I first noticed this astonishing translucent green spider with her dramatic red and white markings in late summer. Check out the head-to-head mortal combat. The bee didn’t stand a chance.
Fascinated with this gorgeous creature who stared boldly back at me, I went online and typed in “green red spider,” and there she was – or rather, there were her many cousins. Turns out Zelda was a green lynx spider. Identified by their charming surprised eyes, exotic markings and spiny legs, lynx spiders jump great distances onto their prey, but they rarely bite humans. Beautiful and possibly dangerous…but so much more appealing than the black widow, that spinner of nightmares. Scientists have studied the possibility of deploying green lynx spiders as agricultural agents of “green” farming (pun reluctantly acknowledged), because of their penchant for devouring harmful pests. It’s too bad about the bees, though.
Zelda’s rose hung at the end of a long thorny stem that flopped over the neighbor’s fence. Like an anxious aunt, I started to worry that some over-zealous and under-observant gardener might dead-head the rose, not noticing its gaudy occupant – or worse, noticing, and dispatching her anyway.One day I saw a smaller green spider hanging out cautiously nearby, no doubt drawn to the regal Zelda, yet perhaps dimly aware of his peril. The next day the hapless suitor was gone. As the weeks progressed Zelda grew fat and glossy. She was eating well – I figured she must be eating for two. Two hundred, that is. Sure enough, at length I noticed that Zelda was looking downright skinny, even a little peaked. And she was hovering protectively over a large, round, spiky, dusty grey object. Nice work, Zelda! I was reminded of Charlotte’s Web and the reverence we learned to feel for Charlotte’s beloved eggs – how protective Wilbur was until all those tiny baby spiders with their tiny soprano voices drifted safely away on their silken filaments.
Here’s Zelda standing guard over her egg sac. Isn’t it a bizarre alien thing, with its circlet of spiky knobs? One day I watched as she crouched motionless with her head to its surface, as if listening for tiny rustlings, for any news from within. I doubted she had eaten a thing since her vigil began.
I was Zelda’s Wilbur. Twice a day, walking my dog, I peered at Zelda’s withered rose, first relieved to see it was still there, then admiring (not without a certain creepy shiver) the strange unlovely parcel she guarded so jealously. I hoped no oblivious or meddlesome gardener would interfere. I hoped I’d be there to see those dozens and hundreds of tiny Zeldas work their way out of their cocoon, to spread their weird beauty far and wide. In a world poisoned by pesticides, heavy metals and artificial hormones, where extinction threatens everything from honeybees to polar bears – a planet so polluted that we routinely sicken along with our air and water and soil – each fragile creature’s survival is a tiny victory.
I went online and did more research, and found that green lynx eggs are bright orange, and the newborn spiders are also a fetching bright orange, with microscopic black legs. Tiny, shiny little pinheads with black fringe. I learned that the gestation period was generally about a month. As the autumn progressed, the rose wilted and faded, but Zelda hung in there, ever vigilant, sometimes hanging upside-down, the dusty bundle clutched in her spiny embrace. At the end of September, I started to think it would be another week or so before they hatched, god and gardeners willing. When, after the prescribed four weeks, there were no signs of baby spiders, I began to worry. Had pesticides killed the eggs? Was it a hysterical pregnancy? Was Zelda infertile?
It was a measure of the fierce, ridiculous protectiveness I felt toward my spider and her offspring that on the day I arrived at my neighbor’s yard to find all the rose bushes dead-headed, my heart leapt into my throat. Frantically I looked, and looked again. The dead roses were gone, and so was Zelda.
I despaired, angry at the gardener who had innocently committed this crime, and distraught at the thought of the steadfast spider whose many weeks of work had come to naught.
I am sometimes stubborn beyond the bounds of rationality. This was one of those times. I couldn’t just walk away. I went around to the driveway and looked over the fence, and observed the garbage bins up against the garage. There were leaves and twigs poking from the top of the green yard waste bin. Zelda’s in there, I thought. On garbage collection day the truck would come and dump this bin in with the yard waste from all the other houses in Los Feliz. Then it would all be ground up into mulch.
It was not to be borne.
