Wednesday, September 30, 2015

September 30, 2015--Spiders of Pemaquid Point

After a fierce winter, everything here is late this year--spring flowers, lilacs, and now our local spiders. Finally, they are hard at work. An especially wonderful web is right outside our bedroom window. A close look at the upper right hand corner of the window in the photo below shows it bejeweled by moisture from the morning fog.

And so I thought to reprint this from September 1, 2010--

There is not much opportunity here to observe big game. Rarely if ever are there any moose to be spotted along the coast. Wildlife action of that kind occurs inland. So near Pemaquid Point, in compensation, I have taken to watching the many spiders that are especially hard at work because of the mosquitoes that spawned after last week's rain. And though they attack us at dawn and dusk, for spiders they are a delicacy. Rich in the protein they need to sustain themselves and out of which the silken material from which they spin their webs is composed, the new supply of these pests has kept the local spiders working overtime.

If you are skeptical, I can assure you that I do have some experience as a very amateur naturalist. One time, in South Africa for example, after the work I was engaged is was completed, Rona and I trekked out to a game camp near Kruger National Park. At first, poshly accommodated—we were met at the entrance by a post-Apartheid black man in a crisply starched White Hunter’s outfit who offered us a frosted glass of something orange, which tasted like a mimosa, to help us relax and compensate us for the bumpy flight in on a six-seater—I was immediately suspicious about the authenticity of the experience that awaited us. Mimosas and stalking big game somehow did not go together even blended by a rich imagination. I, after all, had grown up reading Jungle Book stories and spending time at this N'gala Game Lodge promised to be very different than squeezing under a mosquito net in a tent in the bush.

And so, as I usually do in these circumstances, I behaved dismissively, blaming Rona for dragging me to this expensive Disneyland version of the Veldt, and immediately began to make cynical fun of the guide’s cheerful promise that during our three days there we would be certain to see the Big Five, which he informed us, since this was the first we had heard of this notion, were the five most desirable animals to encounter—the lion; the African elephant; the cape buffalo; the leopard; and rarest of all, the black rhinoceros.

And with that he had one of his “boys” whisk us to our hut. Some hut! With a marble and slate bathroom about the size of our entire one-bedroom apartment back in Manhattan. Our guide told us not to be late for dinner, which that evening was to be served by a roaring fire on which various slabs of game meat were to be roasted.

“Be sure to have the impala steak,” he said, smacking his lips, “It is very special.”

The next day, on the first of our six game drives—one each morning just before dawn and another every evening prior to sunset—we spotted two cheetah within a hundred yards of our camp, which, rather than pleasing me, only made me more cynical. I said sotto voce to Rona, “I’ll bet the reason these cheetahs are right here is because they lure them close by putting out food.” And to the guide, who did not deserve my sarcasm, I added, “They don’t count toward the Big Five, do they? Maybe the Big Six?” He simply smiled back at me, undoubtedly having had, through the years, to endure this and worse from rich safariers.

And then within the first hour, after spotting a pride of lions at a watering hole and learning all about how it is lionesses who do all the cub rearing and hunting while the males hang around sleeping their way through the sultry days—it was clear that women’s liberation as well as freedom and democracy had arrived in South Africa—suspecting that the hotel owners had dug and kept the water hole full so that their pampered guests would not have to drive around all day in dusty futilely chasing after the first of the Big Five.

Restraining from allowing myself to be overly impressed, I came up with what I thought to be a witty counter to the traditional way of keeping score while on this version of safari—the obverse of the Big Five--the Tiny Five. “Maybe we should keep that list too,” I said to no one in particular, “You know, the termite—see all those termite mounds—the tsetse fly, the mosquito, the African Mantid [I had done my homework to come up with this voracious creature], and of course, my favorite, the dung beetle.”

I chuckled at my own cleverness; but when Daktari, our driver stopped suddenly with no big game in sight and directed us to get out of the Land Rover, I thought perhaps to change a tire, saying nothing, he pointed at the ground near where we were standing. There was nothing noteworthy to be seen—just a few pebbles and rocks. “There!” he pointed again, insisting, “Right there!” We bent closer to the ground, following the direction of his finger and indeed right there was the first of my Tiny Five.

“A dung beetle,” he chortled, “Just what you came all this way from America to see.” With that he knew he had me and his face exploded into a brilliant grin.

And there it was, about three-quarters of an inch in size, reared back on its hind legs with its front legs rolling ahead of it what could only be a ball of dung at least twice its size. “You can put that on your list,” Daktari said. And I did because that amazing beetle was as interesting as any of the Big Five which, over the days, we "accumulated." And to tell the truth, all my cynicism quickly faded and I had the time of my life.

Which brings me back to the spiders of our seaside porch—after close observing I discovered an ideal location for them not only because of the airborne protein supply but also since the spaces between the vertical posts that support the deck railing are an ideal distance apart for the construction of their so-called orb webs. Bear with me.

Much of this work occurs just before dawn, which is a fine time for me to get distracted in observing since I am a notoriously poor sleeper; and if it were not for my writing, and the chance to get lost in things such as spider projects, I would be left desperately groping for ways to fill the time and push back, always unsuccessfully, against the tremors of non-specific anxiety that prior to sunrise invade my unprotected mind and sabotage any possibility of morning tranquility or a smooth transition to consciousness.

