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Caught in the Web of Environmentalism

by Eli Knapp

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My older brother has always commanded my admiration. But my well-hidden admiration only goes so far. He is scared of spiders. Scared spit less by them. My brother is stronger, faster, smarter, more cultured, more trendy and yet, hopelessly arachnophobic. Yes indeed, my older brother is scared by an insect that is roughly 10,000 times smaller than himself. And for this reason alone, I am glad that spiders scamper the earth.

But spiders do far more than just allowing me a smidgeon of younger sibling pride. Spiders, with the help of a few mosquito and earwig species, are preserving our environment. The U.S. Forest Service recently published comment cards written by backpackers after camping trips. One such card stated: Too many bugs and leeches and spiders and spider webs. Please spray the wilderness to rid the area of these pests. Another more visionary backpacker wrote: Instead of a permit system for hikers, the Forest Service needs to reduce worldwide population growth to limit the number of visitors to the wilderness.

Instead of tackling the ferocious overpopulation bear, I think the Forest Service should just sprinkle more spiders into our country’s wooded glades. Spiders provide us a remarkable array of services in spite of their insidious reputation. The greatest service of all, that these octipedal organisms provide, is their uncanny ability to provoke fear among the bipedal homo sapiens. I’ve seen it so many times. One person sees a spider, or senses a brush of something on the neck, and then – instantaneously – is performing an ancient aboriginal samba. The wrists bend, the hands go loose, and the elbows flare. The knees bend, the toes extend, and the individual begins spinning. Although performed in the spirit of self-defense, the spider samba is unabashedly entertaining. And, as I’ve recently learned, you don’t have to patiently wait for this prehistoric performance. By blithely scooping up an arachnid and tossing it on a fellow, the tremulous dance initializes immediately, with free admission.

The jury is out as to why one individual has arachnophobia and another does not. About this issue, the jury needn’t ever return. Because the proverbial jury has already provided us with a much more important verdict, namely, that our national parks, reserves, and forests are being overrun with people. I live in California. Herein lies Yosemite, “jewel of the Sierras” as John Muir once wrote. But the massive granite outcroppings, the towering trees, and the feathery falls are all under siege. The army of R.V.s, campers, barbeques, and baby carriages are laying a full-fledged assault. Nature has its back against the wall. And the only effective weapons it has are a few mosquitoes and some innocuous spiders.

I’m currently working on an experiential theory positing that the optimum height for spiders of all species to spin webs across backpacking trails is exactly six feet off the ground. My theory isn’t yet published in Nature, nor is it supported by any quantifiable evidence. My theory is lacking. Probably because I’ve realized that I am the only experiential source. But, I’m confident that if all the 6’2” backpackers of the world banded together for an afternoon of Oreos and milk, my six-foot spider web theory would gain the support it needs. For all of you vertically challenged readers, take heart. We more height-saturated people are getting the webs. Maybe you shorter folks are getting them too. I’ll have to hike around on my knees for a while to find out. I can’t see myself ever doing that. I guess my theory will have to remain unpublished.

It happens every time and on every trail. It is frustrating, cumbersome, and more persistent than heartburn. The maxim goes like this: I hike therefore I walk into spider webs. And no matter how many silken strands you remove from your face, there will always be one more you can’t seem to grab. As soon as you’ve managed to get that one supercilious strand out of your ear – wham – you walk into another web.

To alleviate your spider web disgust, try thinking about the marvel that is clinging to every part of your face. Obviously, silk is light and elastic. But did you know that it is stronger than steel and recyclable? Did you know that silk is composed of proteins that are long, complex molecules stretching hundreds to thousands of amino acids long? And did you know how spiders unfold the proteins and spin them together into silk threads? I hope you didn’t know that last question. Because neither do scientists. But to aid in what is known, UC Riverside professor of Biology Cheryl Y. Hayashi says, “you can visualize it as a Lego block.” The repeating segments enable silk filaments to lock together, giving silk its strength.

Even more amazing than silk itself is the means in which a spider spins it. Within the silk gland of an arachnid, the silk proteins are dissolved in a highly concentrated solution that is half water, half proteins. Like toothpaste from a tube, the protein solution is squeezed out of a duct in the silk gland. Knobby appendages called spinnerets aid the spider in pulling out the proteins that are folded up like logs flowing down a river. The silk proteins then unwind, lock together and solidify into silk fibers.

The wonders of spiders and their silk are only part of the reason why I am decidedly arachnophilic. Spiders ought to be the mascot of the environmental movement because, as I’ve mentioned, they recycle. Since proteins require such an energy intensive investment to produce, spiders eat their old webs before spinning new ones. This “webiphagia” helps spiders conserve precious silk proteins that you and I have peeled from our faces along the trail. Spiders have carried this recycling venture on for roughly 400 million years through time. Good thing, too. Imagine the size of discarded web landfills that would presently exist if spiders didn’t recycle.

In addition to recycling, our eight-legged environmentalists also model for us the virtue of eating all our food. Test this out. As you arrive home next Friday night and are fumbling for your keys to get into your house, glance up at the outdoor light by the door. If you do so, you’re bound to see a spider devouring every last bit of some unfortunate moth. Well-off spiders know that millions of not so well-off spiders exist the world over. And therefore, they know to eat everything on their web.

The greatest service that spiders provide us, however, is their love for the environment. They show this love by existing. The deductive logic goes like this: People like nature. Spiders like nature. People hate spiders. People, therefore, stay out of nature. By simply existing, with unsolicited help from mosquitoes and poison oak, spiders help regulate the numbers of people into fragile environments. The deductive logic shouldn’t but can go one step further. An environmentalist wants to preserve fragile environments. Spiders preserve fragile environments by dissuading paranoid people from entering. Therefore, an arachnophobic environmentalist is an oxymoron. Or maybe just a moron.

It may be a bit ambitious for the U.S. Forest Service to try to reduce worldwide population growth. And it’s probably not a good idea for the Forest Service to sprinkle spiders into protected ecosystems. But the Forest Service and backpackers and environmentalists the world over need to recognize the service that these fear-inducing arachnids provide. And we must be thankful. If spiders didn’t exist, I’m certain that my older brother and millions of other arachnophobes like him would spend a whole lot more time in a shrinking wilderness that simply can’t sustain them. And most importantly, without spiders I wouldn’t have seven legs up on my brother…

About the Author

Eli is a 24-year-old graduate student at the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management in Santa Barbara, California.


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