Too Close For Comfort

One sunny afternoon in Brazil, a half a century ago, I set out to explore the coast along from the lagoon island hotel where were staying, hoping to reach the headland in the distance. At first the going was very easy, because there were well-worn paths running between the trees and bushes on the wooded hills that sloped down to the shore. But eventually these paths petered out, and the bushes merged with the trees in an impenetrable barrier. The only way to continue was to go right down to the water’s edge, which was strewn with half-submerged smooth granite rocks. Here it was possible to step under the overhanging branches, clamber up one side of large rocks, and slide down the other, sometimes dropping knee-deep into the placid waters of the lagoon.

It was with some relief, after travelling for several hundred yards along this rocky shore, that I came to an inlet with a pebble beach and a clearing beside it  littered with more large granite boulders. A path opened up before me, that passed through the defile between a large boulder that had split in two, leaving a passage between some six feet wide.

It was as I was stepping carefully from one stone to another through this defile that I suddenly came to a stop, seized with an extreme sense of alarm, my arms and legs frozen in motion. Something had frightened me. But what? The sun streamed down from the blue sky above, and a fly or two buzzed lazily by, and the birds in the trees chattered happily.

Motionless, I looked down at the stony floor of the defile, and examined it very carefully. Was there a snake? Some anaconda from the surrounding forest? Or perhaps a jaguar crouching in the shadows? Or some crab that had clambered out of the lagoon a few yards away? I examined every stone, and the granite walls of the passageway. But I could see absolutely nothing to be concerned about. Nor was there anything ominous in the distant trees that cascaded down the hillside ahead of me.

I began to relax. And decided to resume my progress. But I had not taken a single step forward when I was gripped once again by the same sense of paralysing fear. Now thoroughly alarmed, I very slowly looked further around me, to left and to right, above and below. I turned very slowly to look behind me.  But there was nothing.

It was as I turned my head back again that something flashed in front of my eyes in a blur, and I instinctively leaped backwards several feet in a single bound.

It at once became clear what the cause of the alarm was. Stretching right across the defile was an enormous spider’s web. And sitting right in the centre of this web, at head height, was a huge spider.

It was the largest spider I had ever seen. It was fully six inches or more from the tip of one thin leg to the tip of the other. And it was suspended vertically, pressed flat against the centre of its web, with its long straight and slender legs forming a perfect crucifix, two extended below it, two above it, and two at each side.

But for my sudden paralysis, I would have walked straight into it, head first. Worse,  had I done so, the spider would have been pinned against my face by its own web. I had come to a dead stop with the spider an inch or two in front of my face. Another inch or so, and what would have happened didn’t bear thinking about. I hadn’t seen it because it was too close to see. My eyes couldn’t focus on something as close as that. And also its green body and legs merged perfectly into the trees beyond.

But if it was the largest spider I had ever seen, it was also the most beautiful. And if I had been alarmed, the spider had not been. And so I  plucked up my courage and stepped closer (but not quite as close as before) to examine it. It was green and yellow from toe to toe, and its entire smooth green body and slender jointed legs were dappled with tiny speckles of black and white and red. It was an exquisite, jewelled work of art. Only the slightest of movements showed that it was alive.

I examined its web as well, which was drawn very taut across the six foot wide passage between the granite walls. It was the largest spider’s web I had ever seen as well. Each thread in it seemed almost as thick as the wire in a wire mesh fence, and set almost equally far apart. A fly or even a small moth could have flown right though it without being snagged. Clearly it was designed to catch very large flying insects, and perhaps even small birds.

And with that, I suddenly had no taste for any more adventure. I turned around and retraced my steps to the hotel,  moving two or three times more carefully and consideredly than I had when I casually first made them.

I was puzzled afterwards that my sense of petrified alarm had been of such a subconscious nature that I remained unable for a minute or more to consciously identify the peril, even though I was looking hard for it everywhere. It was as if the alarm that had been triggered wasn’t wired into my consciousness, but was wholly independent of it, and was a primitive visual sense which could only discern sudden and blurry motion — like some elderly burglar alarm that wasn’t wired into the modern network of CCTV cameras and pattern recognition software which had supplanted it, and which had noticed nothing untoward at all.

Fifty years on, it remains the largest spider I’ve ever seen, and that I ever hope to see.

