After I graduated college, I worked with the National Park Service in Hawai’i. On top of Haleakalā—ten thousand feet above seal-level and thousands of miles away from my home in Michigan—the only thing I recognized on the arid moonscape of the crater was the wolf spider. Like me, the spiders had been blown over the lonely ocean to the islands. The wolf spider went on to become a naturalized part of the island ecosystem, and I listened to tourists mispronounce Hawaiian names and directed them to bathrooms. I also taught visitors about the life that clung to the cinders and stone, showed them pictures of a wolf spider and explained how they were the top predator in the mountaintop ecosystem. As expected, most people shied away from the image of the wolf spider. Except one woman, sunburned and underdressed for the coolness of the mountain, who stopped to look at my photos before saying, “God is good.”
I knew it was a mistake, a predator confused for a beautiful landscape, because nobody I knew ever looked at a spider and thanked God. Growing up on the border of Indiana and Michigan, I got to know what was worth thanking God for from small-town pastors. Thank God for good weather, the troops, Republican senators, men and women marrying and propagating. It didn’t matter that I didn’t attend church myself, Christianity’s sticky lines clung to schoolyards and street corners in my rural neighborhood. I was intimately aware of all the wicked things.
That is not to say I was any better to spiders. As a child, nothing sent me running to my father like the tip-tap of spiders across my ceiling. And every time he would sigh, rise from the couch, and follow me into my bedroom with one of his dirty tennis shoes. When he spotted the spider my father whacked it. BAM. BAM. BAM. He hit as many times as it took for the spider to fall to the floor, its legs craned up to the sky. It was probably a deeply terrifying way to die, but all I cared about was having the room to myself again.
For years he would do this, even as his face told me, “Aren’t you old enough to take care of this on your own?”
I knew what a brown recluse spider looked like before I ever met a queer person my age. The issue with this is that brown recluses don’t live in Michigan; they can’t survive temperatures below forty degrees Fahrenheit. The spiders will die before the first frost.
I suspect some of my neighbors would have liked the same for all the queer kids but settled for us living in silence. Like a spider, we can stay in the dark corner. Not seeking out something for the slaughter is tolerance, isn’t it?
I did come to take care of spiders on my own. Not to relieve my father from his labor, but because I learned that girls weren’t supposed to tolerate creepy-crawlies. We were meant to scream and clutch at our skirt hems until some boy came and rescued us.
Instead of spiders, I feared suffocation of pink and tulle. I didn’t want to be a little girl, I wanted to be like a man, unafraid of anything, including the bite of pincers and the jerky scuttle of things that didn’t want to die. I would smash the girl in me like an exoskeleton.
The introduction of the Hawaiian wolf spider in my hikes was an exaggerated display. I would stop on a bend of the trail where Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa loomed in the background and ask if the hikers wanted to see the top predator of Haleakalā, giving them some time to imagine what charismatic megafauna lurked behind the volcanic boulders. With a flourish, I’d pull out the spider’s photo from my pile of visual aids and bring it around for all the hikers to see. After giving them some basic life history on the spider I’d lean in conspiratorially and whisper, “Keep an eye out. You may see it right here.”
When I killed a spider, it wasn’t a shoe or bug spray I reached for. I used a wad of paper towels barely contained by my small hand. As much as I wanted to buck feminine squeamishness, I couldn’t stomach the feeling of spider limbs collapsing under the weight of my body. The paper wrapped around the spider body like flower petals closing for the night, shielding me from the carnage I’d wrought. I would then flush paper and all down the toilet. That way there was no lingering body to decay, or worse, reemerge, its murder unfinished. In this way, I could take care of myself without having to bear witness to flayed limbs and spider organs.
I used the same technique to hide my pads when I started my period in the fourth grade. I hated the blood like I hated the squeamishness, for it all mean the same thing. Womanhood was stalking me, ready to bite and dissolve me into a thing of makeup and high heels.
I was an adult before I learned about the Stonewall Riots, the AIDS Epidemic, my community’s history. Before that, I learned how to identify black widow spiders, legs as thin as needles jutting from a round, swollen body; all of its body a shining black with the exception of the red hourglass found on the widow’s underside. However, only the females look like this. In black widows, males are dull, ephemeral, and best known for being consumed by the females after copulation. Black widows have become the symbol for the cruel, unnatural women.
Upon reflection, I can see how moments of my life fell into the expected beats for a queer woman—hating “girly” things as a kid, wanting to have my toughness and strength complimented over my looks, shoving the warm curiosity of holding another girl’s hand deep into the pit of my mind. It really makes me feel a kinship with the black widow. We are both clichés of women that don’t know their place.
My high-school government teacher loved making us debate, which translated into 16-year-olds shouting over each other. The teacher was also intensely conservative, happy to let his class exchange bigoted retorts while he complained about the stranglehold of unions over his teaching job.
