know the animal by its picture on the warning sign. Anything that might harm us in California’s formalized recreational/rural/natural spaces tends to be acknowledged.
That’s the issue with healthy ecological spaces. They are inherently equal. We’re all in the same place at the same time with any numbers of different beings and any number of different outcomes. Usually, of course, it’s the animals that pay the price.
At lunch, I saw a man wearing a broad-brimmed ranger’s hat and uniform. He’ll know, I thought. He’ll tell me what that thing is. Curiosity had been working on me all morning; curiosity over what the insect was and curiosity over my own passive aggressive reaction. I made bold to walk over to the man.
“Excuse me,” I said. “There’s a large, leggy insect in my tent.” I sketched out the dimensions with my hands. “It’s freaking me out. It’s got a large structure on its abdomen. What is it?”
The man looked at me. “Oh, ya got one in your tent? That’s a spider. It’s an arachnid. We call ‘em cave spiders. They’re all over. She won’t hurt you,” he said and grinned. It was a female, he told me, and the large structure was an ovipositor. “The females carry their eggs with that, and drop ‘em down to hatch. It’s funny,” he said, warming to his story (he could see he had my full attention), “I’ve seen cave spiders hold onto their eggs longer than most. Usually spiders just drop their eggs, but the cave spider, I’ve seen her hold onto her egg, like she didn’t want to let go,” he said. “When they’re threatened, they lay a gazillion eggs- they just push ‘em out, even if they’re dying.”
Like she doesn’t want to let go, I heard the man say. She doesn’t, I thought. She has something to guard, to care for. She’s a Mother, the Great She, flushed out of her tent by fear.
It was no longer a question of what I had been thinking. I hadn’t been. I was just phobic, a pitiable state which feeds on a lack of knowledge. My champion, Curiosity, came charging to my rescue and, putting paid to feeble fear, directed me to right action: asking a simple question. What is it? And its equally simple answer (it is a female spider ) changed the world inside me. I changed my consciousness. This is what is meant by the saying. I had changed from fear to compassion because of a quick conversation that recast the unknown as something more known. And it changed me. This is how it works.
The best moment of near-instantaneous comprehension is the gape of one’s wide-open astonished mind and spirit (and sometimes, mouth). O, the simplicity of enlightenment, I thought. I am so happy to move from ignorance to comprehension. It really is a sublime feeling.
“Glad you asked,” said the man, wrapping up the conversation. “A lot of people don’t.”
Later that evening, we walked into the woods for the first part of the last ritual of the retreat. The second part was to take place around the campfire. This part had been called A Wild Requiem, which, I thought, could mean so many things. Mournful chanting? Frenzied debauchery? Were we to act as crazed maenads, ripping meat apart with our teeth and hands? Was there a vegan option? Would we scream out animal sounds to the wild gods? (You see here how easy it is to summon the spirit of Lovecraft.)
Someone had been dispatched to build the fire; it was leaping by the time we got there and the heat was intense after the cool dampness of the woods. We were handed small instruments, rattles, maracas, drums. The drumming started. People began to sway back and forth, summoning their energy, wakening their bodies
Ah, shit. The wild requiem is a dance, I thought. They want me to dance. Why does it always have to be a dance? I hate dancing. The people moved hesitantly at first, pushing out from the shoals of self-consciousness, of weariness, pushing away the routinized movements of daily routines, long immiserating commutes, the dulling stupidity of the workday world. The flames gained strength. Slowly, slowly, the swaying people became dancers.
I sat wrapped in my energy which had become still, quiescent after the ritual. I liked it that way. The prospect of change (Again? my outraged consciousness yelled) seemed onerous; hard work for an uncertain outcome. Why change? I thought. I’m fine the way I am. Why do these people always want me to be ecstatic? All around me the dancers shook their instruments, leapt and yelped. The orange column of flame shot up into the night sky. I sat feeling mulish.
A Kentish man named Gwion, one of the dancers, came swooping past those of us who still sat stolid in our chairs, frozen at the prospect of change. He sailed swiftly over to me. With one fluid motion, he pulled me to my feet.
I saw the fire leap behind him and thought of something a teacher told me once: Elizabeth. Sometimes ya gotta dance with what brung ya.
And that was the last conscious thought I had for awhile.
Much later, I returned to my cabin. I shone my headlamp on the wooden beam. Two cave spiders, both female, were at rest. I took off my clothes and turned down and into sleep.
We were all very quiet that night.
I spin my web from the beginning to end,
From the end to the beginning, I go back again.
This is the song the spider sings, I am convinced of it. There are likely more stanzas and many more stories, but I cannot recite all of them here. One thing, though, that I think She’d tell me, were I in the woodmoot, is this: If you inquire into the nature of a thing, your consciousness will change.
The spider is likely a species named Pimoa Cthulhu. I have tentatively identified it as such; its known habitat is restricted to the woodlands of Sonoma and Mendocino counties.
A note on the Spider’s song: The theology of Nature’s persistence and the possibility of eternal return does not work out so neatly in real life. If there is no water, a North American beaver (Castor Canadensis) cannot build a dam. That’s just reality. Other animals may come in its place and slowly, given the time, space and active support (meaning non-interference and respect) from homo sapiens, may build an entirely new ecology in which many animals, vertebrates and invertebrates relate to each other mutually, amensally or parasitically. Harm, help, or total neutrality: all of these are possible outcomes. But there are limits.
Finally: in the matter of the Great Cave Spider, I believe my consciousness had what it needed to shift because (of all things) a Star Trek episode entitled “Devil in the Dark”, which was written by the wonderful Gene L. Coon. In this episode, Spock telepathically communicates with a fearsome creature, the Horta, only to find out that it is a female— a mother— trying to protect her remaining clutch of eggs/children from the predations of miners who. Agonized at the loss of her brood, and a phaser wound, she cries out her anguish and anger into Spock’s porous and receptive mind. “PAIN. PAIN!” says Spock. It is a wonderful episode and should be required viewing for would-be ecologists.
(And I don’t hate dancing. I was just having a fit.)
San Francisco, November 20th, 2014
Dedicated to Flame, a Great She indeed, who tells most wonderful stories