I first met Linyphia last Sunday – the same day I watched Venus slowly drowning in the dawn sky. I had gone for a mid-morning walk down along Laurel Ridge. Dew lingered in the cool woods, and the sun was at just the right angle to give the impression of one, virtually continuous wood-wide web.
Less than a hundred yards from the house I stopped for a while to watch a spiny micrathena – our most common forest-dwelling Epeiridium spider – working on a new web in the tops of the laurel bushes, right at eye level. Two other cobwebs hung right behind her, at 30-degree angles from the one she was building. As many times as I have watched this process, it’s always spell-binding to see how smoothly the legs of an orb-weaving spider can navigate the radiating lines, how quickly the abdomen dips to attach the unwinding spiral at each intersection. It’s not so much weaving as it is a form of knitting, I think. And of course this species, with its odd, hobnail-shaped abdomen, makes for an especially intriguing spectacle.
Since I was walking in an easterly direction, it was easy to become entranced by the prismatic effects of a forest full of silk. Long strands dangled down from the treetops like unbaited lines of celestial fishermen: these were, of course, caterpillars’ rappel lines. The white, bristle-brushy tussock moth caterpillars are especially numerous this year, but dozens if not hundreds of other species are also at the larval stage right now. Otherwise, the upper layers of the forest seemed dominated by various species of orb-weavers (Epeiridae) and mesh-weavers (my name for the family Therididae, makers of most of the loose and irregular webs one sees, including those in the upper corners of rooms). The first two or three feet above the ground were dominated by various species of Agalenidae, which I tend to refer to either as tunnel spiders or handkerchief spiders – the latter especially after a heavy dew, when Agalenid webs can turn a lawn or recently harvested field white.
It’s a shame that most spiders don’t have common names. In my own idiolect, tunnel spiders are those common, forest-dwelling spiders that weave dense, flattish webs and hide in tubes or tunnels. Agalena navia is the most common species, which “varies greatly in size and color,” according to James Emerton’s Common Spiders of the United States (Dover, 1961 ). I can attest to that! During my niece Eva’s visit last May, we discovered the joys of dropping ants onto A. navia webs and waiting for the spider to rush out of its hiding place, the tunnel itself often hidden strategically under a dead leaf. It was easy to assume we were looking at different species: “Large females may be three-quarters of an inch long, with legs measuring an inch and a quarter, while others may be full grown at half that size. In color some are pale yellow with gray markings, and others reddish brown with the markings almost black,” says Emerton. Whatever the case, they move so quickly that what one mostly sees is a small, hairy blur dancing around its prey, lasso twirling.
On last Sunday’s walk I became aware of a different kind of web, less common but occupying the same, bottommost layer of vegetation (chiefly blueberry and huckleberry bushes). The first one I noticed took my breath away: a spherical cluster of shifting points of prismatic light, like a tiny alien space craft hovering a foot above the ground. I stood for a while leaning against a tree and watching it from about six feet away. When the sun moved off it, it became almost invisible. I got down on my belly and inched forward.
As I got closer, I realized that the web was not spherical but bell-shaped, with a depth and width of about six inches each. A thin haze of additional threads extended for a few inches above the apex of the bell or dome. When I got within a foot away, its occupant – a small, thin-bodied spider with light yellow legs and a striped abdomen – darted down the side, but when I retreated she quickly returned to her station inside the top of the bell. The weaving was somewhere between the Theridiae and Agalenidae in denseness.
This was my first encounter with Linyphia marginata, of the Linyphiad family. It’s a common enough spider, apparently; I had overlooked it all these years in part because of my bad habit of daydreaming, and in part because, as Emerton notes, it uses exceptionally fine threads, building a web “so transparent that it easily escapes notice unless the sun shines upon it.” With the sun at just the right angle, I found three more in the next ten minutes.
