The Webs We Weave

Wilbur the Pig was being fattened up for Farmer Zuckerman’s Christmas dinner when a spider named Charlotte comes to his rescue. In E.B. White’s classic children’s story, Charlotte’s Web, the spider spells out the words SOME PIG in her web near Wilbur’s sty in the barn. As might be expected, this causes a bit of a stir among people in the neighborhood, who had never heard of a literate spider. Dr. Dorian, the local physician, is asked for his opinion of this remarkable occurrence. "I don't understand it,” he says. “But for that matter I don't understand how a spider learned to spin a web in the first place. When the words appeared, everyone said they were a miracle. But nobody pointed out that the web itself is a miracle."

John Donne pointed out long ago there is nothing done in the everyday course of nature that would not appear miraculous if it were only done once. We overlook little miracles like spider webs because we encounter them all the time. We never stop to ask how a tiny creature with a brain the size of a poppy seed can weave intricate geometric patterns with silk threads pulled from its own body. A spider’s nervous system is little more than a bundle of hard-wired reflexes, seemingly incapable of planning, trial-and-error learning or goal-oriented behavior. Spiders employ as many as seven different kinds of silk to fashion their webs, some stronger than steel and far more flexible, as well as those sticky filaments used to trap their prey. Although most arachnid species have eight eyes, they are nearly blind, so they must undertake these marvels of structural engineering by feel rather than by sight. Spiders can tell from vibrations in the web whether an insect or a leaf has fallen into their clutches. They can even distinguish between insect prey or dangerous predators like wasps.

As impressive as it was that Charlotte could weave words into her web, Dr. Dorian was surely onto something when he said he didn’t understand how a spider learned to spin a web in the first place. We usually mark it down to instinct, which just means that real-life Charlottes don’t work off a blueprint or an instruction manual. To my mind, this just makes it all the more inexplicable that these myopic little creatures with a brain the size of a poppy seed can weave their silky wonders in three-dimensional space. Unlike Charlotte, they can’t talk, so they can’t tell us how they do it. But if they could explain themselves, I suspect they would have no more patience for such questions than if we were asked how we managed to tie our shoelaces.

Humans, of course, are capable of learning how to tie their shoes rather than having to rely on instinct. They have big brains that would enable them to spell out messages in a spider web, assuming that they knew how to spin a spider web in the first place. And yet, when you come right down to it, we don’t know where the words come from any more than spiders can tell you where the silk strands come from that they use to spin their webs. To say we think up the words doesn’t really tell us very much. The words pop into our heads but we don’t really know where they come from. We use them to spin our yarns and then tell ourselves we are the authors.

All creative people are adept at making something from nothing, and if they have any insight at all into the creative process, they will acknowledge that they don’t really know where any of it comes from. “The artist still has the feeling that moving his pencil over the paper is a kind of magic art,” wrote M.C. Escher, whose carefully crafted woodcuts and lithographs were as intricate as any spider web. “It is not he who determines his shapes; it seems rather that the stupid flat shape at which he painstakingly toils has its own will (or lack of will), that it is this shape which decides or hinders the movement of the drawing hand, as though the artist were a spiritualist medium.” In my experience, however, the times I have a firm sense of channeling some higher source are rare. More often I am like a spider performing his high-wire act, groping my way blindly along a slender strand spun from within myself.

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