silken threads and catching flies

alec.mills via flickr

You do the same thing every day the same way, to the point where you barely have to think about what you are doing, so rote your actions become with less and less mental effort to achieve them.

You live in the same town for your whole life, seeing the same people (with minor variation for marriages and births and deaths).

You do the same job every day, pushing papers (albeit increasingly digital) in an office, plowing the same dirt in the same fields, teaching the same subject (to different children, as the years go by, a sea of faces).

There is comfort in the sameness, in the predictability. There is beauty, some visible, other not, and creativity in the ritual. There is reason for sameness, patterns and symmetries evident in all life.

To some this endless repetition is anathema, a killer of all creativity and growth, whether because it is a more direct path to that end of all ends or because it is boring or because it sucks from us what makes us unique. They jump from one place to the next, from one thing to the next, embracing the chaos and racing so that roots don’t take, so that the images that spill over their eyes and the sounds that fill their ears do not burn into their cortices like screen burn.

Think, then, of the spider, whose life is a neverending repetition: build a web, catch a meal, eat it and then do it all over again.

Here’s an orb spider building its web (note the meowing, kinda cute):

And another (turn down the sound on this one, the music is totally dweeby)


Life goes on, over and over and over again in an endless repetitive loop, yet critical to its success are persistence, sameness, accuracy, attention. Many spiders work on a schedule, building their webs in the early morning and taking them down at night (and this without their Mama to rouse them from sleep or nag them to clean up and get some rest).

Yet hidden within the sameness is variation. While every web begins with a single thread there are different types of webs: sheet and filmy dome, funnel and orb. The spider builds a highway of non-sticky silk where it can move along its little web world, and another which is sticky to catch its prey. It tiptoes across its creation in a deft dance, a flurry of activity followed by stillness. Waiting. Attuned to vibrations and aware of the subtle differences between a leaf, or a fly, or a dangerous wasp. Once done, some eat the web in an natural recyclage, others leave the core structure so that the next day they can start anew. Anew. Again.

But what happens when this instinctually mastered task goes awry? Imagine the poor orb spiders that NASA put in space, Esmeralda and Gladys. Everything was different from all that they knew: the air, the sounds, no more dew-moist leaves and bark-covered branches on which to build their webs, and no gravity which allows them to hang and swing to build their webs.

Yet spiders, like all creatures faced with life and death, or with a glitch in how things are supposed to be or how we expect them to be, move on. They adapt and find a way to achieve what they need to achieve against all odds. The result may be different, not as perfectly symmetrical or lovely as it might be framed by sunbeams and blown by a gentle summer breeze, but it still catches flies.

(sources include BioEdOnline, NASA and Wired Science)

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9 thoughts on “silken threads and catching flies

  1. You almost had me fleeing the page – I can admire spiders, from afar, but don’t enjoy getting up close & personal with them. Hadn’t know or registered about them trying to build webs in space – that would be a challenge, wouldn’t it?

    We do all have to adapt, if circumstances change or we want different results.

    1. Adapt or die, I suppose… but also the lesson (one child graduated last night, so we’re all about lessons these days) is also about flexibility. We have to be flexible enough to allow for changes and barriers in our paths yet still kept our focus on the goal. Not always easy!

  2. Orb spiders….we have one or maybe a family of them in our garden weaving web after gigantic web. So they definitely must be working to a busy schedule! But I must admit, I’m flighty and chaotic, especially when it comes to my career, jumping from one job to the next when I start feeling remotely bored. As I’ve gotten older I’ve been thinking that I do need to be more persistent, embrace sameness and appreciate the subtle variations. Interesting blog.

  3. I know what you’re saying, but I guess your blog (whether it was intended or not) had me thinking about some self reflecting I’ve been doing lately. That I’m too quick to be bored once something seems familiar, that I need to stick with something longer, appreciate the routine, and the small differences and challenges. I’m sure my life would be less stressful!

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