How wonderful, I thought, that the woods could be so full of gossamer bells and I could fail to notice! And how humbling. I figured that the unique shape must be designed to catch small insects such as gnats and winged ants as they took flight from the forest floor, but Emerton claimed the opposite:
The spider stands all the time under the top of the dome. Insects flying near touch the threads above the dome and, their flight being broken, drop down among closer threads and, finally, to the dome itself, where they are caught by the spider and taken through the meshes. Remains of insects and other rubbish are cut loose from the web and dropped. The webs seem to be used for a long time, but if they are injured a new one is soon made, either in the night or day, and the remains of several old webs are often seen hanging flat and torn beneath a new one. The dome is begun at the top and extended downward by inclined threads, an inch or two long, which are crossed by shorter threads in all directions. The spider works very rapidly, but I have never seen a dome finished, the spider always working for a few minutes and then resting a long time.
So the unique shape is designed for the convenience of the spider, enabling it to race to any point of the web at top speed. Whereas an orb weaver like the spiny micrathena relies on the stickiness of its silk to hold the prey until it can get to it, L. marginata gambles on an insect’s physical entanglement in the labyrinthine meshwork of short, fine lines. Since discovering this lightning-swift spider that sits upside-down all summer under a bell of such striking design, I wonder if I will ever again be so entranced by a glinting web of a mere Empeiridium?
I’ve been re-reading The Seven Ages, Louise Glück’s ninth and “strangest” book, according to the copy on the bookflap (typically written by the author). The following lines (from “Eros”) struck me this morning:
I needed nothing more; I was utterly sated.
My heart had become small; it took very little to fill it.
This made me wince with recognition.
Out came the fortune cookies, invented, doncha know, not half a mile from where I sit here in my office. Mine read something like “If your desires are not extravagant, they will be granted.”
Very Chinese. And yet for a moment I read it as one of those wonderful old Paris Enrages slogans, thinking it read something like “If your desires are not granted, they were not extravagant enough.”
Fading breaths say less than silence. A heart unlocked is not necessarily open.
The loss of the ability to dream – along with visual disturbances – following damage to a specific part of the brain, is called Charcot-Wilbrand syndrome, named after the eminent neurologists Jean-Martin Charcot and Hermann Wilbrand, who first described it in the 1880s. . . .
[S]ome of this region is involved in the visual processing of faces and landmarks, as well as the processing of emotions and visual memories, a logical set of functions for a brain area that would generate or control dreams.
Bye-bye to poetry and all that!
On Saturday, I emceed a “Poets for Peace” reading in State College, inspired in part by Sam Hamill’s call for an International Day of Poetry on September 11. Turnout was good, despite zero coverage in the local media. (Saturday’s edition of the major newspaper in the area had a special section on “What the Flag Means to Me.”)
The format was open-mike; I read first so as to give more people time to arrive. I was going to start out with one of Vallejo’s posthumous poems, “Y si después de tántas palabras,” but decided at the last moment that the Clayton Eshleman translation wasn’t all that good and I didn’t have time to improve on it. So instead I just read two of my own, recent poems written for this blog that happened to have taken their titles from pop songs: “Both Sides Now” and “From a Distance.”
Over the next hour and a half, fifteen other people read from their own and others’ works. There was a healthy mix of ages, backgrounds (including the mayor, in an unofficial capacity) and styles of writing and delivery. I was struck by the happenstance that two different nurses, Corene Johnston and Joann Condellone, read poems they’d written. Both were older women who had organized poetry groups in their respective communitites (Bellefonte and Huntingdon), and both felt that peace must be sought in the messy details of ordinary human life. How many other such unsung emissaries for peace and poetry are working in our midst, one wonders?
Other poets in attendance included Jack Troy, Todd Davis, Cecil Giscombe, Julia Kasdorf, Lee Peterson, John Haag and Dora McQuaid. Julia and Todd, our two Mennonite poets, were the outstanding readers of the afternoon, I thought, though a young member of the local slam scene named Kathy Morrow gave what was undoubtedly the most energetic performance.
The following poem is one I haven’t looked at in many months, so predictably, when I pulled it out of the files on Saturday I decided that it was unfit for a reading without some serious revision. I guess at this point I would class it among my noble failures; the imaginative effort here seems somehow inadequate to the subject matter. Like Ai, whose influence here is probably a bit too palpable, I think that empathetic understanding – trying to see the world through another’s eyes – is its own reward, even (or especially) when the the subject is a basically undeserving, ungrateful, brutal psychopath. Here, though, things are a little more complex, because the subject – a death-row inmate on his way to the chair – is himself imagining an exchange with the protestors of his impending execution.
