Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Another reason to admire spiders

I was weed-whacking the other day when a flurry of activity in the grass caught my attention--something fleeing the carnage! A mouse? A snake? No: just a spider.

And what a spider! I've seen spiders that size in nightmares and behind glass at the zoo; if I saw one like that inside my house, I'd be frantically trying to smash it while dreading the thought of that big globular body going splat.

Outside, though, I was happy to let the spider scurry away. I can live happily with spiders and snakes and other creepy-crawlies as long as they respect my boundaries.

I admire the artistry of spiders' webs and the myriad ways they've developed to feed themselves--and now I've just read about another reason to admire them. An article on The Atlantic's website (click here) introduces a spider species that traps insects by sucking waxy substances from the insect's own body until "The victim literally becomes a part of the web, inadvertently strengthening the instrument of its own capture." 


This week I'm memorizing Walt Whitman's poem "A Noiseless Patient Spider,"  wherein Whitman marvels as the isolated spider launches forth "filament, filament, filament, out of itself, / Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them." Whitman transforms the spider's effortless striving into a metaphor for the work of his own soul: "Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them, / Till the bridge you will need be form'd, till the ductile anchor hold, / Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, oh my soul."

It's a striking image and an admirable goal: would that we would all send forth filaments into the world until we connect with something that can feed our hungers. This is Whitman's modus operandi: marvel at something in the natural world because it mirrors some admirable quality in himself, praise the horses that seem so majestic because they bring him "tokens" of himself. And it's not just Whitman: much nineteenth-century poetry utilizes elements of nature didactically, to provide lessons for human behavior.

But spiders don't have to be transformed into metaphors to be admired. Their webs are wonders of delicate beauty linked with strength, which the spiders create entirely by instinct, lacking any aesthetic sense. And as the Atlantic article reminds us, they do far more amazing things that we'll never see--unless we have access to an electron microscope.

I don't know anything about the spider that fled my weed-whacker except that it was huge and it was moving really quickly to avoid destruction. How does it feed and reproduce? Does it build an aerial web or burrow underground? It's a mystery. All I know is that it survives, despite my powerfully disturbing its environment.     

I could have stomped him right there, but I was happy to let the spider go on its noiseless, patient way--as long as it stays out of my house.  

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