EDITOR’S NOTE: The columns of Bill Duncan are being reprinted in The News-Review. Duncan, who died in November 2011, wrote a weekly column for The News-Review and The Capital Press of Salem from 1981 to 2011. Duncan wrote the following column in March 1991. His thoughts are still pertinent to today.
I will always be grateful to E.B. White for his charming children’s story, “Charlotte’s Web.”
Not just for his word painting of everyday farm life. Despite the fantasy, the story is quite credible within the framework of life on the farm, to wit:
“The barn was very large. It was very old. It smelled of hay and it smelled of manure. It smelled of perspiration of tired horses and the wonderful sweet breath of patient cows. It often had a sort of peaceful smell — as though nothing bad could happen ever again in the world. It smelled of new rope. And whenever the cat was given a fish-head to eat, the barn would smell of fish. But mostly it smelled of hay, for there was always hay in the great loft up overhead.”
That could be a scene from most every barn on American farms, so not even the idyllic barn scene is why “Charlotte’s Web” is a classic in my mind.
Not even White’s characterization of the hated rat:
“The rat had no morals, no conscience, no consideration, no decency, no milk of rodent kindness, no compunctions, no higher feeling, no friendliness, no anything. He would kill a gosling if he could get away with it—and the goose knew that. Everybody knew it.”
Nor even Wilbur, the pig. This character could have been any one of a number of farm animals. E.B. White just happened to select a pig.
And so it is with all the other characters. But the one character who couldn’t be changed is Charlotte.
E.B. White paid homage to the spider and all it does around the farm. For years the spider has been treated cruelly in fiction, painted especially evil in children’s literature. Finally, literature recognized the value of this creature to society.
There has been continual warfare around my house between my wife and myself over letting the spider do the work nature intended. Killing a spider is like killing the watch dog for barking at intruders, or the cat for chasing mice.
Spiders are a farmer’s best friend. They eat grasshoppers, locusts and all kinds of insects that are harmful to crops. They feed on flies and mosquitoes which are the farmer’s nemeses.
Of course there are always those stories about poisonous spiders. There are only six kinds of spiders in North America whose bite is harmful to humans—and not one of those goes around looking to bite. Only hurt or frightened spiders bite human beings. Leave them to do their job and they’ll peacefully co-exist.
I have been known to rush to the rescue of a Charlotte or two in my house just as my wife raised the atomic fly swatter. I have hand-carried them to safety outside of her dominion.
In all that time I have never been bitten.
One can understand why a fastidious housewife can become upset over web-spinning spiders. Even Charlotte understood this:
“A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies.”
Not all housewives are anti-spider. An actress friend, Louise McConnville, was hosting a party in her mountain-top home in Los Angeles. One of the women guests noticed a large spider web on one of the windowsills. The homemaker instinct overtook her and she used a tissue to wipe it clean.
Louise saw the act, snatched the tissue away from this spider killer and gave her a tongue-lashing about messing around with her spiders. But then Louise also kept snakes in cages under her bed.
Another friend, Alma Dussard, won’t tolerate spiders in the house, but pampers those who live outside in her garden. She also gently removes inside spiders to the outside, talking to them in soothing tones all the way out the door. The spiders seem to understand and only rarely does one cross her threshold.
I’ve tried to convince my wife of this method of dealing with spiders, but her comment is, “they wouldn’t like what I have to say.”
Charlotte had something to say about that, too:
“You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I like you. After all, what’s life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die.”
Not prematurely by the bristles of my wife’s broom I hope.