They tell me you’re there, all
you would-be witnesses. Clustered
outside the gate. Each of you
clutching your candle
like a little white lie, right hand
cupping the flame,
the hot wax dribbling down the side.
If they’d let me, I’d come out there
& tell you one or two things.
I have done what most men merely
dream about, living proof that life is
a pale, weak thing. I broke the bones
in her face the way you’d ash
out a cigarette. Fear has a smell
like sour milk & it can turn, oh Jesus!
It can turn you so goddamned ugly.
From the moment you slimed your way
into the world, having just fucked
your mother backwards, you were
a creature incapable of innocence,
a pink grub, a howling bundle of wants.
If I had my way there’d be a chair
like this one on every street corner.
They’d be like video games. Only
the truly ruthless would be able
to walk past one without trembling like
a virgin. Those of you with
a guilty conscience would be
the first in line.
Be careful, now – something’s
diving toward the flame.
That’s right, drive it away.
For its own good, little moth.
Deprive it of its final joy.
Amidst last winter’s restless, unswept ash,
behind the cinder-laden grate, she found
a bird’s nest, tumbledown and skeletal.
It fit exactly in one upturned palm,
its hollow in her hollow. This is mine. . . .
– “Empty Nest,” Paula’s House of Toast
How is money made? Money is made through advertising. And how does advertising work? Well, to quote a movie I saw not long ago, advertising entails “thinking up ways to make people feel bad” so that you can sell them something to make them feel better. Advertising depends on the notion that we feel there’s something deeply wrong with us, something lacking, something flawed. We grow up in a society in which we’re taught from day one that we’re not good enough, and will never be good enough, and that we’re empty at our cores.
This is a lie. It’s cruel and deep and dangerous, and it’s a lie. A pervasive one. This lie gets down deep in our core notions of self. Living with this understanding is intolerable. It’s painful. It fucking hurts. And some of us starve to suppress this hurt. Starvation – a constant obsession with food – is far preferable to feeling that aching, howling emptiness. Some of us try to fill the lack in other ways. We eat. We eat. We eat. Some of do both: we start out starving, set on whittling ourselves down to nothing, hell-bent on demonstrating to the world the nothing inside us, but in desperately needing to fill this emptiness, we gorge. And then reempty ourselves.
– Nomen est Numen
Now, it is said that a Buddha “generates no karma,” which might sound like it means essentially free of cause and effect (since that’s what karma really means.) But I’m not sure it means that. I think it may only mean that a Buddha’s actions, unlike an ordinary person’s actions, lay him under no future compulsion. A Buddha, you might say, is a person who forms no habits.
If there is a space of freedom — and I’m by no means sure that there is, that the word “freedom” has any real referent — it is not a “freedom of the individual,” but the freedom of understanding that the narrow subset of reality that I usually call “Dale” is in fact not a self-standing limited thing at all, but rather a piece of something infinitely spacious, changing, interconnected, & interwoven. The desperation I feel when “having no freedom” seems like an awful thing is actually the desperation I feel at the prospect of being trapped as my own self-conception forever — which is indeed a terrifying thought. But a delusory one. I can’t be trapped into being “Dale” forever. I’m not even “Dale” now :-)
The more I read about this case, the more I am struck by this sense of identity being experiential rather than intrinsic – that it is not our bodies, but what is done to them, not our teeth, but the cement used to fix them, that will identify us. I also feel sadness that dental cement is more unique than the tooth – that I could dig through a whole pile of bones and never recognize them, were it not for a crack or fissure or scar, the chemical composition of an adhesive, the sheer dumb luck that such an adhesive could be new or rare.
That we have to be broken to be restored.
– evidentiary: alchemy
When asked the wherabouts of a lost item, my husband’s grandmother would often say it’s probably down in the cellar behind the ax.
I think translated it meant don’t bother me with that, go look for it yourself.
I like that saying. I don’t actually have an ax in my basement but I love the thought that all the things I’m searching for just might be behind one.
If you want to know a place, to really know the place, you have to live there and die there and give your elements back to the soil there and let the stink of your decomposition lift to the sky there.
