Gustafson: An itsy bitsy lesson; and greater still, and so on | AspenTimes.com

Gustafson: An itsy bitsy lesson; and greater still, and so on

Britta Gustafson
Then Again

"People believe almost anything they see in print," Charlotte simply states from her web. The sensible spider, from E.B. White's classic, is thoughtful enough to realize the ease with which she can manipulate her readers through propaganda.

That's the relevant message I drew after closing the book on our third read through one of my childrens' favorite bedtime stories. And our past election may stand as a testament to Charlotte and the ease with which she managed to spin stories and twist tales.

But in my home, where simple life lessons are still maturing, along with the young minds I'm responsible for nurturing, when asked what they take away from the story, my kids say they respect spiders and value life. I'm happy with that outcome, and as a parent I've come to realize that all the little things add up to the big decisions we make; so at least for now my kids are more inclined to relocate spiders rather than swat them. With that on my mind, I decided to inform myself about the local arachnid population before I continue to pontificate to my children about protecting these potentially dangerous invaders.

I asked the World Wide Web why spiders are both fascinating and frightening? And as you may have guessed, the internet is a rather unreliable tangle of information — that is unless as Charlotte says, you believe almost anything you see in print, in which case you can prove almost anything you like. Did you know spiders can actually turn people into real-life versions of Spiderman? Oh, and they are not harmful at all, unless you click on a different page and discover that they are solely responsible for both autism and cancer.

I decided my research had to go old school, so I asked my doctor. She pointed me to a few reliable sources with interesting info. Trust me here, because I wrote this and now it's in print: There are over 40,000 species of arachnids crawling around in nearly every inhabitable corner of the planet; compare that to the 400 species of primates. The oldest spider fossil yet discovered appears to be close to 35 million years old. And the silk they weave currently is being studied as potentially useful in repairing nerve and ligament damage along with advances that may prove useful in brain and spinal damage recovery. And spider webs, rich in vitamin K, have effectively been used in clotting blood and in healing wounds for centuries. So they are pretty amazing little creatures; maybe we will let them live.

Next, I looked into what I thought was likely a myth; all spiders have venom. And again I turned to the Web, but this time to my go-to, "Ted Talks," which did in fact confirm that this is true, though most are still harmless to people. Some of the exceptions however, live in our area, including brown recluse, black widows and hobo spiders, all of which are in the top 10 most venomous arachnid species. Although, even with these, the long-term consequences of a bite are rare. Still, maybe it is worth terminating these foes before they strike. I am a mother, after all, and protecting my kids is pure instinct.

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A little more paranoid now, I asked our doctor about spider bites. She explained that the bites people occasionally wake up with are rarely actually spider bites, explaining that spiders do bite but not nearly as often as attributed. Historically, however, she said that spider bites were used as a common default diagnosis to explain away any obscure swelling as spider bites when they were often bacterial infections. And now urban spider myths infiltrate and perpetuate our fears. Try an image search for spider bites — actually, don't.

Myths however are a ubiquitous part of human culture; they once provided a sense of understanding before modern methods could be applied. The basis for myths is rarely rooted in factual knowledge so they sometimes still creep into our interpretations of science and medicine, and now we can more or less find online data to prove anything we want to believe. Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first a Twitter account we read.

By applying the scientific process, particular myths can be torn down. However, there are more and more cultural obstacles preventing us from replacing all myths with facts and we end up trapped on our own World Wide Web.

So what's good about spiders — I needed a reason not to kill them, primarily because I just dislike killing anything. A piece of reliable wisdom was once passed to me: For any questions you may have seek the answer in nature. I suppose that is more reliable than ending up trapped in the WWWeb.

Digging deeper, I recalled a time when I had the opportunity to stay with a local family in a fishing village outside of Buon Ma Thuot, Vietnam. One of the many naive inquiries I made over the course of my stay was to ask why a massive nest's worth of black widow spiders were allowed to take up residence in the communal toilet that served the families of six long houses. Beyond being uncomfortable for me, it seemed somewhat dangerous. However, I recalled how the locals easily brushed it off as a mutually beneficial occupancy. The spiders kept the toilets free from all other insects and the locals assured me that they would only attack if provoked. Let's just say I learned quickly to never look up while using the facilities.

The large number of insects that spiders prey on help keep nature in balance, and a number of pest species could overwhelm our environment if we eradicated all spiders from our home. In fact, their beneficial nature makes them very important to our environment. Like all things that nature made — for real, not just as a selling point on a label — they are here for a reason.

So, for now, in our house, we've decided that whenever possible, we will not be killing spiders or any other insect. Perhaps I fell victim to "Charlotte's Web," one of the gullible readers White pens to. Maybe beyond that I just can't squish out the miracle of life regardless of how uncomfortable it may make me. But I'm sure the truly kind at heart will be bitten more than once as a result of their compassion. Sadly, the caring yet cautious heart is safer than one with blind love for all.

Maybe these small acts of mercy are not as much about spiders but rather the moral lessons they provide. After all, it seems the world really doesn't need more "good" people — conflicts tend to arise between two sides that are "good" — what we could really use, perhaps now more than ever, is to teach our children to be sensible people, capable of making mindful choices and who can navigate the WWWeb without becoming too entangled.

And speaking of "webs," whether the internet or a spider's, I've decided to teach my kids to proceed with as much caution as we do when catching a spider to release. After all it seems wise to be wary, as a spider, for all the wonderful things it has to offer, can still be a ruthless killer, which can disguise itself as creative, clever and captivating. We have only our instincts and sensibility to protect us from misinformation and manipulation.

Still, sometime take a moment to look on in wonder at the complexity of a spider's web, a true miracle of nature. The Buddhist concept of the universe is in an image of a multidimensional dew-covered spider's web. Each dewdrop contains the reflection of all the others. "And greater still, and so on."

Let's exchange a piece of my mind for a little peace of mind, after all, if we always agree, what will we talk about? Britta Gustafson appreciates an open mind; share yours and email her at brittag@ymail.com.

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