Friday, March 22, 2013

Fear, Fascination and the Holy

One day over the summer I went up to the roof of our apartment building to water my wife's tomatoes. A pair of abandoned vodka bottles drew my attention, and then my eye latched onto a familiar object suspended in the air between them: a neat vertical stack of mottled grey wadding, about the size of a lollipop stick. It was the smallest trashline, and the smallest Trashline Orb Weaver, I'd ever seen.

Trashline Orb Weavers are so called because of their ingenious method of camouflage. They bundle up their trash, i.e. insect remains, into packets of webbing, and arrange it into a vertical line running through the center of their web. Then they fit themselves neatly into a gap in the line. Without scrutinizing the line, it's impossible to tell what's trash and what's spider.

But the camouflage extends beyond preparation and coloration. If a Trashline Orb Weaver is disturbed by, say, an experimental puff of air from my lips, one of two things happens: it drops off its web; or it shakes the web vigorously. In the latter case, the trashline becomes a frenetic grey blur for several seconds. Neither I nor, presumably, a predator could possibly tell where in that blur the spider is located.

After bothering many Trashline Orb Weavers and watching their responses, I've noticed a comical aspect of the performance: the web vibrates frantically and then stops abruptly. There's no gradual dampening of motion, as one would expect from the elastic web. Clearly the spider "knows" that its camouflage works best when it's either a blur or motionless, so once its burst of energy is spent, it clenches down to resume its static strategy.

I've often wondered if evolution gave Trashline Orb Weavers such an extravagant body shape to support their web-shaking habit. To see what I mean, imagine you were trying to set up sympathetic vibrations in a rope bridge by yanking on the railing as you flexed your knees and bounced your body up and down. Now imagine if you had a big backpack sticking out behind you. You could shake the bridge harder because the pack would give you the mechanical advantage of extra potential torque. Likewise, a spider with an unusual protuberance on its opisthosoma could give its web a little more oomph. Of course, my conjecture could only be proven through painstaking research on many species of spiders to see if a correlation exists between opisthosoma shape and web-shaking behavior. I'd love to see that.

A few days after noticing the tiny trashline, I noticed another one strung between stems of a tomato plant on a stoop near the center of Larchmont. I smiled for two reasons. The first was that proud feeling of intimacy at seeing as only someone with my years of spider-hunting can see. The second was the gratification I always feel when I see a nonhuman creature exploiting the human landscape.

On August twelfth I got both feelings again. I examined a stop sign, knowing how spiders love just such a surfeit of angles and crevices, and found a cute little Salticid with fuzzy white pedipalps. Of all spiders, I find Salticidae by far the hardest not to anthropomorphize. With their huge anterior eyes drinking in the world from on high, and the fiercely attentive way they twitch their bodies and waggle their pedipalps toward me, they seem torn between pugnacious obstinacy and a curiosity that borders on rapture.

On August nineteenth my wife and I found a meadow full of Black and Yellow Argiopes in Teatown Lake Reservation. Everywhere we turned there was another seamstress, perched motionless at the center of her zig-zag stitching or devouring her wrapped prey. I say "her" because Argiope aurantia exhibits a sexual dimorphism that's extreme even for spiders; the male is so comically small in comparison to the female that it appears to be a different species.

Argiope aurantia evokes a singular fear in me. With its vivid black, white and yellow body, its grey head and its black-stubbled legs, it's one of the most arresting sights I've seen. Light seems at once to fall into it and to explode from it. It's as if some trickster god raked its talons across the obsidian surface of primal terror, and the cascading sparks fell to earth and started spinning webs.

Back around 2004 I got into a feedback loop with spiders; the more I photographed them, the more fascinating they seemed, the more I wanted to photograph them. After accumulating pictures of many species I didn't know, I went to a spider identification website. After spending an hour or two looking at pictures of spiders, I had identified most of my subjects. I had also become nauseated.

Up until that day I thought my childhood fear of spiders had diminished, leaving me free to explore my intellectual curiosity. But that's not what happened at all. My fear had not dissipated; it had sublimated. I understood then that fear and fascination are not distinct. They are intertwined. Each fuels the other, each flows into the other. Fear and fascination dance.

And here I was, eight years later, in a field full of creatures from which the young me would have turned and run mindlessly. I was more than fascinated. I was ready to commune with my fear: to feel it dance with my fascination. I'd seen videos of Argiope aurantia crawling on human hands and read that they're harmless to humans. I wanted to see if I could get one to crawl on my hand.

Well, I did try. But the specimens I encountered were as invested as most spiders in having nothing to do with humans. I brought my fingers together gently around each one, trying to scoop it into one hand, but it scrambled out from between my fingers. Its body thumped against my flesh with a brittle heaviness, reminding me of a cicada.

On September first, as Grace and I were walking along Route 73 in Keene Valley, I searched among the raspberry plants for leaves with a particular fold. After years of getting to know Enoplognatha ovata, I can quickly spot its handiwork. I didn't expect to find any so late in the year, when mating season is long past and most spiderlings have left the crèche that their mother built back in late July or early August.

