Twenty miles west of Richmond, out near Flat Rock in Powhatan County, spider country begins at the end of a muddy driveway. In a house hidden qway in the pines and cedars are 30,000 of the crawly creatures an arachnophobe's nightmare were not the orb weavers and wolf spiders, the brown recluses and black widows, all bound safely on film. All but Linda, the tarantula in the upstairs bathroom.
Ann Moreton, creator of this smother of spiders, is an animated, golden-haired southerner of 71. She marches into her kitchen, right past the 6-by-4-foot color close-up of a crab spider consuming a fly, predator and prey nestled sweetly in a yellow blossom. From the freezer, Moreton pulls out a bottled prize from Costa Rica, an enormous blue-black wasp called a tarantula hawk.
"I caught it right on a city street. Saw it flying along, threww my hat over it and knocked it down to the sidewalk." She pours coffee and parks herself beside a warming fireplace.
This photographer, writer, lecturer, founder of the National Arachnid Society and of the world's only spider museum, came late to her passion for eitht-legged life. Before one morning 18 years ago when Moreton took to the road in her blue Dodge motor home a web painted on the side she "killed every spider I saw." Since then, she has set out to polish the public image of the sometimes furry beasts we love to loathe.
But before that morning when Moreton set out to photograph the world of spiders, she stepped out from her kitchen to photograph a web. She had first picked up a camera a few years earlier, back in Ocean Springs, Miss., after her husband died. What with the portraits of children and the birthday parties she had shot for experience, Moreton had become a fair photographer. So when the web developed into a poor picture, she was annoyed.
She drove north to Washington and spent two weeks in the Library of Congress reading all she could find on spiders. "I was chaarged to the hilt," she recalls. Next, she dropped by the National Geographic Society for a few tips on close up photography, and then moved back to Mississippi to devote a year to perfecting her techniques. One hurdle remained.
"I came from a large family, and I married into a large family," she says. "I didn't know if I had the ability to live by myself. You know, just say 'good morning' to people and then take care of yourself the rest of the day." She sought her answer about isolation in the Everglades, and after two weeks photographing spiders there, as Christmas rolled around, "I didn't want to go home."
Moreton spent the next five years on the road, chasing spiders in 50 states. In time, her photographs were published in encyclopedias and placed on the walls of New York's American Museum of Natural History and Washington's Smithsonian Institution. Now, she says, "I wouldn't trade my life for anyone's life in the world."
Fondness for spiders seems a curious thing. The black widow, the worst of the breed, has venom more deadly than a cobra's, 15 times as potent as a rattlesnake's. Fortunately, the spider's tiny glands yield only an average 0.060 milligram of poison still enough to cause paroxysmal pain and, in exceptional cases, temporary madness in a human victim. Deaths, though rare, have been associated with black widow and brown recluse bites. On the other hand, black widows eat Japanese beetles. Out in the garden, you lose a little, you win a little.
Some of our distaste for the black widow may spring from the female's reputation for cannibalizing her mate. Not true, or at least usually not true, say spider experts. For many male spiders, the act of love is also the end of the line. It brings on a case of fatal fatigue, according to Herbert Levi, arachnologist at Harvard University. "What good is a male after mating?" he asks.
Because female spiders are usually heftier than males, and are almost always hungry, courtship can be dicey. Precautions are taken. Male crab spiders practice a form of bondage. They tenderly tie down one of the female's legs with silk before mating. Male nursery-web spiders come courting with a gift, a fly wrapped in silk.
Attercop poison head was the old Anglo Saxon name for a spider. But consider the spider's skin, "so soft, smooth, polished and neat, that she precedes the softest skin'd Mayds," wrote Dr. Thomas Muffet, in his Theater of Insects, published in London in 1634. Some arachnologists suggest that the doctor's daughter, Patience, was the model for the Miss Muffet who sat on a tuffet.
Or consider the spider's voice: Some kinds bark, some whistle, some purr by beating on dead leaves. Or the spider's wanderlust: Five miles above the surface Earth, the Department of Argiculture has netted spiders dangling from free-floating strands of silk. Darwin watched airborne spiders drift onto a ship 60 miles off the Australian coast. Or the spider's abundance: A Bristish scientist once calculated that 2,250,000 spiders can inhabit an acre of grass in late summer.
Still, given spiders' generally no account reputation, Ann Moreton, from the time she first began photographing them back in Mississippi, had to contend with another kind of reputation, that of crazy lady.
"I had to prove I was not an escapee from an insane asylum," she says. "I'm still having to prove that every day. I don't know why people feel so strangely about spiders."
Nor does she understand why people think it stange that she could spare nine hours to watch the combat between a house spider and a beetle, or entertain dinner guests by calling their attention to the orb weaver that each night, for three months, emerged from the fireplace to spin 22-inch web in 45 minutes flat.
Her son and her mother told her she was mad. And she received a warning: "My minister came to see me in great alarm and said, 'Mrs. Moreton, I understand you've taken up photographing spiders. You've got to understand you'll never get married again if you continue that, because men don't like spiders.'"
Moreton pauses. "Well. I looked him right in the eye and said, 'That's a chance I'll have to take.'" Another pause, then, "And he's right." She smiles broadly.
Like the spiders she photographs, among the most solitary creatures on Earth, Moreton needed time alone to conduct her work. But in those days in Ocean Springs, life wound around luncheons with other widows. "You spend all morning getting ready, you drink too much, you eat too much, you get back at 4 and you've said a lot of things you've said a lot of things you shouldn't have." Moreton moved to Virginia to be near ailing parents, and stayed. Now, she says, "If I go to lunch with someone, it has to be useful. I think you should have a one-year plan and a five-year plan."
