• John R

Memento Mori


Surprise! Just when I thought life boiled down to mask shopping, binge streaming, binge snacking, and mucking about in the yard, along comes this tidbit: There are things in my house and garden that can kill me.

This is not exactly bad news. I’ll explain.

Yes, it’s a bummer that in The Strangest Year Ever, we’ve shaved our lives down to the bare essentials, packed a go bag, tried not to breathe, and had to keep one eye on the window to watch out for the coming Fire Tsunami. It’s exhausting.

Then this happened: Just the other day I went out into the yard to take solace in the few hearty plants that have managed to struggle through another season of neglectful good intentions, and I came across a black widow spider.

Where we live, black widows—species Latrodectus—aren’t uncommon. You don’t often spot them because they’re shy and they like to hide away in dark netherworlds, such as crawl spaces. But they’re there.

I spotted her uncharacteristically strolling along an eave. I wasn’t entirely sure it was a BW, so I captured her in a glass jar so I could check out her underbelly. Sure enough, there was the telltale red hourglass shape. My first thought was, Good Lord, is there no escape from potential danger these days?

As it turns out, there isn’t. And that’s not a bad thing.


Sure, we try to mitigate risks. We try to keep stupid moves to a minimum. We wouldn’t, for example, wear a wetsuit made entirely of raw meat and then swim in shark-infested waters. Okay, maybe if Shark Week producers offered us a stunning amount of cash, but no, the vast majority of us wouldn’t risk it.

Yet we live in a world where our self-appointed tenure at the top of the food chain can be a matter of circumstance. Risk abounds. There are times when animals such as grizzly bears, great white sharks, mountain lions, and crocodiles occupy the top spot of the food chain hierarchy and relegate some unfortunate souls to the second tier known as “lunch.”

I don’t mean to be cavalier about it (although that’s a splendid-sounding word, “cavalier”) or dismissive of others’ misfortunes. But we desperately need these amazing creatures—they’re reminders that despite the “triumph of human evolution” (Joe McCarthy and daytime TV notwithstanding), we’re not the top bananas. Occasionally, we are eaten. And bitten—a diminutive black widow spider strolling along an eave is not in awe of us.

It’s a sensibility that has a name: memento mori. That’s Latin for “remember that we die.” It’s not a doom-and-gloom slogan. It’s a call to be vibrantly alive, to enjoy, to be kind, to partake, to savor, to be humble, and to get your bulbs in the ground before winter.

So what did I do with Ms. Widow? I thought briefly of dumping her over the fence onto my neighbor’s property. Hey, what are neighbors for if not to provide a little memento mori? But those folks are too nice—well, fairly nice—so I didn’t do that. Instead, I drove her up into the woods and let her go in the deep brush where I hope she establishes a nice web and enjoys an endless supply of hapless bugs. Part of me wonders if she might find her way back to our house, like those stories of lost schnauzers who travel thousands of miles back to their hometowns. I could picture her showing up at our front door, carrying three or four tiny hobo bags on sticks slung over multiple shoulders, politely knocking and announcing, “Remember me? I’m back!”

Fun bonus fact: I found another poisonous arachnid, a spider with the curiously unhelpful name of false brown widow. Steatoda is often mistaken for a cousin of the black widow—the real brown widow—which it’s not at all. See? Anyway, it’s got some venom but not as much as a brown widow, which it isn’t. This Steatoda was under the wooden bin where I coil the garden hose. I didn’t feel compelled to capture this widow imposter and transport her to a distant locale. Instead I took her picture (above), eased the bin back down so as not to squish her, and thought, “Live long and prosper, little Stea!”

Stay safe everybody!

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