Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Spider House


"Spider", from the Middle English "spithre", pronounced as "spy-thur", perhaps, it could not be "spi-thur" or "spi-thruh" or "spi-threh" or "spy-threh" or some French derivative, falling in turn from the Old English "spinnan", which means "to spin". The spider is a weaver of webs, determined by function. Terms came to Middle English texts commonly from Middle French sources, which were, in their turn, borrowings from Latin. The latin sources, etymologically, for the word "spin" are "sponte", which means to do something voluntarily, and "pendere", to weigh. In the task of spinning there is the act of drawing forth the thread, measuring it, weighing it with the eye, cutting it. The literal definition of spin is to "draw out and twist fiber into yarn or thread". Here we have the combination of the Creative act, the "drawing out" from something inchoate, unconfined, chaotic, formless, into something linear, planned, impressed upon by a Will, and the Craft of "twisting", i.e. impressing form upon matter through deliberate design, long usage, skill, or habit. The creation of patterns. "Arachnid" is of course a derivative of the Greek "arachne", who was a legendary weaver in the famous myth, and the term itself means "spider" in that language. The class arachnida comprises "mostly air-breathing invertebrates, including the spiders and scorpions, mites, and ticks, having a segmented body divided into two regions of which the anterior bears four pairs of legs but no antennae." A spider is defined as "any of an order [Araneida] of arachnids having a body with two main divisions, four pairs of walking legs, and two or more pairs of abdominal spinnerets for spinning threads of silk used in making cocoons for their eggs, nests for themselves, or webs to catch prey." Spiders are not insects. [1]


When I first moved into the house where I now live [and which I will be leaving soon] the room that I occupied was filled with cobwebs, old discarded drifts of webbing, used egg sacs, draglines, functioning webs, and in each corner of the ceiling, a resident spider. I did not know their particular breeds. The room was used as a sort of storage closet or utility space where old boxes, books, bedding, towels, fabric, clothes, etc. was kept until needed and because of that the room was relatively untroubled by any human presence and provided the spiders who lived in it many places to hide or builds their nests in. The window in this room, because the frame and the window sash itself are made from cheap wood, has been warped by the humidity [this house is in a forest, and it rains here often] to the point where small cracks and spaces were created in the seal which closed off the house from the outside. Thus insects entered frequently and these are what the spiders fed upon. When I entered this room for the first time it positively crawled with insects of many different types, including termites [which appear to be, in this rich, moist, fertile environment full of wood rot, almost the size of mature maggots, or a cross between fire ants and maggots], flies, mosquitoes, mosquito hawks, gnats, ants, etc. There are also many silverfish, and in my bathroom there is a minor silverfish community which I have seen pass through many generations at this point. In this bathroom there are three spiders nests as well that have seen at least two generations of occupants - as these nests and circuits or grouped webs are placed just over the points where the silverfish usually appear at night from beneath the floor molding/wainscoting. Once again, because of the humidity here [this house sits in a sort of depression right in the middle of the drainage path of the property, and because of the high overarching trees overhead it is almost always in shadow] all of the wood inside the house has been warped, altered, bent, or otherwise changed from its original form. Nothing in this house which is made of wood retained its original shape, all of it has been twisted or distorted by the amount of moisture in the air. This means that there are no close or complete seals anywhere, and at the microscopic level of insects there are myriad lacunae in which to hide, feed, and prosper. I could never estimate the number of insects which use this house as a home, shelter, residence, or important location in their reproductive life cycle, etc. but it must be in the thousands...this house veritably supports an entire community or small civilization of insects, and as they live, breed, breathe, feed, expand, make war, and die they are slowly but surely opening this house up further and further to the elements.

The forest is reclaiming it.

This is only proper, as one can feel as soon as one enters it that this house is a sort of "civilized" sore or blight in the forest landscape, an unwanted and unwarranted colony of human infestation that the forest is encroaching upon with persuasive and seductive [oh so slow] python constriction - the woods are taking back what is theirs. For a year I have watched this process and have been forced [against my will] to fight it at times. Other men give me money to fight off the forest, to prune it, order it, trim back its excessive, exuberant growth, to make sure it is bound by human conventions of "cleanliness" [next to Godliness] and organization. I do this not only because I need the money...but because I watch the forest take back almost immediately what I have taken from it, reproducing its own bulk, material, and reproductive wealth from an inner resource that seems to only prosper and wax larger as I reap from it. What impact or "hurt" am I really creating? When I cut back the forest it grows faster and becomes more "wild" than ever, my efforts to "tame" it and "civilize" it only inject more chaos into it, and my [human] view of order disrupts an internal mechanism in the forest that allowed it to maintain its own order, irrespective of my aesthetic sense. I enter the forest, make an impression [supposedly] upon it, and the forest vigorously swallows my efforts, learns from them, and then encloses again upon everything I have done. In literal terms, not literary: the impact I made upon the forest changed the homeostasis or balance it had evolved between living and dying organisms, and as I cleared new ground, cut back or pruned diseased trees, weeded the ground, swept up the leaves that covered the forest floor, emblazoned new paths in the landscape, etc. all I was really doing was opening up that space for the healthy organisms on the land to take over territory that they could not reach because of the presence of death. I cleared the corpses, and allowed new life to breathe freely. This winter, of course, all of the new life that I allowed to blossom here will die in turn. That is the cycle.

