Wednesday, June 06, 2012


M. moved her chair on the porch in the morning. By early afternoon a spider had attached the chair to the wall and spun its web. I watched the finishing touches, such as they were, and applauded the spider's work. All over the porch, and in the shrubs beyond, others of its species had built similar snares, employing the same technology. There was just enough humidity in the air to make their labors visible.

Jean-Henri Fabre, the late-19th-century French entomologist, in hisThe Life of the Spider writes of the web-spinners: "There are no masters nor apprentices in their guild; all know their craft from the moment that the first thread is laid."

And nothing can be more wonderful than that.

Each species of spider is born knowing its craft -- in the case of the orb-spinners, how to fling the frame, lay the radials, wind the spiral. The spider's architectural skill is programmed in its DNA, in the same "four-letter" code used by all of earthly life to achieve its wondrous variety. How is that possible? I have no idea, but it is manifestly true.

Fabre, of course, knew nothing of DNA, and so he was as much in the dark as we are. "What refinement of art for a mess of flies!" he exulted. "Nowhere in the whole animal kingdom has the need to eat inspired a more cunning industry."

And I would say that in spite of all we have learned in the almost century since Fabre's death the mystery of the spider's cunning is unresolved. If anything, it has been deepened.

Sometimes I wonder about all those folks who go chasing after astrologers, spoon-benders, mind-readers, UFOs, faith-healers, ghost-hunters, weeping statues, and images of Jesus on the damp walls of churches, seeking the miraculous, when the greatest wonders of all are right there, tucked behind the chair, in the corner of the porch.