After a minute or two of searching I got a pleasant surprise. I turned over a folded and web-bound set of leaves, and there was a gaggle of adolescent spiders, some of which scattered and dropped as I upended their tiny crèche. The wispy webwork inside looked old, and there weren't as many spiderlings as I'd expect from a recent hatching, so I didn't worry over having hastened their diaspora; they were ready to follow their precocious siblings into a broader world. I smiled, happy for them and for their mother, and grateful to have glimpsed one tiny bubble in the froth of life coursing through the foliage and the forest litter.

On September third I was sunbathing atop Silver Lake Mountain when I felt something crawling on my exposed skin. I looked, and was unsurprised to find yet another tiny Salticid. Now that I've trained my eye to catch the motions of arachnidae, I see them everywhere.

Salticidae are the overcaffeinated neurotics of the arachnid world. I've never had an easy time photographing them, and I only just now realized that I don't find this truly irritating. On the contrary, their twitchy, jumpy obstreperousness endears me to them. As a rule I don't anthropomorphize, because it's irrational at best and dangerous at worst. But Salticidae have such a striking constellation of anthropomorphic attributes that I make an exception in their case.

This little one was no exception. When I brought my hand close in an attempt to bring it up short, it leaped at my finger and bounced off. It was the equivalent of me attacking a blimp. Pound-for-pound, this peppercorn-sized spider was the scrappiest creature it's ever been my pleasure to meet.

A few days later we had a cold snap. My usual bittersweet autumn feelings swept in on the first gust of cool air. One morning, while walking to Aroma, my eye caught a dark blotch suspended in the air among the shrubbery along the sidewalk. It was a cross spider perched at the center of its web.

It's hard to go anywhere near a scrap of foliage in the northeast without running into Araneus diadematus. I've probably seen thousands of them. But this one was posted in a peculiar way. Its front three sets of legs were folded, but the rearmost set was extended straight back. Most adult spiders die at the onset of cold weather, so I wondered if I was seeing a final rigor.

On September eleventh I made the same mistake I make every year; I tried to escape the sadness of that day. In the midst of it, I had an encounter that seemed unrelated. I noticed a familiar tiny movement among the papers on my desk, investigated it carefully, and found a small green spider. Its coloration wasn't quite ostentatious enough to be called "emerald". It was more like polished jade.

I deposited it among the dusty cords at the back of my desk. It crawled down through the slit to the darkness beneath, as I'd intended. Only then did I realized that, in such a sterile environment, it would have no bugs to catch. It would slowly starve. I felt a tiny prick of regret for not having put it outside. But, knowing that it would've died soon anyway, I forgot about it.

The next morning I got to the office and saw two or three small clots of white fuzz suspended in the air between my chair and my desk. A frisson of gladness blossomed in me as I saw the slender line, understood that the fuzz hanging from it was cribellate webbing, and finally noticed the same little green spider from yesterday perched there! It had crawled out from under my desk and made a cast that it could never know was hopeless.

I grabbed my Iron Man pint glass and scooped it up, web and all. And as I brought it outside, I smiled almost to laughing. The gesture meant nothing. The gesture meant everything. It was absurdly profound, profoundly absurd. In its expanse of meaninglessness, meaning burgeoned.

I doubt one in ten thousand people share my fondness and fascination for spiders. Most people would have swept away web and spider in a gesture of shuddering pique. But it wasn't most people. It was me: my chair, my desk. That little green almost-jewel situated itself for the work of my transported hand.

I don't believe the spider came to me through teleologic animus. I don't believe I made a difference in the universe, or that the act conferred on my soul a measure of redemption. I don't believe my act of grace lifted a bit of the previous day's darkness, as chaff lifts toward god.

I believed such things when I was a kid. Sometime during my teens I stepped back from belief, and there I stood for decades, wanting belief but never feeling it justified. Then, in the aftermath of a dark day, I brought a tiny piece of that day outside and put it on a bush. With that act came understanding. In mere wanting, there is meaning.

Some people want to believe that God gives meaning to human affairs. Some people want to believe that the patterns they see around them are the tips of meaning protruding into the observed world. I disdain their irrationality. Then I turn around and want to believe that moments of grace can imbue my existence with meaning.

We cast about for patterns in the static, just as hopefully as that spider cast its line for prey. We train our eyes to catch glimpses of meaning, the way I've trained my eye to catch flickers of motion or folded leaves. We extract and process meaning. We cherish and horde our product. We are meaning-making machines.

Bees can calculate geometric relationships. Termites and ants can build marvels of engineering and thermodynamics. Aphids have adapted their waxy excretions to a panoply of uses. Howe and Cornwallis were avoiding open engagement with the Continental Army in 1776. It could have been bees, ants or aphids that most caught the eye of my intellect. It could have been George Washington or Jesus, language or science, music or math, code or poetry. My lapel could have sported any blossom from the summer meadow of the mind.

Spiders terrify me. Spiders fascinate me. So I picked spiders.

I've long suspected that, in the words of J. Michael Straczynski, "We are the universe made manifest, trying to figure itself out." Now I more than suspect. I see the way we cast about for meaning. I see how fear and fascination are bound to faith, and how they inform the holy.

The universe behaves like a meaning engine, and we its hungry eyes.

No comments: