Sometimes in the morning… especially early and in the middle of a clearing fog, I can catch these spider webs, heavy with dew, just as the sun is beginning to shine. This first picture caused me to wonder about how the spider did it, I mean, look at these two blades of grass. How did the spider get that web to stretch from one blade of grass to the other?
So I looked it up. The first thing a spider does is emit a filament from her body. And then she waits for the smallest breeze or for ambient electrostatic forces to attach it to something far away, and then she can begin. I like that piece of information. I like it very much - to know that the whole master plan for a spider, the basis of her survival, begins with something out of her control.
This first step she takes would be sad if after she took it, nothing ever happened. I mean, if she sat there waiting with no chance for a web at all. She needs a new web every day. She has to proceed as follows: First, she has to eat her old web. She actually has to eat it and sit there for an hour while it digests into new material. Then she has to drop her line. Then she has to wait until the line attaches to something, and until it does, there is nothing she can do.
But good for her because that line almost always attaches, and when it does she pulls more filament out of her body. She makes up to twenty kinds, according to all the different uses. She makes strong lines, sticky lines and so on. And while she is working, she uses her body to get the right spacing, and she looks like a cross between a trapeze artist and a ninja warrior, scooting and stretching and turning, all her legs moving at the same time, all doing different things. That’s how she makes the radial lines and then the cross lines, widely spaced, and then sometimes she goes back to busily fill them in. And then when she’s done, she has a fresh new web, all perfect and nice, just in time for the morning.
Which makes me think that cleaning my attic and packing my boxes might not be that much trouble. It also makes me wonder how she does it. I have been thinking about this for several weeks now, sitting on this question. Let’s start with dropping the line. Let’s say she does it by instinct. (Which we love to say about animals, especially when they do things that we cannot, in our wildest dreams, ever, ever do.) But let’s say that it’s instinct anyway, and now that we’ve said it, what does that mean? Let’s say that our spider has some internal software, perfectly matched to her needs. Maybe it runs her life for her, and she doesn’t have to think about it. Maybe she just builds her web because that’s what spiders do.
But what if it’s more than that? Did you know for example, that a spider can read the vibrations in her web and decide if what’s caught there is predator or prey? In fact, she has to do so. She has to interpret the data. She has to act according to what it means. So let’s say she has thoughts and feelings, intentions and needs. Let's say she carries all of those things, just like we do, in her tiny little mind. Let’s say that when she drops that line and waits for the connection, she has a plan, a rational plan. Imagine that, a spider constructing along with her web, her dreams of a possible future, a future of mothy snacks and subsequent babies. In the words of my four-year old grandson, “How is that even possible?”
At least we can see that she is not alone in her project. Because something comes along and connects that filament for her. So maybe she doesn’t know the whole thing from the beginning. Maybe she only knows what she wants to do right now. So she takes a step and then life comes to meet her, and then she takes another step, and life comes to meet her again. And if that’s how it happens, then she is not so different than I am. Do I breathe, or beat my heart, or digest my food, or heal my bones by myself, with nothing to help me or carry me along? I do not. Or when I go out to take my pictures, do I know what I will find?
Or when I’m working on a question and I don’t know the answer, and then I suddenly do, where did that answer come from? Or when I'm working on a project when the way feels messy and foolish and I work it and work it, and it gradually comes clear? Or when it doesn't come clear and I go on to something else and then I look back, even years later. And that's when I find out that all that work made the way for something else to unfold - something with an eventual purpose and meaning that I couldn't have imagined. Say what you want about our big, giant brains and our supposed superiority. When a truly creative thing has ever happened in my life, can I say I know where that creation came from, exactly how it happened? No, I cannot.
So when the line connects (and I realize now that she must have made it sticky at the bottom, because of this expectation, and maybe she has to wait for it to dry and maybe she has to test it), she springs right back into action, using her whole body and everything she knows, no matter how she knows it. She works in the night, completing an architectural wonder, just in time to catch the dew and the light. Which by the way, is beautiful, beautiful for no functional reason related to us or even to spiders. In fact, from the point of view of the spider, the thing works best if it’s never even seen.
I just think that it’s pretty wonderful, staggering in fact.
I saved a moth last summer, when I was up in Nova Scotia, released it from the web just when was the spider was zooming toward it, ready to chew its head off. I really couldn’t stand to watch or at least I thought I couldn’t stand it. Now I feel guilty, because of the prime directive and all. I interfered with the magnificent processes of nature because of let’s say, my limited point of view. And so I made a mistake, I really think so, but in spite of that, Nova Scotia is fine and the world continues to turn.
I’d rather keep on wondering, both about myself and about spiders. I’d rather not think I know. Because thinking I know is a way to shut my eyes when I’d like to keep them open. At this point I would like to provisionally say what I think I have learned about spiders – that their lives are hunger driven, hope driven, life driven, moth driven, help driven, contained in a day, awesome in tiny things and big things, something like a symphony where everything fits and breathes and sings and cries out together. And also too terrible and beautiful for words.
I’d like to know how to work inside of a day like she does, how to live in a natural way, how to put out my lines, how to work and wait and work again, according to my species, how to dare to make something beautiful. I think I can do that the same way that she does, by knowing that I’m not alone, by being true to my nature, and by doing the next one thing I can do.