This year's plan includes a trip to New Guinea next month. She will take video equipment to the Wau Ecology Institute, using a small hotel there as her base from which to shoot short films on spider behavior. Moreton, whose 22-year-old granddaughter will accompany her, intends to sell the footage to public television stations.
There are about 35,000 known species of spiders in the world. Perhaps as many as 6,000 of them can be found in the United States. To build her collection of 30,000 color slides, Moreton has made many trips abroad. In Costa Rica she searched, unsuccessfully for "a cave spider that's as big as your fist and blue and blind and that lived near a waterfall."
On a trip to Peru, as part of a Smithsonian archeology study group, Moreton collected spiders at Machu Picchu and managed to unnerve her roommate at the hotel. "She go scared and spent the night in the lobby," Morton says. "I felt terrible that I chased her out of the room with all my animals."
In Bolivia, a group of Indian boys saw her sifting stones in search of spiders. Moreton speaks no Spanish. She showed the boys a photograph of a spider, emptied her film cans and passed them around. In short order, the zoology department at Harvard University was richer by about 250 South American spiders. Closer to home, in Moab, Utah, she had local lads running home for mayonnaise jars in which to help her trap spiders. "Everywhere I go I collect little boys," she says. "They're always around steams, and they always want to help me."
Not everyone wants to help. Flying to Texas to give a lecture, Moreton happened to be carrying a live tarantula inside a pint jar in her purse. In New Orleans, a flight attendant casually opened the purse, took one look and flung bag bottle and spider away far away onto a concrete floor. The spider died. "It ruptured its abdomen. All the insides came out," says Moreton, sadly.
When she collects spiders, Moreton's intention is not to take them home to Powhatan for portrait studies. All her photographs are shot in the field, with a handheld camera. "The things I see in the spider world happen too fast for me to use a tripod." She relies on a Nikon and a Hasselblad, using a ring light to overcome the problem, she says, "of eight legs and eight shadows."
She collects for science, meaning Harvard University and Herbert Levi. The university has the world's second largest spider collection, perhaps a half-million, although Levi says no one has ever talliled them up. The world's greatest collection, more than a million spiders, is at the American Museum of Natural History.
Arachnology, the study of spiders and their kin, has never been a crowded profession. Levi says there are no more than 20 or 30 professional spider scientists in the United States. With so few specialists, there is room for enthusiastic amateurs to play a helpful role. Moreton, whose highter education consists of a physical education degree from a junior college, says, "What you don't know, someone else can interpret. So don't take a chance on losing anything. Send it all to Harvard."
That is what she told members of the National Arachnid Society she founded in 1970. In lieu of dues, members send six spiders a year to Harvard. In return, they recieve the society's newletter, filled with tidbits on spider behavior, highlights from Moreton's expeditions abroad and curiosities such as "Dr. Levi has offered 'Pictures showing the results of spider bites, the facial expression in black widow victims (which is diagnostic) and also pictures of necrotic lesions.' I am delighted with this offer." The newsletters are signed "Love, Ann."
In the same spirit, Moreton opened her spider museum four years later, in an old, three-story grist mill down the hill from her house. Each morning, she rose at 5 a.m. to dust with flour the fresh webs along the nature trail that winds across her 19 acres of hills and meadows. Visitors to the museum saw Moreton's enlarged color photographs of spiders, craned their necks to admire the webs spun in the rafters and were told enough good things about spiders that, by the time they left, most had dared to stroke a tarantula. But being a museum curator prived more exhausting than Moreton had planned. "The last year I had it," she says, "I took 16,000 people in seven months." And so she quit, giving, in 1980, the world's first and only spider museum to the Richmond Mathematics and Science Center, a consortium owned by five area school systems.
Each year, more than 6,000 children and a fair number of adults crowd throught the museum, a converted classroom on a small campus of red brick buildings east of Richmond. Terrariums filled with creeping, crawling things line the shelves. There are trapdoor spiders, woIf spiders, 17 tarantulas with names like Belinda or Chessie or Harriet, and a half-dozen scorpions.
LaVonne Schurman talks to the kids, tends to the spiders ("We keep a card index on every spider in here, and on how much they eat") and says she loves the work. In her office, she keeps a 6-month-old black widow, "a beautiful thing," and takes calls from suburbanites desperate to rid their homes of the same critters.
Joseph Johnson, supervisor of the Mathematics and Science Center, often stops by the museum. He says that before he met Moreton, he was frightened of spiders. Now he is a seeker after converts, saying if he coann only persuade a person to extend a trembling hand and touch a tarantula's back, "Then I've got you!"
What educators call a hands-on experience may be the only cure for our phobias, the only way beyond what Maurice Maeterlinck called "a certain instinctive and profound uneasiness inspired by those existences incomparably better armed, better-equipped than our own, by those creatures made up of a sort of compressed energy and activity in whom we suspect our most mysterious adversariles, our ultimate rivals and, perhaps, our successors."
By the warm fireside in Powhatan, Ann Moreton smiles fondly at Linda, the leggy tarantula she brings to lectures and that she has now fetched from the upstairs bathroom. Moreton seems more than a little in awe of Linda. "That wonderful animal," she says. "The color, the form, the structure."
Moreton keeps an eye on the fragile creature. Although with luck a female tarantula may live 25 years, this is the third of Moreton's spiders to carry the name Linda. "People drop them," she says. "They're not tough. They don't have any bones."
She lifts the tarantula from a visitor's hand, and as she does so Lnda's tiny claws pluck tenderly at skin. Turning the big spider in her own hand, Moreton points out the long frangs tucked so neatly beneath Linda's head.
In old Bermuda, people picked their teeth with fangs from the tarantula. In Powhatan County, babes are learning to pet the beasts.