Webs

September 1, 2017

web cc

Photo from Creative Commons

This piece was published in the August issue of ABOUT the River Valley magazine.

I first noticed the spider webs while walking around the base of Spring Mountain one Saturday afternoon in late June. Ducking underneath and between the spiny limbs of the new growth forest, I collected sticky strands of silk in my hair and on my arms. This wasn’t intentional, of course. I kept trying to dodge them, feeling uneasy about how much hard work I was plowing through.  But I had to get to the creek, and there wasn’t any other path.

A few days later I was walking across the Big Dam Bridge connecting Little Rock to North Little Rock. It’s 4,226 feet in length—and has never been used for cars or trains—making it the longest pedestrian/bicycle bridge in North America. Who knew our state held such a gem, right? On any given night the bridge is filled with people. Some are walking in comfortable clothing, others jogging in run gear and bright shoes. If you’re a dog person it’s a great place to see scruffy mixed breeds, shiny labradors, and hyperactive tiny dogs. There are couples in shorts and sandals holding hands in the spark of a new relationship, friends catching up on gossip, extended families pushing strollers, taking photos, and speaking in their first languages. There are benches every few feet just perfect for staring into the river or doing a little people watching.

 

Walking the full length of bridge always makes me feel weak behind the knees. Despite my love for occasional trips to truly large cities, I’m not really into heights created by human hands. At the midway point it rises to 90 feet over the river and 30 feet over the dam.  The gray concrete dam looks so industrial and impersonal, and the river itself—-so beautiful and almost gentle from the shore—looks totally disinterested in whether or not I should I accidentally fall in. I always want to enjoy a peaceful walk across but often I’m rather preoccupied with the height of it all.


On this particular day a friend and I arrived near dusk; the sun was still out when we began walking up the first bit of incline. The bridge derives much of its length from the these long ramps on either side of the river and the expanse of metal railing lines each side. Before I could even begin to think about my fear of heights, I saw the webs.

There inbetween each square of railing was an orb. Some looked fresh and new, almost sparkling; others were a little shabby and stretched, as if the wind was becoming a bit too much for them. Some held a recent catch; other webs seem abandoned. In others, a spider waited patiently in a discreet corner of the web. As we continued our walk I kept looking from side to side to view each square of railing. This was clearly prime spider real estate. In the literally hundreds of small squares formed by the railing, not a single bit was left empty.

I walked the length of the bridge that night without much fear, mostly because I was so preoccupied with the webs. The sun went down, the big lights came on, and by the time I was walking back the across, the blue lights from the dam below were glowing bright. As we came across the incline I lost my breath. There in the railing were hundreds of webs backlit by the bulbs, a huge spotlight on the shiny threads. The river was so big and the webs so tiny and so….everywhere.

 

Each web had its own design—some with zipper-like patterns down the center; others with details across the outer edges that would put your grandmother’s doily collection to shame . In the distance I could see the headlights of cars moving quickly across the interstate bridges. Below the water was deep and the dam thick. The chatter of voices was ongoing. But all I could see were the webs, and, sometimes, the spiders.

Since that evening I’ve been thinking a lot about spiders. I’ve lived my whole life sharing every house I’ve ever known with them. But do I really know them? I love a good Google investigation, so this past week I’ve spent time reading everything I can find about web weavers. I have learned that orb weaving spiders are known to build their webs in high traffic areas, especially those with artificial night time lights, since these places are literal lighthouse for all manner of tasty bugs.

I’ve learned that spiders recycle their webs, usually digesting the old one near dusk, waiting an hour, and then and and building a new one in preparation for the night time abundance. I learned from my bridge-walking friend that spiders spin sticky and non sticky silk. Only they know which threads are which, and they walk down the non sticky thread to weave and to catch. There is so much more I want to know. I know each spider has its on web style. But are there spiders who get creative? A lineage of web designs known to, say, central Arkansas bridge weavers? Do they have turf wars over the bridge spaces? Would the same species of Yell County spider making its webs between the thin trees of a new growth Harkey Valley forest take quickly to the squared railing of a city bridge and vice versa?  (I am a cultural studies person, after all. I’m going to find out. Stay tuned for future columns.)

One of my core childhood memories is sitting in a patch of clover in my backyard. I was looking for a four leaf clover. I remember our backyard always seems to be filled with bees and fireflies. I was searching through the clumps when I began to notice all the motion below. There were smaller bugs under the clover. The soil was a literal metroplex of activity. It dawned on me that everywhere I step whole worlds exist. All of us—people, plants, animals— are so deeply, deeply connected, regardless if we ever acknowledge this.

This memory surfaces in moments like the web evening. I am struck with this weighted feeling of how much is happening around me that I’ve never noticed. It’s not a sad weight. But it is heavy. Like I need to be strong to carry it. And don’t we all want to be strong?

And then my mind slips into a series of questions that go something like this: Why am I just now noticing these webs? Is there something unique about today? Have the webs always been there and I just never noticed? Why have I never noticed? And, finally, now that I have noticed, how do I live my life with this new information?

Stories are always bigger than can really be explained, and there is so very much more to this story than webs in lights, and I recognize that for much of the world seeing a spider web is rather uneventful. But why is that? Everyday we share the world with weavers who put our human designs to shame. Are we paying attention?

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