This afternoon, I sat on a bench above the creek at camp. I had a book with me, but it was Annie Dillard's Teaching a Stone to Talk, and after reading the first essay about weasels, I realized I'd be much better off sitting quietly and watching the world work for a few minutes instead of burying my head in yet another book. So, I sat, quietly, and watched the world work.
The world, fairly large by most accounts, grew progressively smaller the longer I sat. I looked up into the tree leaves waving against the sky, noticed the sun shifting on the peeling bark of an oak nearby, and listened to several frogs croaking and honking in the creek below me. I leaned over, studying my feet, and noticed a tiny spider crawling up a blade of grass by my toe.
Do spiders have eyes? Are they blind? I have no idea. This one seemed to be at least visually impaired, because he was groping around with his front feelers (which might have been legs - i didn't count) for each new step. He would grope, then skitter up a few millimeters, grope and skitter again. It took him a few seconds, but he finally reached the top of the blade of grass. I could tell (from my distinctly better vantage point) that he was now at a standstill given his position at the top of this vertical column. There was nowhere else for him to go. He could climb back down, of course, but then that would be so much energy, so much groping and skittering, so much of his day's journey wasted.
I thought I might help the little guy. I slid my book down beside the blade of grass, gently, hoping to help him get somewhere, anywhere, just off of that single green column. I'd take a look at him, then transport him back down to the ground, returning him to the safety of the dirt. But the book nudged the grass every so slightly, shaking his already precarious perch, and Spidey got scared. He immediately retracted his feeler/legs and curled into a tight little spider ball, right there on the top ledge of the blade of grass. "Huh," I thought, impressed both with the speed of his defense mechanism and the complete lack of willingness of this tiny little insect to trust me even a little.
I pulled the book back into my lap and watched him for a while. No movement. Just a curled up little ball. I read another essay - polar explorers stranded on ice floes - and stood up to leave. Glancing down, I noticed my spider friend still curled up in a ball, balanced on the tip-top of the thin blade of grass. Did I scare him that much? Did I induce an arachnid heart attack? Did I kill the poor spider with my well-intentioned interference? Who can say?
Annie Dillard would have commentary for this story - about our own tendencies to curl up in balls of fear, our unwillingness to leave even such a precarious position to face the unknown elements, our blind journeys guided only by our tentative, groping front legs. But I'm not Annie Dillard, we aren't all spiders, and right now, I'm just happy to have watched and written.