Updated: Nov 11, 2021
My spider died today. She lived a long life for the sort of animal she was, and she was showing signs of cognitive decline in recent weeks, becoming seemingly afraid of prey that would not have presented any challenge to her in her youth. Her chelicerae, once iridescent emerald green, turned grey in her final couple of months, and she had started spending more time on the floor of her enclosure. I suppose it's a strange thing, to grieve a spider, and I guess it's a different category of grief than the sorrow that accompanies the death of more familiar pets. A spider isn't really a pet, and I'm not sure that friendship applies either. Olivia, the spider I loved, was a Bold Jumping Spider, P. Audax, the largest species of jumping spider endemic to North America. She lived on our mantle, in a small terrarium furnished with moss and a climbing stick. A couple of times a week, I'd take her to the kitchen and set a small cricket loose in her enclosure and watch her hunting. When she was young she would sometimes kill prey several times her own size, pouncing like a cat on a bird, biting where the head joins the thorax and then hauling the carcass to the top of her tank, tugging it along like a terrier. She seemed to me to be a creature of rare and admirable courage. She was curious and sociable, and sometimes I would put her near our fish tank and she would settle herself half in and half out of her hammock (jumping spiders don't make webs; they have a sort of web tunnel where they live, and rather than trap their prey, they're ambush predators who hunt on the ground). She seemed transfixed by the fish, and would sit quite still, drumming her little pedipalps. I unapologetically anthropomorphized her, and I loved her with a true and uncomplicated love. She was fascinating and she was beautiful and I am so sad that she's gone.
I didn't always love spiders. I loved that they existed, I appreciated their diversity and their various and sometimes surprising ecological roles. I moved them outside if I found them in the house, but if I killed a spider by accident I didn't really think too much about it. When my eldest child was little (and to this day), he had an astonishing ability to handle small creatures, and he loved spiders and ants and wasps. He would often pick up large spiders and stinging insects and carry them around and speak to them lovingly, and they accepted this with surprising equanimity. Because of him, I taught myself to tolerate spiders in the house, and because we had spiders in the house, all of my children came to care about them, and so did I. For a time, a house spider named Spiky lived in a corner of the bathroom ceiling, and at the request of my middle son, sometimes I would gently catch Spiky in a jar and he'd come sit on the couch with us and watch movies before being returned to his corner. I found that I spent more and more time looking for spiders: the crab spider woven into her folded leaf on the lilac bush, the spiny orb weaver with her beautiful thorned abdomen in her web by the driveway. The wolf spider with her front legs raised to ward off the cat. Last spring I acquired Olivia from a breeder in Ontario. She arrived in the mail in a little plastic tube, which she exited cautiously before scrambling up the wall of her terrarium and building her hammock. She was named Olivia because of a little girl in Saskatchewan who loved spiders the way my own children did. That Olivia, a beautiful, vivacious five year old, had just died from DIPG, an aggressive childhood brain cancer, and in my capacity as a death doula and friend, I have had the sad privilege of hearing the love and sorrow and fearful loss her family carries. When she died, her loved ones decorated her casket with images of the things she loved: spiders and butterflies and rainbows. I named my jumping spider after her (and with the blessing of her mother) because it seemed to me the right kind of way to honour her. The result is that Olivia the spider was loved by people hundreds of miles away. She was loved because Olivia would have loved her, and because she was an animal worthy of love. Because she was beautiful and unknowable, because she was alive and belonged to herself, because she contained wildness in her tiny body, and the ferocity and the cleverness of all predators, and the fragility and vulnerability of all small animals, and the devotion to living of all life. Because her joy was not like my joy, but to witness it was joyful.
I post about spiders a lot on social media, and several times a year I get messages from strangers and acquaintances who write to tell me that even though they don't like spiders, they've stopped killing them because of something I've posted. Sometimes I think that might be the best thing I've done in my life. Sometimes I think it's the most important lesson I have ever learned: to love a thing just as it is, without expecting anything at all of it. Without love returned, without recognition, without a plan, without reciprocity. In that way, I think spiders might have taught me more about love than I could ever otherwise have learned.