Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Spiders in the mist

We had a stretch of unusually warm weather recently. This generally meant foggy mornings as I walked to college at dawn. And foggy mornings meant spider webs were relieved of their invisibility by beads of dew. "What refinement of art for a mess of Flies! Nowhere, in the whole animal kingdom, has the need to eat inspired a more cunning industry," wrote Jean Henri Fabre in The Life of the Spider. He should know. He spent a good part of his life attending to spiders. Fabre made himself the Homer of insects and arachnids, observing their habits with an unfailing enthusiasm.

On these misty mornings I might say with Fabre:
I do not, thank God, suffer from the melancholy of a cellar: my solitude is gay with light and verdure; I attend, whenever I please, the fields' high festival, the Thrushes' concert, the Cricket's symphony; and yet my friendly commerce with the Spider is marked by an even greater devotion.
I quote from Fabre's The Wonders of Instinct. Wonders, indeed. Each species with its own cunning architecture, inborn. Calatrava in the egg! It's been exactly a century since The Life of the Spider was published in English, and the mysteries of instinct continue to baffle and intrigue. In a sense, they are even more mysterious now that we have learned to read the language of the DNA. Not Calatrava in the egg, but Calatrava in the double helix.

Science is the royal road to humility, Fabre might have said. Maurice Maeterlinck, that other bard of the fields, drew just that conclusion in his Preface to Fabre's The Life of the Spider: "To know how not to know might well be the last word of wisdom."