I stared at the house, locked away behind the fence. I couldn’t tell if anyone was home, and I couldn’t ring the doorbell because the gate was locked. The fence was made of metal rods about five feet high. The box that housed the engine of the automatic gate stood about a foot high inside the fence, at the side of the driveway.
Some cold-blooded science types might say that I should let nature (in the form of witless, half-blind gardeners) take its course, but if I had let nature take its course with my dog, she would’ve been dead of parvo at ten weeks. If I had let nature take its course with my hair, it would never have achieved these lovely mingled shades of honey and flax. I made some quick mental calculations, then hurried home, pulling my dog after me.
Five minutes later I was back with a kitchen chair and a thick bathmat. I set the chair against the fence, but at that moment a car drove by. Mine is a neighborhood of vigilant busybodies. Someone was going to see me and call the cops. How was I going to explain my trespassing? Officer, I’m trying to save a spider? I whistled self-consciously and wandered away. Another car drove by. When the coast was clear, I sprang into action, folding the bathmat double along the top of the fence, climbing onto the chair and swinging my leg over the fence, expecting the outraged homeowners to burst upon me at any moment. I felt around with my toes for the engine box as the top of the fence dug into my thighs. Then I was down and, feeling like a criminal, I made for the green bin.
As I swung up the lid and looked inside, my heart sank. It was a tall, wide bin and it was absolutely stuffed with rose stems and leaves. But I couldn’t come this far and give up. Could I?
I realize how crazy this sounds. At the time I knew it looked crazy, and some part of my brain acknowledged the probable futility of my quest, but I started pulling branches out and stacking them on the driveway. Then, miraculously, and to my enormous relief, I saw Zelda hanging from a branch not too far from the top, and there was the egg sac, unblemished, whole!
The joy that washed over me can hardly be expressed. Carefully I separated Zelda’s branch from the rest; carefully I climbed the fence holding it well away from me; with the utmost care I carried her away from her doom. She hung by a strand of silk, swaying with the slightest movement, waving her legs in alarm. Don’t worry, I told her, I’m taking you somewhere safe.
I found a secluded spot for Zelda and her eggs against the wall in an out-of-the-way corner of my back yard, securing the branch in the vines and bricks. I taped up a note explaining that she was nontoxic to humans (stretching the truth only slightly) and beneficial to the garden, so that my neighbors, upon seeing this alien creature, would not break out the bug spray. I felt silly and self-conscious, aware of my folly, and even more so when I recounted my rescue mission to my neighbors and girlfriend in the next few days, but they mercifully kept their thoughts to themselves.
My twice-daily visits resumed. As the days passed and no issue issued forth, my fears returned. The egg sac must have been poisoned. Perhaps Zelda’s vigil was in vain after all.
And then, at long, long last, when I pulled up a chair one morning and climbed up to look, I was overjoyed to lay eyes on a writhing mass of tiny, shiny, orange pinhead bodies with minuscule, waving black legs. Hallelujah!
More spiderlings emerged from a hole in the side of the egg sac as I marveled. Zelda presided over the momentous occasion with admirable calm. It was October 31 – Halloween. How appropriate a birthday for these miniature orange and black beasties.
For the next few days, the babies stayed close to their spiky grey home and their watchful mother. Zelda reared up protectively when I brought my camera too close. Excitedly I shared the news, and my neighbors and my girlfriend took turns on the chair, observing the nursery with polite interest.
My mission was accomplished, but I was concerned about Zelda. Once again, she didn’t seem to be eating. Her once-round and glossy abdomen was becoming dull, getting thinner, finally caving in. My online research had told me that some green lynx spiders last for a couple of years, but often they live through just one. It seemed that Zelda was dying. Finally the day came when I went out to visit and found no babies swarming over the leaves on the wall, and no Zelda either. I thought of Charlotte’s death, and her babies drifting away to the four winds.
This summer, I’m going to keep an eye out for green lynx spiders in my back yard. I like to think that Zelda’s children and grandchildren are thriving somewhere. I hope that at least some of them prove a little more cautious than their bold, gaudy progenitor, and that they set up house far from the reach of gardening shears.