Tales of a Recovered Arachnophobe
Connecting with Gwen Heistand, Spider Expert
by Paul Epstein on October 23, 2013
Gwen Heistand hasn’t always loved spiders: In fact, she used to be deathly afraid of them! As resident biologist at Audubon Canyon Ranch’s Martin Griffin Preserve on Bolinas Lagoon, Gwen now helps people overcome their own fears of these creepy-crawlies and replace it with a sense of wonder. She’ll be giving a talk on the subject next Monday evening at the Albany Community Center.
BN: Are you a Bay Area native?
Heistand: No. I grew up all over the Northeast. In my twenties I was a founding member of a Boston theater company – the Theater of the Blue Rose – which we moved to Berkeley in 1981. We supported it ourselves, so we all had regular jobs, too. I worked in the business world, first in banking and then in computer support. Eventually I became the director of business planning and quality for American President Lines.
BN: How did you transition from theater and the corporate world to biology?
Heistand: I decided to leave the corporate world in 1995. The first thing I did was study environmental science for a few months at the College of Marin and it had a great impact on me; that’s when I decided on a career teaching about the environment. I looked at graduate schools where there was a singular focus on environmental science. At UC Santa Barbara, they had just started the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, so that’s where I decided to go. I earned my Master’s there in 1998.
BN: How did you come to work with Audubon Canyon Ranch?
Heistand: When I left Santa Barbara, I moved back to the Bay Area and lived with my soon-to-be-husband. I started out teaching classes in the Life and Earth Sciences department at the College of Marin but I decided that I really wanted to work with kids. So I started volunteering at the Audubon Canyon Ranch and when the biologist position there opened up in 2002, they invited me to apply.
BN: Your main focus is marine biology. So how did you become known as the teller of spider tales?
Heistand: Nowadays, I really love everything that is creepy and crawly and small and invertebrate. One of the labs that I taught at College of Marin focused on spiders.
But I started out being terrified of them. When I was little my mom would take me to the Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC to see spiders and I would get cold sweats and become panicky. In the summer I couldn’t go to sleep because I could hear the sound of bugs on the window screen. I had to sleep in an interior room, where I wouldn’t hear or think about bugs.
BN: How did you get over it?
Heistand: By learning about them. I had some really great teachers at the College of Marin, like Joe Mueller, who made me hold a tarantula in a field class in the Sierra Nevada.
BN: What’s so special about spiders?
Heistand: There’s so much! I think spider silk is pretty incredible – its tensile strength, the fact that there are multiple kinds of silk, that it’s produced as a liquid protein, and that tension solidifies it, the fact that humans are still trying to replicate it. Spiders use it to wrap eggs, they use it for draglines, they use it to send out pheromone signals, they use it to trap prey.
BN: Do you think you’ve been able to change other people’s attitudes towards spiders as well?
Heistand: I think many people have an innate fear of spiders. There are venomous spiders, though we don’t have any super-dangerous ones where we live. I’ve gotten people to realize that humans are large and our skin is relatively tough. They also realize that when you see a spider it’s not going to run after you; in fact, it’s more likely to run away from you. And I‘ve shown people the wonderful ways that spiders mate and live and make webs.
Sometimes I get emails from people after they’ve attended my classes, thanking me and telling me they no longer kill spiders around the house.
BN: What’s your favorite outdoor destination in the Bay Area?
Heistand: Oh man… it depends on the day and the weather. I spend a ton of time at Point Reyes National Seashore. Early mornings in the fall I like to kayak out to Tomales Bay. And every Sunday from May to November my husband and I hike to Bass Lake from the Palomarin trailhead.
BN: Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Heistand: I encourage everyone to come out to the Martin Griffin Preserve, where I live and work. You can see 60 species of waterbirds along Bolinas Lagoon, along with resident harbor seals, and lots of other wildlife.
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>> Gwen will be presenting a free post-Halloween talk on her up-and-down relationship with spiders, “Tales of a Recovered Arachnophobe”, on November 4th from 7-9 PM at the Albany Community Center. It’s part of Friends of Five Creeks’ Bay Currents talk series.
>> Martin Griffin Preserve offers a 23-week docent training in natural history. A similar program is offered at Bouverie Preserve near Glen Ellen in Sonoma. For more information, visit the Audubon Canyon Ranch website.