By Halloween time, most spiders have packed up and gone the way of winter, or will soon, as natural patterns dictate. Many have reached the end of the life cycle. Some are finding spots under leaf litter or earth to sleep toward spring. So before my fascination for them settles into a certain kind of mental hibernation too, let me tell one more arachnid story.
In a corner of a door frame in one of the sheds at the Unity park, a barn spider set up her formidable shop this summer. I wasn’t surprised to notice her in July, because what’s most likely an extended family of her species has made its living on that shed summer after summer, meaning generation after generation, for years.
What was amazing was her size. Upwards of three-quarters of an inch in total body length, hairy all over, gray with light mottling on her back, humps on her “shoulders” and banded legs. Practically every day I got startled into that creepy feeling even arachnophiles get from time to time: Thank goodness we’re big. To me she looked like a descendant of Tolkien’s malevolent Shelob.
But in fact, she belonged to the species Araneus cavaticus, the model for E.B. White’s character in “Charlotte’s Web.” In the book, Charlotte A. Cavaticus describes herself as “a sedentary spider,” and sure enough, the Unity Shelob stayed parked in the upper left corner behind her orb web throughout August and September. One day she’d be backed tight into the door frame. The next she’d be an inch or so along, still facing out.
Like Charlotte, she waited for what came to her, which must have been a lot. The anchoring lines of the web ran all the way out to the other three corners of the door frame, with a hefty layer spun somewhat raggedly in between (possibly owing to maturity: among some orb-weaving spiders, younger ones build much neater webs than do older ones). Her silkwork probably snagged dozens of flies, moths, aphids, mosquitoes. It was so craftily constructed that you could almost imagine words appearing in the weave. Needless to say, spiders can’t write. But at the same time there is almost certainly — in my reading of the natural world, anyway — a formidable intelligence behind engineering that intricate. Some spider.
Around the end of September she shifted operations to the upper right corner of the door frame and started work on her magnum opus — her egg sac. It was a convex tangle of gray, white and peach colors that grew over a day or two to about 2 inches across. Whether it had 514 eggs in it, as Charlotte’s did, I don’t know, of course. But one afternoon I noticed her abdomen had shrunk considerably.
When I came back afternoons through October to check on her, she was perched snugly by the sac. Some days she straddled it, with her eight long legs splayed — protectively, I guess — over its whole span. She had stopped tending the orb web, which was tattering, so she was no longer eating and seeming a little more haggard every day. I wasn’t always sure she hadn’t died there guarding the next generation. Which is what happened to Charlotte. “‘We’re born, we live a little while, we die.'”
Some Araneus cavaticus females survive winter, in a kind of hibernation probably, and live to early spring — just long enough, perhaps, to see their spiderlings hatch, throw out lines of silk and go ballooning on the breeze to seek their fortunes on some other shed or barn. Though judging by the clan in Unity, where the same formidable webs get spun, summer after summer in a pattern of life indelible, that spot beside Lake Winnecook has, perennially, everything a spider species needs.
My son is getting married next month, and they’ve got a baby on the way who already has a name, Silas. I’m planning to read “Charlotte’s Web” to him. It kind of gives you a chill.
Dana Wilde lives in Troy. His book “Summer to Fall” is available from North Country Press. You can contact him at [email protected] Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month.