I have also noticed that the immense effort that I put into clearing the land in the spring or the summer is mocked openly by the power of Winter to alter the shape and presence of fauna. What I can accomplish in months of active, tireless duty the winter winds enact in a few night of bitter frost. The paths and form that I gave this landscape in the Spring - which was, after all, only a human arrangement or "order" of dead organisms, a human impression of civilization enforced upon death - will not appear again until the middle of the Winter, when everything dies. As the grass dies, as the leaves fall, as the plants that litter the forest floor in such abundance right now are wilted, frozen, and falter, the footsteps that I took last year through that landscape will once again be visible. Right now the "human" has disappeared beneath the overwhelming fecundity of an unbridled Nature, beneath a "life" that is alien to human processes of law and regulation. All of that will change...with death the "human" order will appear once again.

However...I have also learned that all notions of order, chaos, etc. are only human/historical constructions and they do not actually apply, in terms of accessible "meaning", to what happens in Nature or complete experience. I draw certain lessons from Nature in order to bring myself to philosophical or literary points, in order to "create" meaning, but both the interpretations I place upon my experience of Nature and "Nature" in itself are just artificial creations filtered through my limited sensory awareness and poor understanding. The truth is that...humans, on the whole, still know relatively little about the world that surrounds us, and every "lesson" [whether moral or otherwise] we seem to draw/take away from the workings of Nature's elements is effortlessly collapsed and seen as inapplicable as our efforts to catalog our experience of the "nature" of reality continues. "Nature" is, of course, just a convention for literary or rhetorical effect. The vision of the internal and external processes, the obvious workings and "subtle" mechanisms or forces that "control" our experience of Nature are constantly changing as the instrument we use to view Nature - our understanding - is refined and brought further into alignment which what actually happens in experience, not what we interpret based on obsolete models...and in our constant struggle to understand and gain a clearer picture of reality, of nature and our experience, every new model of the universe is rendered obsolete as soon as it is completed.

This has of course led many to wonder if "completion" is, in itself, an archaic concept. The basic driving force of the universe seems to be a constant, unceasing changing of forms - something that is very, very difficult [if not impossible] for humans to understand, or even adequately frame in meaningful figures and think about. We need archetypes, concrete forms, abstractions, metaphors, limits, boundaries, rules, laws, categories.

Or do we, in actuality? Do we all need these things?

The spiders in my room either entered by the holes in the window frame [which I soon plugged up, caulked, or reduced] or came down from the attic, which is just open to the elements because it has a normal exhaust/heat vent in one of its walls like most houses. In the attic there are spiders that I have not seen in the house/living space, they seem to live out their entire lives in the darkness of that close, confined, very hot [in the summer] or very cold [in the winter] distant realm. In fact the spider civilizations in this house seem to definitely be split along the lines of located species: some species of spiders seem to be able to live in the house proper [the smallest breeds who can survive on the insects that escape my every day notice], some only in the attic [the larger, darker, more potent forms] and some only live in the crawlspace beneath the house, which is listed in the house records or deed as a "basement" but it is only a rough, dirt-paved, brick-enclosed space used for storing boxes and which allows one access to the plumbing and air-conditioning systems. This crawlspace is a completely different environment, for example, than the world of the attic, even though both are enclosed within the location or property of this the insect level, as I was mentioning before, in those small worlds that we tread through like impotent gods, galaxies walking past, one environment for us can house dozens of environments for different insects or animals. As one goes down the ladder of scale [and presumably evolution, although I would question that] the number of animal environments enclosed within a single space increases, as does the fragile nature of their holding power or permanence. This room, in itself, is an insect world. Matters of scale and our poor limited senses/vision hide the complete world from us, and disguise our place in the chain of living organisms, the interconnected web of living beings both inside and outside of us. This can not be said for the smaller animals that surround me. They are all aware of my existence, and I have dealt with them on a personal level many times. The spiders that live outside the front door, for example, always know when I am approaching - or when I am watching them. They are open to sensory input that completely escapes my blunted, numb faculties. The spiders [there are three of them, like I mentioned before] that live in my bathroom have split their days, no doubt, into periods that are determined by the presence or absence of light when I turn on the overhead bulb in order to use the room or take a shower, wash my hands, etc. If measured over a long duration I'm sure that those periods of light and dark, for them, appear just as steady and "reliable" as the sunrise and sunset do for humans. And when I finally go to sleep at night, having used the bathroom for the last time to brush my teeth, those spiders know they can look forward to seven uninterrupted hours of sweet, cool darkness, when the foolish silverfish that lurk beneath the linoleum come forth and are harvested.

