A hot August night out in the country, and urban commotion is far away. Up in the sky a butterscotch-coloured Mars is clearly visible to the naked eye. It is so bright that, out here away from artificial light sources, faint shadows appear on the ground. Mars is currently in opposition, which means it's on one side of the Earth and the sun is on the other; picture Earth and Mars running neck and neck in their orbits around the sun. This makes Mars appear spherical to us (like a full moon). It also means that Mars is closer than usual to the Earth; on August 27, Mars passed 34.65 million miles from us. Astronomers armed with telescopes have been watching for the last month as the southern polar ice cap has shrunk, melting under the sun of the Martian summer. Many people are keeping odd hours and losing sleep to catch this literally once-in-a-lifetime show.
The last time Mars was this close was in 57,617 BC when it passed 34.62 million miles away. Our ancestors were living in caves, and rocks were sophisticated technology. Did they think about this brighter-than-normal 'star' that moved slowly across the Stone Age skies? What did they believe about this 'star', their own planet, and their place in the cosmos? Did they worry about the fate of their descendents or wonder what they would be like the next time Mars swept by?
I've been joined in my nocturnal musings by a spider that has set up housekeeping outside my dining room, just under the frame of the French door leading to the deck. She spends her days sleeping on the door frame itself, tucked up into the corner out of the elements. She starts her nights by repairing any rents in her web left by a blundering human who'd forgotten to duck, and then she settles down in the middle of the web and waits for dinner to arrive. Occasionally I turn on the outdoor light next to the door to watch her go about her business, and I think hopeful thoughts about a declining mosquito population1. This door must be prime spider real estate. Last summer an inoffensive little grey spider that had been living there for about a month came to blows with a larger and more aggressive would-be tenant. The newcomer won. It was a depressing reminder that might frequently makes right in this imperfect world.
A quick visit to the Web (heh, heh) told me that my new tenant is known as a house spider or cobweb spider. According to our buggy friends at Ohio State University:
House spiders spin their webs in dark corners of moist rooms and outdoors. They hang upside down in the centre of an irregular cobweb. The outside sticky threads entangle many insects, especially flies which are bitten and sucked dry. Females are fertilized several times during a lifetime with up to nine egg sacs, each containing 200 or more eggs. Young hatch in about eight days, staying within the sac until after the first moult. They are cannibalistic, eating one another. Spiderlings take several months to mature. Webs become dust covered when abandoned.
Hmm. If I play my cards right, I won't need to do much decorating for Halloween.
My spider is large but skittish; she bolts for her corner if I get too close to her web. This is good; I'm also skittish and would prefer that she not land on my head or try to take me prisoner. I always wonder what a spider is thinking when it weaves a web large enough to
trap small aircraft across my door frame. It reminds me of the old 'Far Side' cartoon where the nerdy little kid in glasses is about to go down a slide, across which two spiders have strung a web; one spider says to the other, 'If this works, we'll eat like kings'. I'm willing to play host to any number of spiders, so long as I don't appear on their menu.
Those of us who live outside the city have an interesting assortment of critters trying to invade our homes. Now that cooler weather is on the horizon, the mice will be looking for a warm place to hole up, as will the wasps. Bringing houseplants back indoors is always an adventure because you never know what will hitch a ride on them. A few years back it was a bewildered salamander that thought he'd found a nice dark place to hibernate and found himself instead in the middle of my living room. And there is a chipmunk that looks into the dining room whenever he visits my deck; no doubt he finds my hospitality lacking. You can live with the predators or you can live with the prey. Give me the predators and let them take care of the prey, that's my motto. I have to referee the occasional territorial spat among the eight-legged crowd, but they do a great job of sorting out the six-legged riffraff. The bats take care of the mosquitoes, and the neighbourhood cats and snakes take care of the rodents. (A snake sunning itself on the front porch also scares off door-to-door solicitors, which is no bad thing.)
Mother Nature rules in my kingdom, red in tooth and claw. At night a ruddy planet named for the Greek god of war hangs overhead and casts his faint shadow among us. Mars won't again be this close to Earth until 2287, and I expect not too much will have changed by then. We humans are much like our Stone Age ancestors who sat chipping away at stones. We still come to blows over real estate although we've progressed, if you could call it that, beyond bouncing rocks off each other's heads. In 2287 we may be fighting over Martian turf. It's
a depressing thought.
But sometimes you have to look reality in the face and deny it, and that's what I'm going to do. I'll spend the night studying Mars, seeing not the bloody shadow of a war god but the opportunity for us humans to make something better of ourselves. I'll think about the NASA and ESA expeditions currently on their way to the red planet. I'll think about our rovers turning over the unfamiliar rocks and finding in these rocks, not weapons, but tools to remake our human hearts and minds. And perhaps in 184 years we'll be able to give a better accounting of ourselves to any visitors that stop by.
expect a few bats would do a better job, although I hope none decides to live this close.