October 11, 2005

The Web Above Us

AT THE SEATTLE HOUSEBOAT where I write, it's spider mating season. All about this floating world, spiders big and small are weaving elaborate webs in all the angles such an enclave offers. So many spiders are getting so busy that it behooves you to begin the day waving a broom across your doorways and walkways lest you end up wearing a web. That's my current ritual and it works, most of the time. When it doesn't you get a face full of web and the spider gets, I imagine, very ticked off seeing his long night's labor destroyed in a split second.

At the same time, I know how beneficial it is to have spiders at work in a wet environment like a houseboat community; mosquito populations are severely reduced, flies too. If you want insect life kept down you don't want to destroy any webs that aren't directly in your way. Besides, after a fog or a light rain at dawn or in the slanting late afternoon light you are can see dozens of gleaming diadem dappled webs moving ever so gently in the light breeze off Lake Union. Regardless of how you feel about spiders, their webs and their work are both beneficial and beautiful.

Not so to flies. For flies, a spider's web is, in the full meaning of the phrase, a dead end. Touch even one strand and you can't shake it off. The nature of the web is that once caught by a single strand, your struggles enmesh you ever more securely in others until escape is hopeless. You are held not just by the single strand you started with, but by all the others that lie just to this side or the other. The only safe way to escape the web is not to touch it in the first place.

At least that's what I told the small fly that landed under the web next to my foot this morning as I stood outside on the railing with my coffee. I noted the web between the two uprights when I first stepped out, but since it wasn't going to interfere with me, I wasn't going to interfere with it. Live and let be, I thought. I could have brushed it into oblivion with the broom to my right, but it was both beautiful and functional, so why destroy it? Why interfere? Live and let be.

Then I noticed the fly; a small fly, insignificant even by fly standards, a pipsqueak. It sat on the decking just below the web and, from my giant's vantage point, seemed to rest scanning the water and boats for whatever it is flies scan for with their multi-faceted eyes. Being a fly it had no real knowledge that just overhead, death lurked with its many invisible strands. Touch just one, fly up into just one, and that's the end of that little fly's all too short history.

Which is when I got the idea that I could help this little fly avoid destruction with a brief gesture. I could see it was courting an unpleasant and lingering death but it could not. It sensed no danger at all. It was just moving in the world according to its instincts and programming. It was, I suppose, doing what felt good to it at the time, or doing what it was doing because it had to do it. If it got caught in the web, it would be just one of the billions of small natural tragedies that happen every minute of every day in the world. What right had I to interfere in the unfolding of nature?

Every right. I was not outside of nature but part of it too. And I was there at that time and that place. I could see the danger. It could not. A butterfly beats its wings in a garden in Peking, a fly settles to rest under a web on a houseboat in Seattle. God's plan, Fate, chaos theory, or a minuscule meaningless moment? Probably a bit of all of the above. Plus the chance for a minuscule godlike moment for me.

I know, through repeated experience, that you can't save people from themselves, but, I thought, I could at least save one small fly from her own foolishness. A small gesture, affirming life, but mine own.

I gestured towards the fly with my shoe. It took alarm and flew off a foot or two. And then circled back to land at the self-same spot. I gestured again, closer and with more vigor. Same reaction -- a small circling flight and then right back on station. Again with the shoe and yet again the stubborn pattern of escape and return on the part of the fly.

Curious, I bent down and looked closer. It was then I saw a faint, thin strand of web above it had already attached itself to the fly. Loose and long, the strand, a single strand, was already there. I guess it had been there all along but from far off and high above I hadn't seen it.

Determined now to complete my effort to save the fly from its fate, I waved my finger over the fly and severed the strand. Alarmed, the fly flew away. But it only flew a little way. Then it came back and settled roughly in the same spot.

It was free but, in the same way it didn't know it was trappedf, neither did it realize its freedom. Instead, in response to some deeper programming, it returned again to its place in this infinitesimal corner of the universe. There it courted the same fate I'd tried to save it from.

I finished my coffee and walked back into the room, leaving the fly to whatever fate may, in time, befall it. Like so many human beings I've known, it was, I guess, fated to be there. All it would take would be one small move, one firm decision, the flight of a moment and it would live. It couldn't do it. It was tied to its place in the loom of life by stands too fine for me to see and far too strong for me to sever.

From where I sit now, another fly crawls along the inside of my window. Through it I can see the spider, who owns the web under which my fly sits. Something has alerted it and it is starting to move, ever so carefully, from that shadow it waits in towards the center of its web.

Posted by Vanderleun at October 11, 2005 1:46 PM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

This reminded me of part of a recent commercial:

One kind of athelete says, "I can."
Another kind says, "I can't."
Coach says, "They're both right."

I'm glad you arrived safely, and look forward to drizzled observations from (and about) my long-ago hometown.

Posted by: mixed meta4 at October 14, 2005 12:13 PM

If you had saved the fly you would have been eternally bothered (or for as long as the thought lasted) about wether you did right and will receive a reward in heaven or eternal damnation for interferring with 'God's work.

I would go with the former.

Posted by: deadmaus at October 19, 2005 7:11 AM