One of the favorite debate subjects was gay marriage. At this time, many states, including my home state, were amending their constitution to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Most of my classmates agreed. When I challenged them with the righteous fury of a pissed-off teenager, they would defend themselves by declaring they loved their homosexual uncle or cousin. All I could think was that if you loved them, why wouldn’t you let them do such a basic thing that would make them happy?
At home, I spent my time scrolling through Facebook, which had only just opened up to people without college emails. This wasn’t exactly a reprieve from homophobia, but at least nobody pretended they were above being cruel. Between it all, a couple older relatives would post photos of welts, declaring they were probably victims of a brown recluse bite.
I knew they hadn’t been bitten by a brown recluse. The spider’s venom is necrotic, killing the skin and leaving behind a dark, weepy wound. There would be no “probably” in the statement. I couldn’t understand how people could make all these disbeliefs true.
I spent most of my adolescence mad, unable to accept the way people twisted themselves in such disparate ways, a collection of strands that made for a gummy knot of a person from a distance. I did not recognize my own contradictions, dismissing the stray thoughts of holding another girl’s hand as a wind shaking my own flawless weaving.
I hoped on my Park Service hikes we would see the wolf spiders and especially wanted to spot a mother spider. While most invertebrates abandon their young to the elements, wolf spider mothers carry their young on their back until they are old enough to venture out on their own. I wanted to see another female defying expectation.
While I despised the smallness and close-minded attitude of my hometown, I understood and adapted to its ecosystem. At college, I became unmoored from identity, treated with pity and confusion by my city-born peers. As a result, I transferred away from the massive general biology major into the fisheries and wildlife program, eager to be in a field of study that favored nature and forests that surrounded my hometown. I was still deeply closeted, but the program left me too blissfully exhausted with classwork to consider such things. There was no way time to contemplate my sexuality when there were mice to trap and fecundity statistics to run.
To maximize my experience, I joined the university’s Fisheries and Wildlife Club. At these meetings, it wasn’t unheard of for people to bring in animals to show off. One time, a woman brought a tarantula from the school’s insect museum to our meeting. We watched as the woman took the tarantula out of a plastic carrier, letting the spider crawl over her hand.
She asked if anyone wanted to hold it.
And even then, I still hated the idea of being viewed as weak, feminine, a coward.
So, I pushed my way past the other people, extended my hand and waited. In the second before the tarantula came to me, a jolt of cold fear chased up and down my back as I thought of the closeness of spider fangs to my flesh.
Then, the tarantula was in my hand.
The thing that most struck me was how little sensation the spider imparted on me, the lightest touch I could imagine. Even a stray hair across my fingertips pressed down with more force than the tarantula. I kept my hand flat a few inches above a table, watching as the spider slowly made its way across my upward palm. The woman said, “Be careful. She’s thirteen years old. If you drop her, her thorax could break and she will die.”
I was afraid again. Not for me, but for the spider. It wasn’t an it but a she. Not an item of fear but a being, one that my carelessness could spell doom for. As soon as I could I passed her back to safety.
I came out to my parents during a phone call when I was twenty-four. I sat in my Jeep, sobbing while my parents reassured me that things would be fine, that their love wasn’t conditional on my sexuality. I knew that they wouldn’t push me away, but that truth didn’t ease my anxiety.
Perhaps this is why I find myself so fond of tarantulas. Despite having eight eyes, they have terrible vision, relying on vibrations to get a sense of their surroundings. For a tarantula, the shaking of their webs could signal prey or predator, and many play it safe by treating any intruder the same, biting and spraying their irritating hairs in defense. Who wouldn’t be fearful in a world full of enemies?
During the last week at Haleakalā I found a wolf spider. I saw her resting on the brick entranceway to my work, a squat visitor center perched on the dormant volcano’s crater rim. And it wasn’t just her but over a dozen tiny spiderlings on her back. As visitors stepped inside to buy shirts and maps, I motioned to the spider, saying, “Look at her. Look at her children. What a treat you’re getting today (God really is good).”
Some nodded alongside me. Most cringed and ran to the other door. Though I was overjoyed, I couldn’t shake the vision of a shoe coming along to end this all. So, I stayed in place until she and her babies disappeared into the cracks of the building, my body a shield to another human’s weapon.
I’m now living in Florida where the air is thick with insect song and heat. I try to remember the first time I visited the state as a kid on a vacation. All I can remember is the hotel near the drainage reservoir and the great spider sitting in the middle of its great, glistening web hanging next to a boardwalk. As my dad and I made our way past, he said, “That’s one hell of a spider.”
If I could go back in time to my old bedroom, I would uncurl my fingers from around the paper. I would let the spider go free outside. Watch her walk away into the darkness of night and believe she would never find herself trapped again.
Photo by Dustin Humes