I formed a rather close relationship with a female spider earlier this year, a dominant mother who built a thickly-layered white maze of a nesting web right beneath the lamp by the front door. This was an ideal situation for a number of reasons: it was out of the elements somewhat, being sheltered beneath the roof overhang, protecting it from the wind and rain, and placing it out of the direct sunshine [which only appears for a few minutes every day at sunset], it was beneath a light which is often turned on at night, attracting mosquitoes, gnats, moths, and other flying insects - which were then caught in the web - and it is right in front of the foyer window, which - when the front porch light is not on - still attracts insects because of the internal house light exiting that way. This mother spider, having placed her web in such an advantageous [one could say intelligent] location, quickly grew to reproducing size and bred an entire generation of baby spiders whom she enclosed within silky yellow eggs sacs, and who I watched hatch and make their way into the wide world. She was a master of the art of killing, and I watched, fascinated, many times as she reduced insects many times her own weight and size to shrouded mummies which became storehouses of liquid nutrition to enable her to sleep in relative peace. I admired her, I will not hide that fact. I admire most web-spinning spiders, the way they live their lives. To our apprehension or understanding they seem to be idle creatures, engaged mainly in dreaming, but if one had encountered them after a rain storm, for example, when they are busy assembling their wind-torn webs again seemingly out of the dew of the air, or in the act of killing, paralyzing, and feeding, one will have experienced the immense rapidity of choice, decision-making, and the scintillating, ruthlessly efficient instincts which they can display.

Crouched at the center of her web, hanging upside down, inverted, and seemingly asleep day after day, this mother spider waited patiently for her prey to become ensnared in her beautiful web. She conserved energy with the wisdom of creatures who know the pain of starvation - a pain that has been bred into the animal world through millions of years of incalculably brutal [in our human judgement], resourceful evolution. I often wondered what she was dreaming about, or what level of consciousness she was harboring her Will inside - what did she think, if anything? What did she feel, day after day? What did she notice of what happened around her? Was her web her entire world? How did she see her babies, growing swiftly inside her egg sac? Did they make sounds, could she hear them or notice the tiny vibrations they made through the web? Often I would pluck one of her web's outreaching strands - one of the silk girders that anchored it close to the window - with a trembling finger and yet she never responded. Did she know, somehow, that it was a human that was doing this, and not an insect? How much of me could she feel, or notice, or see? Did she understand, really, what a human being was? Did insects make certain patterns of vibrations when they were caught in her web that I could never replicate? I would catch moths and toss them, after squeezing them to rupture their bodies internally and quiet their harried motions, into her web, and she would immediately run to these offerings, twirl them through ropes of milky webbing, fresh silk drying in the cool air, until they were imprisoned in iron chains...still struggling, still alive, still bound to consciousness. When she fed from their bloated bodies she seemed to be whispering secrets to them...

I did not do this in order to make her my "pet", or to create some new kind of relationship between us of dependence. It was simply an experiment. I like watching the process of life and death enact itself, or be repeated in the animal world. I am very curious about the ways in which animals die, and then are used to feed other animals and create new life. I am fascinated by the way in which Nature does not waste matter, and recycles Her own products, her own constructions.

I am convinced that this mother spider died because of some kind of internal disease, perhaps a bacterial parasite. One morning I noticed that there was a brownish-red drop of fluid on her abdomen, almost as if she was bleeding, or as if she had been struck, or bit, or pierced by another creature. Over the course of that day she seemed to weaken, and to be losing her grip on her web. Her arms relaxed and stretched out, then slipped free, and as I was watching she fell all the way to the ground - out of her web, out of her entire world. Her babies, having already left some time before [and who were now in direct competition with her for resources] were nowhere to be seen. I was literally the only creature [that I could view, in any case] who witnessed and mourned her passing.

And yet did I really mourn?

U. Amtey
18 October 2003
17:56 EST