We are just tourists, that National Geographic writer and I – and we should be a little more courteous. Because we can write, because we can write about this place, that gives us no proprietary rights. In fact, all we are doing is borrowing, and what we are borrowing we ought to treat well.
A Franciscan Travel Blessing
May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers,
half truths and superficial relationships
so that you may live deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger at injustice,
oppression, and exploitation of people,
so that you may wish for justice, freedom, and peace.
May God bless you with enough foolishness
to believe that you can make a difference in this world,
so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.
– Ditch the Raft
As I sat back in my chair reading the blogs late yesterday afternoon, it occurred to me suddenly that for my houseplants, summer is the darkest time of year. The Norfolk Island pine sitting across the table from me – the Jack McManis tree – has filled out tremendously in the past few months as its branches reach ever farther in search of light. Since the trees and bushes closest to the house are mostly deciduous – mulberry, lilac, spicebush, black walnut – they intercept much of the sunlight for the six months between mid-May and mid-October. In winter, not only is this impediment removed, but – another counter-intuitive thought – the lower angle of the sun makes for more direct sunlight, even if there is less of it each day. Combine that with the reflective qualities of snow, and this room in particular can become easily twice as bright during the darkest months.
It’s almost like a Daoist parable, isn’t it? Inside or out, the plants are the same in nature, they want the same things. Just as a dog at the genetic level may be all but indistinguishable from a wolf – but when the two meet, the former tends to end up in the latter’s stomach. In each case, the originally arbitrary division of Nature into an inside and an outside creates opposing interests. Might this be equally true of the body and the soul, I wonder?
Empty truism, Dave! Yeah, I know. But I am fascinated by the role that wildness – the Big Outside – and wild animals play in the formation of our identities as fully human beings.
I accompany my mother this morning on her weekly visit to the Amish farmstand and whole foods store in the valley. Which is lucky, because it turns out that the torrential downpour of the night before last had brought down a tree across the Plummer’s Hollow road, a smallish red maple. (Mom’s weak back prevents her from doing things like operating a chainsaw.) In a couple of places, the road is washed out to a depth of 8-10 inches, and we are thankful for the extra clearance the s.u.v. provides.
It’s a spectacular Autumn day. We drive slowly along the winding township roads, enjoying the views whenever there’s a break in the ranks of field corn. At the store, we notice a flyer on the counter – “Lost Falcon.” My mom talks about this for a few minutes with the proprietor, her friend S. – a woman in late middle age, unmarried and very bright. They both know the falconer. S. mentions that one of her grandnephews saw – he thought – a large bird flapping over with “traces dangling from his claws.” The falconer came out to look, but with no luck. “I think if I was a bird like that, once I escaped I’d fly away and I wouldn’t come back,” S. says in her precise English as she heads back into the kitchen.
She would, too – neither of us have any doubt of it. The lyrics of the very un-Amish gospel song “I’ll Fly Away” begin to percolate through my mind.
On the way back up the hollow, I catch the flash of wings from several hundred yards away. When we pull even with the spot, I see the profile of a hawk’s head against the trunk of one of the largest red oaks in the hollow. We back up for a better view, and find ourselves in a staring contest with a red-tailed hawk. Buteo jamaicensis: our most common hawk, but always a pleasure to watch – especially from such unexpectedly close quarters. Its species name reflects the fact that the type specimen was collected in Jamaica; any other connection between this individual and the island currently in the crosshairs of Hurricane Ivan is strictly metaphorical. Most of our red-tails don’t migrate even as far as the gulf coast, and some live here year round. Both last winter and the winter before we had a pair in residence, attracted no doubt by the abundant gray squirrels.
“Don’t you know you’re supposed to fly away?” my mother croons. Talking softly to wild animals is usually a good way to keep them from spooking – it seems almost to mesmerize them, sometimes. But a couple more blandishments and the hawk dips his head, opens his great wings and sails away downhollow. “Ah, an immature,” says my mother, noting the absence of red in his tail. “No wonder he acts so dumb.”
With Frances gone, the air’s about as clear as it ever gets here. The rest of the way up the road, every shifting shadow seems alive with promise.