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.