About Frank Davis

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15 Responses to Too Close For Comfort

  1. Have you ever looked up what kind of spider it was?

  2. PT Barnum says:

    We ignore such ‘atavistic’ warning systems at our peril. I had a similar experience with a taipan when I was teaching in Papua New Guinea in the previous century, paralysed on one leg, unable to move forward or back. Saved my life, as I watched the deadly little beauty slide by through the grass.

  3. Twenty_Rothmans says:

    Excellent story, and well recounted. My neurophysiology is 25 years old now, but ISTR the ForF adrenergic response is a _positive_ feedback loop. You get a bit excited, get a jolt of catecholamines which make you more excitable. I think the amygdala holds the fear software but completely forget the rest of the pathway with ACTH and all that.

    My parents’ driveway _always_ has a web across it at night. Spiders are only about 3″ but enough for a jolt. In Australia, always carry a stick.

  4. Walt says:

    Your story, beautifully told, has a lot of layers to it but to deal with surface one, I do believe we all have a “sixth sense” tho it’s really just a simultaneously heightened and subconscious use of one– or possibly more– of the other five. The experience that comes to my mind isn’t as exotic as spiders in Brazil or snakes in New Guinea but it might be the same species. For years on my daily rounds, I’d walk by a very tough city high school never giving it a thought. One particular afternoon, based on nothing I consciously saw or heard, as I was about to cross the narrow side street to the school, I suddenly got such a strong feeling of Don’t! that, instead, I crossed the avenue– going out of my way. But I was only a couple of steps from the curb in the avenue gutter when the shots rang out, coming from the school and hitting someone standing where I might have been.

  5. VERY strange timing! Frank, my brother has a long-standing arachnophobia, and just yesterday HE almost walked face first into a lard web with a large spider hanging in its center! He managed to keep himself under enough control to send me a beautiful close up pic of it, but I don’t know any way to post a picture here!

    – Michael

    • Frank Davis says:

      You can post pictures using the HTML img tag. Here’s a picture from the Daily Mail of a similar web. It’s actually larger than the one I almost walked into.

      large spider web

  6. Frank Davis says:

    It was probably some sort of nephila spider. Like the one below, but green. I don’t remember the body being that large either.

  7. Gary K. says:

    Sixth sense/gut feelings/instinct/intuition and all mankind might have perished long ago without them.
    I have great faith in those things.
    Was about to post this; but,something did not seem right. I ‘knew’ that something was wrong.

    I had left out the ‘i’ in perished.

    Veterans, that have been in combat, tell many stories of having their butts saved by such internal warnings.

  8. Rose says:

    Sadly, I have no such spider sense.

    My garden is next to what used to be the branch line that led to a small freight yard in the days of steam, and perhaps long ago something seriously nasty came in with the bananas.

    It’s quite a big spider but it doesn’t make a web, just lines some nook or cranny with silk and waits.
    It seems to hunt by movement and if it gets your hand or your heel it feels like you’ve just been stabbed by a small stick and you just forget about it.

    Until the huge blister comes up of course, which itches unbearably, a few days later the poison seems to spread through your system on it’s way out. Which can be quite interesting.

    So far I have been bitten at least 14 times and have now completely lost my fear of spiders.
    Still not at all sure about wasps though.

  9. Jax says:

    Twenty Rothmans,

    “Only about 3 inches???” Over here in Blighty an inch and a half is considered a big ‘un – and that’s too flamin’ big for my liking!

    That makes “HUGE spiders” the second-best reason for me never to visit Oz. Shame – I’m sure that in all other respects it’s lovely but, hey, there are some limits to what a gal can cope with!

  10. Junican says:

    Hey, Frank, I need your help.

    I have started a blog called ‘ I am still feeling my way around – early days yet. Here is a question that you can help me with if you do not mind:

    I notice that your commenters can use italics and bold. How did you set that up?

    • Frank Davis says:

      I didn’t set it up. It’s pretty standard on most blogging platforms to be able to use italic and bold tags in comments. In fact, I believe you’ve used them yourself. And since you’ve picked WordPress as your platform, people should be as much able to post italic and bold on your blog as they can on mine.

  11. Junican says:

    Well, blow me down! I could have sworn that I tried it when I first started the blog without success. Lo and behold, it worked OK.

    Excellent!. It is really weird that, in the WordPress forum etc, I could find little about it. How odd!

    Thanks a lot – you have saved me a lot of messing about!

    And so to bed – dentists tomorrow.

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