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The Web Above Us


Through a circle that ever returneth in
To the self-same spot,
And much of Madness, and more of Sin,
And Horror the soul of the plot.

— Poe, The Conqueror Worm

At the Seattle houseboat where I write, it’s either spider mating season or a spider building boom. Unlike the rest of the builders in this burg, there’s no slump in the spider building boom. Here no bubble has burst. All about this floating world on the lake, spiders big and small are weaving elaborate webs in all the angles a host of houseboats offer.

In fact, so many spiders are getting so busy that it behooves you to begin the day waving a straw broom across your doorways and walkways lest you end up wearing a web. Getting your face slapped and your mouth filled with web is no way to start the day. I know. So sweeping the air with a broom like some latter day sorcerer’s apprentice is required. That’s my current ritual and it works, most of the time. But webs, I’ve found, come in all sorts of shapes and diameters and not all are easily seen and swept. Miss one and you get a face full of web and the spider gets, I imagine, very ticked off seeing his long night’s labor wiped out in a split second. If you both get very unlucky, you get a mouth full of web with a crunchy spider filling. Not my idea of a crisp morning’s memorable moment. Certainly not the spider’s.

At the same time, you don’t want to be too enthusiastic about web wipeouts. I know how beneficial it is to have spiders at work in a wet environment like a houseboat community. Where spiders weave mosquito populations are severely reduced, flies too. If you want insect life kept down to a dull buzz, 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 work and their webs are both beneficial and beautiful.

Webs, as we know, are not so wonderful for flies. For flies, a spider’s web is, in the full meaning of the phrase, a dead end. Touch even one silken strand and you can’t shake it off.

The nature of the spider’s web is that once touched by a single strand, your struggles to shake it off enmesh you ever more securely in others until escape is hopeless. In the end, 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 spider will be along soon enough to wrap things up. The only safe way to escape the spider’s 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’d noted the web between the two uprights when I’d first stepped out earlier brandishing my broom like Shiva the Destroyer, but since the web 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. What a good Buddha I am. Or is it “Oh what a good Jainist am I?” I forget.

Then I noticed the fly. For a fly it was kind of cute. It wasn’t a big buzzer that can batter on a window. It was a small fly, insignificant even by fly standards, a pipsqueak. It sat, bobbing slightly up and down as flies at rest often do, on the decking just below the web above. From my giant’s vantage point, it seemed to be scanning the green water and moored boats for whatever it is flies scan for with their ommatidium 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 would be the end of my little fly’s all too short history.

That’s when I got the idea that I could help this small fly avoid destruction with the slightest of gestures. I could see it was courting an unpleasant and lingering death but it could not. The fly sensed no danger at all. Why would it? It didn’t have that powerful frame of reference we humans believe we have in the 21st century. It lacked our overweening certitude and preening “knowledge” that we finally know, to a certainty, all the important facts about the Universe — its size, its age, our place in it, and all the other hubristic crap we tell ourselves because, in the final analysis, we are still afraid of the great dark that we’ve done our best to make larger and darker.

No, the fly was just moving in the world according to its instincts and programming. It was not at all like us. It was, I suppose, doing whatever felt either necessary or good to it at the time. Not at all like us. Or perhaps it was doing what it was doing because it had to do it. How can we ever understand what happens in the mind of a fly, when – for all our pride – we do not know what happens in our secret hearts; when we do not even know how we move our hands to make our gestures. If the fly got caught in the web above, it wouldn’t matter. It would be just one of the billions of small natural tragedies that happen every minute of every day in our brave new world where — so many of us seem to have decided — “purposeless matter hovers in the dark.” 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. The fly, for all the facets of its eyes, 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 cannot 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. A tiny prayer sent up from a simple act here on this morning in my floating world.

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

Curious, I bent down and looked closer. It was then I saw a faint, thin strand of web above had already attached itself to the fly. Loose and long, the strand, a single strand barely whiter than the air around it, had already adhered to the fly’s shoulders. I guess it had been there all along but from far off and high above I hadn’t been able to see it.

Determined now to complete my mission of saving this fly from its fate, I waved my finger over the fly severing the strand. Alarmed, the fly flew away.

But it only flew a little way. Then it came back and settled roughly in the self-same spot.

In the same way the fly didn’t know it was trapped, the fly didn’t realize that it was free; that some omnipotent being beyond its ken had granted it grace. Instead, in response to some deeper programming, the fly returned again to its pre-ordained place in this infinitesimal corner of the universe. There it courted the same fate I’d tried to save it from, lifting up to fly about in the strange right-angled way that flies do as if seeking the strand I’d severed. And always returning to the self-same spot.

I finished my coffee and walked back into the room, leaving the fly to whatever fate may, in time, have befallen it.

Like so many human beings I’ve known, the fly was, I guess, fated to be there. All it would take would be one small move, one firm decision, the flight of a moment out over the calm water, and it would live. It couldn’t do it. It was tied to its place in the loom of life by strands 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 the glass, I can see the spider, who owns the web under which my fly sits. Something, some faint tremor from a single strand, has alerted it and it is starting to scuttle, ever so carefully, from that shadow it waits in towards the center of its web.

I refill my cup and settle into my morning reading. Today it’s Pope’s “Essay on Man” where, after a few minutes, I read:

Oh blindness to the future! kindly giv’n,
That each may fill the circle mark’d by heav’n:
Who sees with equal eye, as God of all,
A hero perish, or a sparrow fall,
Atoms or systems into ruin hurl’d,
And now a bubble burst, and now a world.

[October 2005]

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Kevin in PA December 16, 2020, 12:27 PM

    A serendipitous fate to find that bit of literature to wrap up such an interesting experience.
    Very nice piece, Gerard!

    Now, I have a question, slightly off topic, but it relates to the photo of houseboats on Lake Union.
    Do you or did you have a neighbor named Owen H. (I won’t share his name online for privacy concerns)? My ex-wife’s Uncle, a Boeing engineer, lived on a houseboat that by the picture could have been your neighbor.

  • George_Banner December 16, 2020, 2:28 PM

    I will only kill a spider (or similar vermin consuming animal) if: (a) it could be harmful to humans and (b) it is in a place were it could be harmful to humans.
    Otherwise, the way I see things< they kill and consume and work for me.
    I don’t interfere.
    What they eat I don’t have to deal with.
    Me thinks most spiders are among our best friends out there.
    Their kills are bonuses for us.
    If spiders thrive it is because there is food and they are eating.
    We win.

  • M. Murcek December 17, 2020, 7:58 AM

    I remember reading one of those “who knows if that’s really true” factoids that anywhere you go on the planet, there’s always a spider within 6 feet of you somewhere. That would probably freak some people out, but I found it reassuring in some inexplicable way. Spiders are like snakes – if you know how to recognize the poisonous ones, you can just relax and be fascinated by all the rest.

  • Vanderleun December 17, 2020, 8:06 AM

    Kevin, I regret to say that I didn’t know an Owen H during the houseboat phase. But there were lots of houseboats there.

  • Steve vann December 17, 2020, 7:42 PM

    When you walk into a spider web stop and back up and it will pull right off you.