Musings on Nature

The Spiders in my Casita

Six years ago, I had the grand fortune of being a resident naturalist at the Ecolodge San Luis and Research Station in Costa Rica.  I volunteered in exchange for room and board in one of the most lovely places I’ve ever been.  It was in the mountains, just below the famous Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, and the weather stayed warm but not hot.  We were served rice and beans and fresh fruit and coffee every day, and my “job” consisted of taking people on nature hikes or teaching them about the plants and animals of Costa Rica.  It was like being on a tropical vacation.

I even had my own casita, which means “little house” in Spanish.  It was more the size of a tool shed, with just enough space for a platform bed, a desk, and a “hot box.”  The hot box was a small wooden enclosure with a 100-watt, incandescent light bulb meant for drying out wet clothing or gear.  I didn’t understand its worth until after my rain jacket had molded, but the hot box was apparently a prime feature, akin to stainless steel appliances in the US housing market.

Although my casita was a sturdy structure, it was completely ineffective at keeping out the smallest, creepiest creatures, which could easily fit through the cracks between the boards or fly right through the gaping holes in the window screens.

The spiders in my casita were large enough to warrant suspicion, and they were oddly flat, sort of hairy, and a mossy green color.  Their bodies were flattened such that they fit easily between the boards of my casita walls and the structural cross-pieces, and I found their shape made their spider scuttle particularly cringe-worthy.  I think there were three or four that resided in my casita.

My first thought about how to deal with the casita spiders was to capture them and throw them outside, even though I thought they might  come right back in.  Squishing them occurred to me too, but they were large enough to be meaty, and the thought of striking them was exceedingly unappealing.  Neither of those options was realistic, anyway, since they were lightening-fast and prone to taking refuge in my casita’s cracks.

I think most of the volunteers living in the casitas went with the live-and-let-live approach, save the one who took a can of Raid to the inside of hers. She had a regular graveyard of insects on her windowsills, and that made me more nervous than the living company.

I tried to identify my casita spiders, in hopes of finding out that they were harmless, but I couldn’t ID them from the books in the station’s library.  I ended up settling for an “I won’t bother you if you don’t bother me” approach.  We had a pact, the casita spiders and I.  I made my bed tightly and regularly, and I simply accepted their presence.  The casita spiders paid little attention to me, and I made it through the summer with no meaningful interactions with them.

Towards the end of my stay, though, I was lying in bed, reading and entirely minding my own business.  A wasp flew in the gaping hole in my window screen, and I watched it for a few minutes as it bumped around against my ceiling.  “If you don’t bother it, it won’t bother you,” I told myself confidently, and I went back to reading.  Next thing I know, it landed and stung me on the side of the neck, completely without provocation.

It hurt, but I was offended more than anything.  How dare it sting me, so out of the blue?  I hadn’t swatted it—I hadn’t even noticed it had landed on me.  But then I wondered if it had an internal dialogue about how to deal with my presence, and why it hadn’t landed on “live and let live.”  I considered some more, and then concluded that I couldn’t really blame it for either not thinking it through (it was a wasp, after all), or for thinking it through and settling on “better safe than sorry.”  After all, I was a human, and how often do we think through the swift death of an insect, or the destruction of any number of species’ homes?  Which is worse, to act without these thoughts even crossing our minds, or to think it through and justify the death and destruction?

It’s not practical, or maybe even possible, to live without affecting other living things.  But why not aim to tread a little lighter on the earth?  Make peace with an occasional spider.  If there’s a bee in your home, and your child is allergic, smashing it against the window is probably forgivable (except from the bee’s point of view, who wonders why you couldn’t just open the window).  But if you’re outside, and nobody’s going to die at the hand of the bee, just leave it alone.  It probably won’t bother you if you don’t bother it, and “probably won’t” is a better deal than we usually offer.  Even the spiders in my casita seemed to understand that.

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5 Comments

  1. Cornelia Harris

    Love it! Reminded me of the cockroaches that sought refuge in my own ‘casita’ in Ecuador during rainstorms…needless to say they did NOT respect my bed’s boundaries, leading me to sheepishly ask for a bug net from my amused host mother. What is it about bugs in our beds that makes us so squeamish? In any case, I agree with the live and let live philosophy, although now that I’m a homeowner my patience with the mice that are eating the wires in my basement is not very good. Anyone want to loan me a cat?

  2. emilytstarr

    I had good luck with a combination of have-a-heart trapping and electronic noisemakers that drive away rodents (people, cats, and dogs can’t hear them). Our cats chose not to participate in mouse control.

  3. emilytstarr

    Current best guess for what my casita spiders are: a member of the wall-crab spider family, Selenopidae (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wall_crab_spider). If you know better than I do, please let me know! This picture is all I have, as they were quite fast and not too keen on posing for portraits.

  4. Emily, like the story we frequently leave the spiders in our home, actually have a few black widow spiders every year within our garage and because it is fairly clean and they stay close to the front where a little breeze blows I leave them alone. Unless something is actually destructive to our homes structure we don’t worry much over them. If something compromises your health or the home structure its tougher not to act but as you say, you can choose the best methods to not declare all out chemical warfare that many use.

    We have a whole page dedicated to not relocating wildlife which would include mice/rats. While it may seem worse, if you must get them out of your home and use a trap, a lethal trap is the most humane. Prey animals like mice/rats need the place they exist, just like raccoon, skunk and others. We talk to folks every day in our work that want us to move creatures elsewhere for their peace of mind, but when we explain it is more inhumane they catch on. We prefer to exclude and even mice can be excluded, but it is tougher as they have tiny skulls that fit through many little openings.

    Like your post though, think you keep a nice variety coming our way! Look forward to the next one!

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