Personal Essay

A Natural Dissonance

I think the first time I really ‘saw’ a spider was when I was 20. Until then, like many of us, I thought they were just creatures that left dirty cobwebs in our homes and under our school desks during the summer holidays.

At my first job, my boss was Dr Vijayalakshmi, a researcher who had a keen interest in spiders, studied a species called Heteropoda venatoria for her PhD, and co-authored the first popular book on common spiders in India for beginners. For the first few months of the job, where I was hired as a Research Assistant to put together a report on the effects of pesticides on agriculture and human health, I was curious why anyone would want to look at and study spiders. My worldview until then consisted of large mammals, large ocean creatures, some birds and pretty butterflies. All my jaw-dropping experiences of nature were through documentaries and wildlife photo essays in borrowed magazines. These marvellous creatures were always from far away lands like Africa, South America and Australia (except for tigers and elephants in India).

One afternoon, when my six-month project documentation was coming to an end, she asked me if I would like to continue my work there and potentially study if spiders could be used as biocontrol agents to replace the role of chemical pesticides. I said the first thing that any new to the field and confused person would, “I don’t know anything about spiders! I wouldn’t know where to find them!”

She took me to the front yard of the office and pointed to an area between two potted plants. We spotted a messy web and I vividly remember her delighted smile when she saw my expression. She may have realised that this was a defining moment, the discovery of a whole new world, just like it had once been for her. Go closer and look at it, she said.

Shimmering in the Madras sunlight, the messy web began to take shape in front of me. It was a gorgeous tent-like structure with a silken platform and various scaffoldings. It was a miniature architectural marvel! It looked deceptively messy from afar, with random silken strands, but up close its complexity was stunning. Nestled within this beautiful structure was the spider, suspended in mid-air, settled at the centre of the web. There was another bonanza as well. A string of green globular structures, like a necklace, were suspended in the same web — the tent spider’s egg sacs.“Some spider babies are on the way!” announced my mentor.

I’m not someone who remembers people and events easily, so the crystal clear memory and feelings evoked by this moment still surprise me. It was the beginning of a new chapter of my life after all.

The next hour or so was spent in complete wonder and delight, finding all kinds of spiders in that small garden. How had I not ‘seen’ them before? Over the next few months, my amused colleagues would find me pouring over all the spider material in the office and looking endlessly at pictures and memorising common, scientific names. If I wasn’t obsessed by then, I was definitely besotted. All it took was one short walk with Dr Viji showing me a few spiders to change my life. I think this is why I evangelize and make use of every opportunity to take people for nature walks. This simple act of finding and pointing out various spiders and insects that are hidden in plain sight always prompts squeals of awe and shock.

Interpreting the Natural World

The more we discover about the different species occupying various habitats and niches (including our own homes and spaces we use), the more we understand their fascinating and bizarre behaviour. Studying them helps us interpret their natural history, important ecological functions and understand their place in this shared world.

Stories and facts about these creatures are fascinating and appeal to every age group across the world. I would argue that opening up this connection with the natural world means that we will all become better human beings. This journey of wonder and discovery takes us down a path of empathy that benefits us all.

Spiders and insects are ubiquitous, and therefore easy to find. They deserve all the delighted attention that can possibly be bestowed upon them. Too often they are labelled creepy-crawlies and dismissed as repulsive. So it’s heartening that so many people are now searching for and recording insect and spider life. A stark contrast to when I first started out and a welcome change indeed! Social media today is flooded with stunning behavioural shots of even the most elusive species. And this phenomenon is contributing significantly to growing documentation and interest in this group of organisms.

When one closely observes the habits and habitats of these creatures, and dives into their natural history, it makes the journey of discovery all the more rewarding and interesting. And the beauty of this field is that anyone can do it!

We are currently bombarded with research studies and information about how invertebrates, especially insects, are beneficial to us and how without pollination and decomposition, the world and humanity would collapse. We read, empathise, and collectively and silently agree. We are astonished at stories of hard-working ants carrying more than 10 times their own body weight; we gush when we see pictures of the dew-decorated spider webs; we talk about how the structure of a termite mound allows for natural cooling, and most school children and adults know about the lifecycle of the butterfly because it features prominently in our biology textbooks. Despite this, we still seem to have a collective cognitive dissonance when it comes to nature, especially the many invertebrate life forms living alongside us.

