A portrait of the potency of what matters most

The excavation of our house site a few years ago left an angled bank of bare dirt on the east side. Below this, broken rocks had rolled and lay scattered among the native bunch grass. The pink knobs of granite looked messy among the greenery, and I knew that any time I walked along the hill on that side of the house I'd be risking my ankles on the loose stones.

So I began gathering the rocks and stacking them along the base of the bare dirt, creating a foundation to hold the soil against pounding summer thunderstorms. The dirt that wasn't covered with the dry-stacked rocks would be planted with wildflower seeds, and in a year or two the ugly barren slope would begin to blend with its surroundings.

Given the roughness of the terrain, a wheelbarrow was out of the question; I had to carry each rock up the hill before placing it on the slope. I started with the big ones, rolling those nearest the base of the dirt into place with grunts and stinging forearms. Then I staggered up the hill with the lunkers that had rolled farther out, cradling them in my arms. With so much puffing and groaning involved, I seldom worked on this chore when anyone else was home.

With a ribbon of large stones strung along the bottom of the slope, I started in on slightly smaller rocks, lugging them up and dropping them with a thud, one by one. I eventually worked my way down to those I could carry two or three at a time, and then finally started collecting the smallest, the ankle-busters the size of tennis balls and plums. These were used to chink the gaps between rocks I'd already placed, locking all the pieces together.

It was boring work, but also soothing in a way. The pacing rhythm, walking up and down the hill, working my way side to side along the slope, was oddly meditative.

The monotony of pick, plod, plop; pick, plod, plop was broken now and again when I picked up a rock that had formed the roof of an anthill, or sent a spider scuttling, or exposed a black stink bug that promptly began waving its fanny high in the air. Some of the rocks had spider egg cases glued to the bottom: cottony white and shaped like a very flat lentil. Focused on my mission of gathering the loose rocks to stabilize the slope, I used these stones anyway, though I set them down carefully, trying to position them so that the arachnid nurseries were sheltered and would not be crushed.

One day, I picked up a stone the size of an open hand. There was an egg case on the bottom, which I noticed but ignored - until I turned the rock over again before setting it down. There was the egg case, but straddling it, in an unmistakably protective posture, was a spider.

I hadn't seen her when I'd grabbed the rock, and she didn't scurry up my arm or leap to freedom as I walked up the hill. Instead, she had planted herself over the eggs, each of her eight legs sprawled to grip the edges of the lens-shaped casing. The soft tan of the spider's slim body, neatly striped with black lines, stood out sharply against the snowy background.

I stared for a moment and - slowly, carefully - set the rock down so that the spider, still clutching the white disc of eggs, was in a nook, out of sight and out of the sun.

I usually found it hard to call a halt to my rock-stacking chore; I would inevitably pass a rock on the way to the house and think, "Ah, I know just where to put that one." Instead of stopping, I would return for that particular stone, whereupon the same thing would happen again, and then again. On that day, though, when I set the rock and its occupants down, I walked away. The creature's boldness in the face of a threat so much larger than itself had upset my rhythm.

Perhaps I was struck by the juxtaposition; we tend to think of spiders as ominous or creepy, a reputation that clashes with that beautiful image of protectiveness. But what has really stuck with me is the sense of quiet determination I glimpsed that day. Maybe it's silly to make so much of what is, when you think about it, a pretty ordinary event. Yet the spider's behavior suggested bigger things. It suggested the possibilities of individual determination, and it was a reminder that aggression and retreat are not the only options in the face of trouble.

I walked away with the vivid image of that slender body thrown between the giant that was me and the small cluster of eggs, a portrait in my mind of the potency of the simple act of standing up for what matters.

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