by Rikki Hall
The only thing better than having a bountiful garden is having a friend who is always giving away bounty from his garden. I try to do some weeding or pest control to show my gratitude for shared harvest, but in the end it seems I'm every bit the mooch one of the caterpillars nibbling on his plants is.
On my last visit, I left with three heads of lettuce, kohlrabi and a huge bag of mustard greens. Lettuce from a garden or a local produce shop needs to be rinsed to get dirt and grit off. My friend's lettuce had a few tiny caterpillars on it, too, easily located by the holes they had chewed, and I tore away that part of the leaf and discarded it. It's a silly thing to do. Caterpillars are easier to chew than lettuce leaves, and because they can digest cellulose and turn it into starches and fats I can digest, they actually increase the nutritional value of the meal. Even though I know this, I still avoid eating them. Decisions are only partly rational.
I also rinse supermarket lettuce, though it has been sprayed and rinsed to remove dirt. I like to think a little extra washing can remove chemical residues from the pesticides, fertilizers and herbicides used in most industrial farming. Also, I can find decayed leaves and discard them. Sometimes I find insects on supermarket lettuce, but rarely caterpillars. Often I find odd little gnats. Caterpillars will stay on a plant until it runs out of leaves, but who knows where a gnat has been? Flies and gnats don't eat leaves; they like waste and rot. Gnats on the leaves make me wonder what attracted them and what they brought with them.
So I was rinsing lettuce in preparation for a big salad, and I reached into the bag to collect loose leaves. Wiggling amid the handful were a few shiny, black legs. I dropped the leaves into the sink and watched aghast as a black widow spider crawled out. I hadn't been bitten, so I composed myself, scooped her into a glass and dumped her outside. I don't want to clean up a squashed spider. That's gross.
I am not sure how she got there. Black widows build large, strong webs that are hard to miss when doing something as delicate as picking lettuce. I suspect she may have crawled into the bag later, since we set the bags down on an outdoor table and left them there until well after dark. The table may have been her home, the bags an intrusion on her space.
Black widows are among the most beautiful spiders, with patent-leather black bodies and vivid red markings. They are also quite timid. Their tangled webs often fill a couple square feet of space, and they build a funnel leading to a really good hiding place under a rock or a root or maybe a gap in your woodpile or a crevice in an old, wooden table. If you touch their web, they hide. They can tell you are too big to be a meal. People get bitten by black widows most often when they inadvertently invade the spider's retreat and leave the spider nowhere to go.
Because I live in a remote area where no one else is likely to cross her path, because I'm observant and know how to spot a black widow web and because I'd rather not make a mess of something so gorgeous, I set her free. There is a fair chance she got eaten by a bird or another spider before finding a place to weave a home, but maybe I'll see her on a web before winter. I suppose I should be more cautious since I missed seeing her once already, but that's too rational.
The same part of my brain that keeps me from eating caterpillars keeps me from touching spiders. I'd rather not have them crawl on me, but I've come to understand that they feel the same way. A spider's universe is its web. Respect the web, and you will be unlikely to have an unpleasant encounter. A spider web in the house is fly and mosquito control. If an egg appears in a web, I'll extract the egg with a stick; I don't want to be overrun. Mostly, though, I just leave spiders alone so I'll know where they are.
News of the Weird recently mentioned a couple instances where spiders were found in a person's ear. Spiders like holes. I'll bet you a fresh salad there was a key character left out of those storiesâ"a meticulous housekeeper. If you tear down a spider's home often enough, it will relocate. A spider left undisturbed on its web is a spider that won't crawl into your ear while you sleep.
Rikki Hall is managing editor and publisher of Hellbender Press , a non-profit environmental education journal.
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