Connecting the Dots

These are concepts we read, momentarily marvel at and then store away. But we often fail to appreciate these wonders when they are around us and unfold before our eyes. Caterpillars chomping on our potted plants are often flicked away or sprayed. These are the same caterpillars that grow into chrysalises, and then into adult butterflies or moths, which most of us love to look at.

I remember being gobsmacked and then angry when I learnt about the bizarre, tenuous association between fig trees and specialised pollinator wasps called fig wasps, which are essential for both organisms to survive. I felt robbed, learning this amazing piece of natural history so late in life. After all, fig trees, at least in India, are all around us. Why didn’t our teachers and school textbooks feature this? Why were we not allowed to hone our sense of astonishment and curiosity? Why were we not taken outdoors and allowed to explore the natural world? Sadly, this is still the case in most schools.

Why does this disconnect persist? Is it because so many of us have almost no connection with nature these days, and when we do it is with domesticated versions of creatures and the habitats that they occupy? Why have we failed to communicate the wonders of the natural world, especially of the smaller creatures that we now know so much more about?

Nature education is a passion of mine, and it helps immensely to start fostering a culture of curiosity and inquiry in children early to induce excitement about nature and its denizens. This by itself can be a creative art form. Questions about nature can lead to predicting, hypothesizing and generating explanations. Why does the tent-web spider build such an elaborate web? Does this bizarre complexity allow it to capture a more diverse set of insects? Does this complexity make it more difficult for a predator like a wasp to find and catch its spider prey? Why do some spiders lie suspended upside down on their web and others upright? We still don’t know the answers to these seemingly endless questions, but reasoning and hypothesizing can help us truly learn to love and connect with nature.

Cultivating a Culture of Curiosity

It’s surprising and heartbreaking that despite more urgent realisations in recent times that the natural world is an intrinsic part of us, we are still failing to understand, empathise and embrace it in all its complexities. Every generation experiences a different environmental baseline, with growing artificiality and tamed versions of nature, which are geared to suit our needs and aesthetics. We now have terms for this — nature-deficit syndrome and environmental generational amnesia.

We end up constructing a new baseline for what a normal environment is, based on what we see and experience growing up, thereby structuring our relationship with nature based on partial and incomplete perceptions and understanding. Additionally, our opportunities to have unfettered experiences in nature are declining as well. Even our few and far between community parks, commons which are meant for all, have restricted access and proudly display signs about not touching plants, not stepping on the grass, and have paved concrete paths meant only for abled walkers and joggers. This ‘look but don’t touch’ public messaging is one of the ways we distance ourselves from nature in our everyday lives.

This also feeds into our idea of having and setting aside space for nature in our homes and our commons. We are often influenced by images we see from areas and cities that have very different geographies, soil and floral and faunal composition from us. Hedges, topiary-shaped vegetation, and lawns with short single species of grass are replacing our native shrubs, climbers and wild grass that grows naturally and are important sources of food, shelter and nesting spaces for numerous invertebrates, birds and animals. By continuing to view nature through the stubborn lens of what is convenient for humans, we lose the diversity of habitats that evolution has shaped over tens of thousands of years.

When we embrace and empathise with the natural world, we connect with it and understand what we need to do. A ‘wild’ garden or a balcony with a messy variety of plants, weedy plants with nondescript flowers, wild grass sneaking in, climbers taking a foothold — all of these are tempting to various life forms that avoid fussy and overly planned gardens. Unfortunately, many balconies, gardens and parks tend to favour manicured perfection over natural growth. Give the green spaces that you cultivate a chance to be wilder and unfettered. This will allow for complex interactions between a diverse set of plants, including what you think of as weeds. This simple rebellious act will reap rewards and better your relationship with nature.

Insects will buzz around your wilder plants, and spiders will build webs between random branches and twigs. The ones that don’t build silken webs to catch their food will find niches to hide and stalk their insect prey. Small paper wasps will build their delightful umbrella-shaped paper nests below large surfaced leaves, and the bees that require soil and space to burrow will arrive. Birds will perch nearby and sing. The door opens to a whole new world to explore and fall in love with, and we will move closer to ending the natural dissonance that resides within us.

About the author

When she is not taking unsuspecting people on spider, insect and nature walks, Vena Kapoor works with the Nature Conservation Foundation in Bangalore and heads the Nature Classrooms project. With her colleagues, she works with organisations, educators and primary school teachers to co-create locally-culturally relevant and age appropriate nature learning modules and curriculum that can be weaved into the school Environmental Studies subject. More about her work and projects here.


Follow Vena Kapoor on Twitter.