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Monday, September 3, 2007: Personal: Return to Beaver Island; Part Two

         It was the ugliest, most disorganized thing I’d ever seen---two overdone radial bridges forming a crude “Y”, with a few scattered silk strands filling the space between. Wasn’t every spider’s tiny neurons hardwired to build an orderly web?

        I’d been disappointed with my walk eastward on the north shore, and had almost decided to give up future walks. Yet, turning back to the west, I discovered a shoreline magically transformed. Three different sizes of tufted grass caught the last bit of daylight, their silhouettes laced with the gold of a setting sun. The tallest, their giant tufts resembling overstuffed hairy caterpillars, dipped and swayed so deeply in unison that they appeared a line of elegant and supple dancers. A section of smaller tufted grass also bobbed, moving to its own rhythmic beat, while a third---the grass tips expanded outward into delicate fireworks---quivered in the wind. Entranced, I’d knelt while trying to figure out a camera angle which might capture the magic.

        Instead, I noticed the first spider web. Looking around, I noticed scores of similar webs, all standing out now that the sun lit them from behind---all ugly and misshapen. Amazing, how these delicate structures survived at all in the rough winds of the north shore. Some were built between two stalks of grass, some built within an individual stalk and its bent-over tip. Either way, the wind whipped the grass blades until they resembled unruly horses reined in too tightly, bucking and rearing in an attempt to break free. How had these wild breasts ever been tamed by such small masters?

        I knew enough to realize the first silk thread (called a bridge strand) drifted on wind while the spider clung to its undulating stalk. Once the sticky filament caught on either the tip or another stalk, the spider would have carefully run across, anchoring a reinforcement line. I imagined in winds this strong, the initial line had been reinforced multiple times. Crawling to the next anchor point, the spider would have secured a second line, walking back up and across the bridge line to secure it midway---a “Y” that normally formed the starting point for a traditional spider web.

        Yet, something went wrong here. There were no other radial strands. These two strands had been reinforced over and over, until they formed not a one-lane bridge but a six-lane highway.

       Spiders spin their silk threads from protein; the process of spinning is a birthing process, the extrusion leaving them exhausted. The spider rests after creating and securing the radial strands. The traditional web building comes fast and easy after the resting phase. Were these spiders condemned to keep reinforcing and reinforcing until too exhausted to build the tacky spiral strands? Would the occasional scraggly adhesive filaments still evident be enough to catch sustenance?

       Once my surprise abated, I discovered a reaction of glee and delight each time my eye fell on another misshapen web. A hope arose that, rather than being driven by tradition, rather than be a slave to hardwired expectations, these spiders took a practical approach, choosing to hold their world together despite the toughest of weather conditions---looks be damned.

        I'd just recently been discussing the regrets of motherhood with a friend. Despite putting my own life on hold, spending more time with my kids than many two-parent families, I had never done all the things I hoped to do with them, never shared all I thought I could share. I'd never lived up the the ideals of motherhood first birthed when I looked into newborn eyes. As a single parent, there had not always been the time, money or energy to do it all.  I'd wanted to spin the perfect web of motherhood and wrap it about them; instead, I'd had to be content to reinforce the few strands that kept our world together. I rejoiced at the spider webs because---for a moment--these beach spiders were kindred spirits.

         Time and reflection made me more practical.

         In June, when blue and aquamarine waves roll in gentle swells, the beach may host isolated swarms of gnats and black flies during lulls in the soft breeze. Time then to build sturdy webs that might have looked more traditional. Spiders repair their webs every few days, often eating unused sections of web to rebuild their protein reserves. Battling occasional blustery days, they would not have destroyed the main “Y” supports, and I even suspect they were driven to reinforce it each day, before settling back to extruding sticky spiral sections.

         In July, beach winds blow cool across the sweating bodies of sunbathers; whitecaps lace the tops of waves. Clouds of Mayflies hatch from the water’s surface, leaving their larval stage to emerge as short-lived winged adults. Despite the naming of these insects, the colder waters of Lake Michigan mean a late hatch for Mayflies---between June 25th and July 10th. Lacy-winged creatures, closer in appearance to a dragon fly than a house fly, appear suddenly from their watery fairyland, to stretch delicate wings and wiggle slender, flexible bodies.

        In their first winged phase (the Dun stage), swarms of Mayflies cover any rough vertical surface on the land. Porch screens and tree trunks are hidden beneath the airy, folded wings of fragile, harmless creatures. Very shortly, the Mayflies will molt into the spinner phase. Ghosts of tissue-paper silhouettes are left behind, while the new adult spinners begin their short-lived mating sessions above the lake waters.

        This, then, explains the tremendous number of spiders’ webs. This year marks a record hatch of Mayflies, more than anyone had seen for fifty years. There would be no competition for food supplies among numerous arachnoids. Spiders would feast until glutted, enough captive Mayflies to more than replenish protein reserves. Fat and content, they could crawl off in search of safer territories to hide and secure their own egg sacs.

        By August, the winds come in great gusts---to whip the vegetation, blowing loose seeds and scattering them across the shoreline. Waves may build to great swells---three to eight feet tall---that come crashing into the land surface, dragging up seaweed and algae to litter the beach. Deserted spider webs, ripped apart by these gusts, would leave behind only these amazing, reinforced I-beams of support.

        These spiders had not fought their innate programming to create some brilliant new adaptation to harsh winds. They had completed their yearly cycle of gathering food and birthing a new family. The webs were only a ghost town, their eight-legged residents having left before bad weather set in, the ashen-white Dun skeletons of their Mayfly food stock blown away by August winds. Only the prancing tuft-heads of grass remained behind, still struggling to break free.

        My time as mother, protector and family builder was also over. I could hope the reinforced strands would continue to hold as my young entered the world of tougher realities, but in the long run, this phase of mothering was but a short cycle in my life, in the history of us all.  

Posted on Monday, September 3, 2007 at 12:05PM by Registered CommenterThe Skeptical Mystic | CommentsPost a Comment

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