Out of the Threads of the Past

Out of the Threads of the Past

by Susan Downing

One night a couple of weeks ago, I happened to glance out the slider door that leads to my back porch.  Glimpsing something moving on the outside of the glass, I flipped on the porch light to get a better look.  It was a good thing that it was on the outside of the glass, because otherwise I would have really freaked out: a spider that looked just like a black widow except for being brown, was busily building his web.

Once I’d determined that, despite his bulbous abdomen, this fellow was a common orb-weaving spider, I stood there watching his progress for quite a while, long enough to see him complete enough of a web to catch a small moth and a tiny green stinkbug.  The next morning when I got up, there was no sign of Mr. Spider, his dinner, or his web.

The next night, he was back.  As he has been every night since then, with the same pattern of activity: build the web after nightfall, catch dinner and eat it.  But what happened to the web?  Why and how did it mysteriously (at least to me) vanish before the break of dawn each day?  The spot is pretty sheltered, and it seemed unlikely that it would be so fragile as to disintegrate within a matter of hours.  Was it an engineering flaw?

Until the other night, this seemed to me the most likely explanation.  I have observed Mr. Spider’s construction techniques, and I can tell you, those first few days, I was not surprised at all that the web didn’t last until morning. He would race helter-skelter, throwing anchor lines here and there, and then, in a breathless frenzy, connect them with other lines, using a pattern that seemed to have no rhyme or reason.  There were large gaps between the strands.  I was amazed that he caught any dinner at all those nights.

Then one night toward the end of the first week, when I turned on the porch light as usual to see what Mr. Spider was up to, I was surprised to see that in place of the crazy quilt webs of days past, he was methodically laying down a spiral of web atop the anchor lines.  Now this looked like a spider web! There were still a fair amount of space between the lines, but the whole effect was entirely different, both in the web that was taking shape and in Mr. Spider’s approach to the work: he was taking his time, step by step, carefully fixing each segment in place before moving on to the next.  By the following night, he’d tightened up the pattern, and his meticulous work paid off: a seven-course meal awaited him by the time I went to sleep.

But in the morning, again – no more web.  I was puzzled.  Certainly these new webs were sturdier.  Could they really not survive?  If he himself had taken it down, why on earth would he choose to do that and have to rebuild it again on each subsequent night?  It seemed so inefficient – a waste of time, energy and silk.

Evidently, I am not the first to be confounded by such questions, because the internet is full of discussion of whether spiders can learn to build better webs (they can!) and whether they rebuild them daily (some do, including my orb-weaving spider!) and why.  Here’s what Wikipedia has to say on the last question:

Many orb-weavers build a new web each day. Generally, towards evening, the spider will consume the old web, rest for approximately an hour, then spin a new web in the same general location. Thus, the webs of orb-weavers are generally free of the accumulation of detritus common to other species.

It turns out that this process not only results in a new, pristine web every night, but has an added benefit: because the web silk is very high in protein, consuming it provides the spider with essential nourishment.  So, he feeds himself on the threads of his past web and then uses the energy he gains from them to consciously and carefully construct a new web.  A fresh start each time around.

One morning a few days ago, as I sat at my table, gazing out through the slider door from which Mr. Spider’s web had once again vanished, I began to see the webs and Mr. Spider’s approach to them as a metaphor for the process of moving through countless lifetimes.  With each new rebirth, the old life seems to be gone.  We may think we’re starting from scratch each time.  But we can’t say that about each of our lives any more than Mr. Spider could say that about each of his webs.  The past life is done, but its effects and usefulness are not exhausted.  We can make conscious, purposeful use of the elements of the past: we can begin to recognize the threads of unhelpful habits that have stretched from past lifetimes into this and learn to transform them, like spinning straw into gold.

And it isn’t only with each new life that we have this opportunity. We can see our missteps, nourish ourselves with the insights they offer, and then, every day, every moment, we can reweave the web of our life.

Leave a Comment