I had the corner on cobwebs

I lived in paradise for two years. That is, I was a Peace Corps volunteer stationed on the sort of tropical island that is usually thought of as paradise. My island was Woleai, a remote Pacific island about three-fourths of a square mile in size. It was, and is, very traditional. The women are bare breasted, and the men are bare chested. The palm trees are beautiful, the beaches are immaculate, the water is crystal clear, and the fish are incredibly colorful. The weather is always warm and mild. As if to make paradise complete, Woleai has no snakes.

On the other hand, there are a lot of spiders there. More specifically, there were a lot of spiders in my house. Since no handbook exists for identifying "The Arachnids of Woleai," I've no idea what kinds of spiders lived in my house, but there was quite a variety.

The largest of these spiders were about three inches from toe to toe. That's not huge, compared with tarantulas, but it was large enough to give me quite a start whenever I looked up from my reading to see one, motionless, an inch from my hand. Like most spiders, these "three inchers" spend hours absolutely immobile, but they show remarkable speed when they do move.

The first time I was startled enough to try to hit one with a book, I was amazed to see it simply disappear. There wasn't even a blur, just an immediate vanishing, with a reappearance farther away. Compared with these fellows, grasshoppers are slow, dull, and predictable.

While they did give me frights from time to time, these large spiders had one great virtue: They wove no webs. The smaller spiders did. And they wove them and wove them and wove them. The ceiling of my hut was high and covered with palm-leaf thatch. It made a fine hunting ground for spiders. And their insect-filled webs, grown old and grimy, floated down in bits onto everything below.

Still, they would have been welcome to the upper half of my house if they hadn't insisted on moving into the lower half as well. I hate walking through webs - especially if the web comes complete with a live spider and one or two dead flies.

Much of my housekeeping involved cleaning up webbing that had drifted down from the upper regions, or taking down new webs that had grown up in my region. Since I don't like killing anything, I brushed the webs down with a small green branch. When the branch was covered with webs and spiders, I tossed it away at a reasonable distance from my house. Sometimes it took two or three branches to give my house a good de-webbing. Then I waited about 10 minutes, until the spiders that had escaped the branches started industriously spinning their webs exactly where they had been before.

When I first arrived on Woleai, I was puzzled by the number of spiders there. Fortunately, I found some answers in Rachel Carson's "The Sea Around Us." It seems that spiders are always plentiful on islands. In fact, when scientists study new islands to discover the methods by which they acquire their flora and fauna, they find that spiders are always among the earliest creatures to arrive.

In 1883, the volcano Krakatoa erupted and annihilated almost all of the island it had earlier created. All life was destroyed. Scientists traveled to the island and watched and waited. Nine months after the eruption, the first life form (besides the scientists) was discovered. It was a tiny spider, busily spinning a web.

Life forms are brought to islands in three ways: by wind, by water, or by man. Spiders arrive by all three methods. The first pioneers come by wind. Carson writes that "thousands of feet above the earth, the air is crowded with living creatures.... Airmen have passed through great numbers of the white, silken filaments of spiders' parachutes at heights of two to three miles."

On bits of webbing, young spiders surfed the winds in search of an island paradise. On a commercial airliner, I did the same. We all arrived on Woleai. I probably should feel a kinship.

Islands are not the only places well stocked with spiders. In fact, spiders have been found everywhere in the world except Antarctica. Spiders live in jungles, swamps, deserts, caves, and even in major cities. A few even live on or under water. One variety lives near the top of Mount Everest.

All of this leads to one conclusion: No matter where you seek to build your home in paradise, unless it be an igloo near the South Pole, you can be assured that there will soon be a web in the corner.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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