If the breeze is just right for web-building—not too fresh, not too indifferent--I notice that my spider companion from one rail post begin by extruding a foot-long silky adhesive thread which it leaves to hang unfettered in the air, knowing—if it knows--that it will then begin to float gently, carried on the breath of these pre-dawn zephyrs. With just the right amount of wafting this initial strand is lifted higher and higher until it appears to reach across toward the opposite post, in my case an eight-inch span. And if there is then a slight additional uplift to the breeze the strand miraculously adheres to the adjacent post and what results is a single, fragile swaying strand which bridges the gap and begins to emit a silken glow in the first light of day.

My spider then puts on display its extraordinary tightrope-walking skills—no less remarkable than those of the legendary Philippe Petit who pranced on a wire that spanned the two World Trade Center towers. As I raptly watch it carefully walk along that slender thread it extrudes another strengthening strand of silk. It works its way back and forth, back and forth until these repeated passes and deposits have thickened that first precarious filament. Not unlike the way suspension bridge builders spin the cables that reach from anchor tower to anchor tower and then support the roadway. From Manhattan to Brooklyn, from Brooklyn to Manhattan, from Manhattan to Brooklyn, from Brooklyn to . . .

With this horizontal element now securely in place, and strong enough to support the rest of the web that will be suspended from it and anything it may eventually entrap—including the full weight of the spider which ingests its victims while clinging to the web itself--this aerialist architect is ready to begin to fill in the rest of the vertical structure.

It does this next, I observe, the way climbers lower themselves by ropes from the cliffs they have conquered—in their case by repelling themselves against the rock face as they drop toward the ground where they began; while in the spider’s case by again producing a silken rope at the end of which it dangles—again swinging in the breeze until it simultaneously is pitched to precisely the midpoint between the posts and, when thus positioned, rapidly drops the last few inches to the lower horizontal cross piece where it affixes its sticky thread. It then ascends, again strengthening this first angled vertical line, as it laboriously hoists itself back up to the top rung, all along the way extruding another thread. And once there, it skirts to the other side and immediately lowers itself again, as before waiting until the wind catches it just right and swings it, dangling, to the center of that lower span and when positioned at that precise spot again plummets so it can affix its strand.

If one were to stand back at this point—as I wondrously do, distracted and thus no longer ensnared by wake-up fears—one sees the Y-shaped framework, which will contain the eventual web itself. All the heavy structural work having now been completed—it is time to apply the finishing touches, to fill in the details. The radials and the circular threads that might be thought of as the web loom’s warp and weft, which together will form the final cobweb fabric.

The radials bridge the center of the Y-armature and the concentric circular threads give the web its distinctive Halloween look. Typically, my spider mate constructs at least half a dozen radials and at least that many circular loops; and when they are sketched in, it spends quite a bit of time strengthening the webs center with at least five final circular strands. This is obviously where the action will occur.

By the third morning I am beginning to notice something else: it appears that the spaces between each spiral are proportional to the size of the spider itself—specifically the distance between the tip of its back legs and its spinners. It is using itself, its own body as a measuring device!

But before I got too carried away in the rapture of this back-deck discovery, I quickly realized that this technique must be hard-wired into many animal species. Including humans. After all where did we come up with a yard as a unit or measurement? Or and inch? Or, more obviously, a foot? Welcome to my world spider cousins! Or is it you that is offering the greeting?

And then, hopefully it will be the spider’s breakfast time. It has put in a full morning’s work and deserves something nutritious and savory. I still have two hours to wait until Rona rises before I can get my less-wholesome but delicious blueberry pancakes. So with nothing better to do, to kill some more time, I wait along with it.

After about a half an hour, a frisky, early-rising mosquito begins to buzz about. Perhaps it too is a troubled sleeper. Not wanting to interfere with the natural forces at work I do not swat at it as it dives toward my uncovered head. If it is to pay a price for what it attempts to inflict on me it will not be by my hand. I therefore do not choose to wave it off as I in compensation take malicious pleasure in noticing my spider friend waiting, patiently immobile off to the side of its web.

It and I know what potentially awaits.

The mosquito, which as a result of its first pass left a swelling and itchy welt on my neck, circles lower, seeking a second helping, moving in closer, circling the warm veins throbbing in my ankle. To it irresistible. Sensing its approach I shift a bit—I confess with retributive intent since my foot is not more than a foot from the web—perhaps to help divert it toward its fate.

And for once, Man interfering with Nature yields a sustainable ecological result. My mosquito tormentor, diverted in its flight path by me uncrossing my legs and thereby, forced into a stall by a sudden downdraft, is swept right into the center of the waiting web.

The spider, sensing the impact and the struggle of its prey by the vibrations transmitted through the web, begins to stir. It lifts itself, seemingly to me to stretch its legs and even yawn, and begins its slow descent toward the middle of the web where the mosquito, as it squirms to free itself only, as if in a straight jacket, further entangles itself.

Then, just as the spider approaches close to its prey, an exact body-length away, all struggles cease; and, I believe, if I had a magnifying glass, I would be able to see my spider companion licking the equivalent of its chops.

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Blogger Gala Girl said...

Everything is indeed late this year. We've been remarking how green everything still is, even upstate. It's not right. It's just not right. Don't get me wrong, I love summer and the lush green of it all...but it's a day from October and no real sign of fall. And while I'm certainly not looking forward to the bare bleakness of the winter season (especially after last winter which was so long and deep), it would be nice to have a little bit of brisk air and colorful foliage now that summer is officially over. Happy early bday! xo

September 30, 2015  
Blogger Steven Zwerling said...

Thanks HR. xx

September 30, 2015  

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