Regular readers of this column already know where I stand on spiders: As far away as possible. Because spiders creep me out.
Some of you have written to tease me for being such a sissy about it, and that’s fine, because if you’re not creeped out by spiders, then you creep me out, too. Don’t ask me to shake hands with you – there’s no telling what might crawl out of your sleeve.
And now, to make it worse, comes horrifying news about spiders: They live forever!
Well, maybe not forever. But then again, maybe they do; nobody knows for sure. All we know for sure is there are spiders hanging around today who are as old as disco songs like “Shake Your Booty.” Or “Kung Fu Fighting.” Or “That’s the Way I Like It.”
And I don’t like it.
The news I’m referring to is the report that the oldest known spider – named “16” – just died recently at the age of 43.
She was a trapdoor spider living under an acacia tree in a patch of undisturbed wilderness in southwest Australia. And when a young University of Western Australia zoologist named Barbara York Main took it upon herself to study the spiders of that patch of wilderness, 16’s birth was noted in 1974, and her burrow marked with a small metal medallion. Main checked the burrow regularly, year by year, watching the burrow enlarge as 16 grew.
And because female trapdoor spiders never occupy some other spider’s empty burrow, she knew it was still 16 down there – until recently, when 16 died at the ripe old age of 43.
This is a spider we’re talking about here, people! A spider that lived longer than John Lennon! Longer than Elvis! Longer than Janis, Jimi and Buddy. When the Bee Gees sang “Stayin’ Alive” way back in 1974, she was just a baby, but she kept stayin’ alive way past Andy Gibb, who only made it to 30.
Older than Martin Luther King. Older than Cleopatra. Older than Jesus.
Shall I go on?
Chopin, Schubert, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Gershwin. None of them, for all their accomplishments, managed to outlast a spider.
John Keats. Percy Bysshe Shelley. Stephen Crane.
Vincent Van Gogh. Amelia Earhart. Alexander the Great.
Princess Diana. Bobby Kennedy. Marilyn Monroe.
All of them, less durable than a spider.
Oh, I can hear you sneering at my list. It’s unfair to compare a spider’s lifespan to that of a human, you say, because most of those folks met with an untimely end in the prime of their lives.
Well, 16 didn’t die of old age, either. No, she died when a parasitic wasp laid eggs on her body so the baby wasps could feast on her flesh.
And if that hadn’t happened, she would still be here today, waiting for the Bears to win another Super Bowl like they did way back in 1986 – when she was already 12 years old. She probably enjoyed doing her eight-legged Super Bowl Shuffle, like any other adolescent kid.
The researcher, Barbara Main, is almost 90 now. When Main realized that 16 would almost certainly outlive her, she retired and passed her work on to undergraduate student Leanda Mason, knowing it would be decades before Mason would have to pass on her studies of spider immortality to somebody else.
But 16 was murdered by a wasp, so now we’ll never know for sure how long it takes for a spider to die of old age. Or if they ever do.
And how creepy is that?
As a snowbird, each year I shut up one house or the other and leave it alone for months on end. I always return to a new tangle of spider webs, and I have to call in somebody with the fortitude to clear them away without squealing like a 70-ish columnist.
And I’ve always been amazed to find one particular web, close to the floor right under the corner of an out-of-the way cabinet. Each time I return after months away, I find the web is back, along with a scattering of bug bodies that the spiders have gorged upon in my absence. There are other cabinet corners in the room, but that seems to be the only cabinet corner that the spiders are interested in, because it’s the only one that always has a new web, no matter how often you clear it away.
But now, having learned that spiders live forever, the thought strikes me like a mallet – It’s probably not different spiders that keep moving into that little piece of prized real estate. It’s the same spider! Year after year!
Every now and then I will see it scurry away when I stand across the room with a long stick to sweep away the new web it keeps building to replace the old one I swept away a week ago. It’s a tiny little spider, its body no bigger than one of the letters in this sentence you are reading now. And not the capital letter at the beginning of the sentence. One of the little ones, like an e or an a.
But now, strangely, I’m starting to feel a slight shift in attitude toward that little spider. Sure, spiders are creepy – but not this one. This one is my spider. This one lives with me. It watches the house for me while I’m away, and it leaves a few carcasses scattered on the floor just under the web just to let me know it’s been on the job.
And I don’t care what you think about it – it’s not creepy at all that I now call it Steve.
But I draw the line at playing disco for him. That would be creepy.
• Tom “T. R.” Kerth is a Sun City resident and retired English teacher from Park Ridge. He is the author of the book “Revenge of the Sardines.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.