Friday, June 21st:
My car has not moved in five days. It’s parked on campus in Sylva, North Carolina, where I’ve been taking a five-day wilderness medicine class and where my car, seats folded down, has been serving as my temporary home. Now, class over, our transient community detaches into individuals. Each of us disperses, alone, to head our separate ways.
As I open my car door to start my long drive home to Virginia, I notice I’m not going solo after all: a spiderweb, one of those textbook-perfect ones, stretches between my side view mirror and the door. One thread anchors it from the mirror to the top of the door; another defines the bottom edge, spun between the bottom of my window and the mirror; a third links the two into an acute triangle. Between these foundations, an involute web spirals towards a minute center. The architect of this masterpiece is nowhere to be seen, but apparently I’m not the only one who’s called my vehicle ‘home’ this week.
I take a moment to regret that this work of art is doomed, for certainly its diaphanous threads stand no chance against highway-speed winds. But I’m eager to get home. I start my car and pull out of the parking lot.
As I drive on, the spider web fades with the daylight. I’m alone again, only the narrators of my audio book keeping me company as the miles count down to Harrisonburg.
I drive for the next six hours and stumble into the house just past midnight, spilling my personal effects over the kitchen counter. My boyfriend, S, is asleep in bed, and I join him as promptly as I can.
Saturday, June 22nd:
Against my late-night odds, I wake up energized. It’s a beautiful day, sunny and warm, and S and I decide to drive to Charlottesville for a hike. We head out around 11:00am. As I approach the driver’s door of my car, I realize I’ve brought a stowaway from North Carolina: the web is back, as if it has always been there. The original three anchoring strands have miraculously survived the trip north, and spun between them is a new and equally glorious version of yesterday’s web.
Unfortunately for its maker, today I’ve again chosen to travel, so the web will have to fare as it may. I start my car and back out of the driveway.
As the three of us get underway, I discover something else: apparently, spiders are quite capable of learning. Wind begins to batter the web, bending it like a banner, and as our speed picks up the spider suddenly scurries out from behind the reflective part of my side view mirror. I gasp, startled by both its presence and its size. It’s an orb weaver, with a round, dun-and-black abdomen the size of my fingernail. The spider’s size marks it — her — as female. She runs out to the center of her web and clings there, buffeted by the rising wind. The web and its passenger flap back and forth, a standard bearing an arachnid sigil. She’s attempting to salvage her work, but the wind is too strong; she can barely move. Meanwhile I’m swiftly approaching the entrance ramp to Interstate 81, and torn between keeping my eyes on the road and watching the high drama unfolding inches from my shoulder.
“Will you let me know if she makes it?” I ask S, and he agrees. Despite having delegated observation duty, however, I continue to flick my eyes between the spider and the road.
The web vibrates at a higher frequency as I accelerate, and the spider seems to surrender. Battered by the wind, she begins to inch back to the safety of the mirror. I debate pulling over to give her a chance to retreat, but I’m already at the interstate entrance ramp. The spider, through painfully minute movements, defies the flapping of her disintegrating web and continues to retreat towards the mirror. Just before I merge, she tucks herself behind the reflected road and into safety.
I’m deeply impressed. S and I discuss the spider’s maneuver for the next ten minutes, in the manner some couples replay sporting events.
By the time we arrive in Charlottesville, the web is torn to shreds, only the triangular foundation still in place. Spider silk is an amazing substance, but it can only withstand so much beating by turbulent air currents. It’s incredible that, after two road trips at seventy miles per hour, the original connection points are still there at all.
Monday, June 24th:
Yesterday I did not drive, so the spider had ample time to rebuild. This morning, as I get into my car to drive to work, I’m not surprised to find the web has returned. I feel guilty about the imminent destruction, knowing that the spider’s livelihood must succumb to the demands of mine. Moreover, the web is a lovely thing—impossibly delicate, incredibly strong—and by now, it’s not only beautiful but familiar. This spider is true to form, building the same structure for a third time, with a confidence empowered by evolution. What was Einstein’s apocryphal quote about repetition equaling insanity? Clearly this spider has never heard it.
But whatever the spider’s design rationale, it’s clear that, like the best scientists, she does learn from her mistakes. As my speed picks up, the spider emerges again. This time, she’s ready. It takes a tremendous expenditure of energy for arachnids to produce any quantity of silk. In cases where their efforts are not rewarded with prey, it is common for spiders to eat their own webs, thereby recycling the proteins in the fibers. This somewhat autosarcophagous meal can be enough to sustain them until a more nutritious one, i.e. some hapless insect, does come along. The loss of my spider’s previous webs has no doubt cost her dearly; this time, she is determined to conserve both mass and energy. I dart tense glances her way as she hurries out to the edges of her web and deftly disengages her crosspieces from the frame. Starting at the bottom corner of her web, she shunts the thinner filaments along the lower mainstay, like sliding a shower curtain along its rod, and makes a bundle at the corner nearest the mirror. She then moves to the upper limb of the triangle and repeats the process, condensing her silk into one tight sheaf. It’s fascinating to watch. Reader, be assured I am a safe and cautious driver, but my peripheral vision is coming into heavy use.
My spider’s timing is exact. Just as I turn onto the entrance ramp to the interstate, she bundles her two sections together and, grabbing them in her front legs, tucks herself and her burden behind the side view mirror. I give a startled and victorious shout, as though my passenger’s success is also mine. Fortunately for me, other drivers can’t hear me through the glass.
Tuesday, June 25th:
The web is different today. The main structure is back in place, the foundations somehow intact, but the finely spun center is full of holes. Perhaps my spider has finally caught the prey she seeks, and the damage is the result of their struggle; perhaps she’s weary from rebuilding so many times, her stores of protein depleted, and this slipshod job is all she can muster. After so many temporary homes of my own, I know the feeling.
Then I notice that, contrary to form, she’s branched out: in addition to the rebuilt web, a new, smaller one stretches between my Nissan’s roof rack and mirror. My spider has diversified her resources. Perhaps this is a better explanation for the patch job. Is she growing desperate? Remorse nips hard. I’m not taking the interstate today, but I don’t have much hope for how this new web will fare. I consider, this time, intervening. Maybe I can coax my spider out from behind the mirror, relocate her to some cozy bush where she won’t have to start again every morning. My musings, however, are short-lived. I glance at my phone; I don’t have time to attempt such a risky operation. Besides, I doubt I would actually succeed at a spider transplant. She’s clearly smart enough to differentiate human and insect disturbances to her web.
As I gather speed on Route 33 West, my spider emerges and once again scurries out to collect and recycle her silk. Instead of attending to the main structure, she heads straight up to her secondary web, probably knowing it’s more fragile. She begins to detach the strands with her legs and bundle them together to recoup.
It’s harder to see her at this angle and I am, after all, driving, so I miss exactly what happens next; but abruptly, something seems to snap. The spider and her sheaf of webbing blow sharply backwards, out of my sight. I gasp, and my eyes do a frantic jitterbug between the road and window. Have I lost my spider? The main frame of the web flutters empty, while a long strand of silk, attached at one end to my mirror, floats towards the back of my car like the tail of a kite. I crane to see, but I can’t determine if my spider is connected to its other end.
It’s a testament to the bond I’ve somehow developed with this orb weaver that I seriously consider what, if anything, I can do. Ordinarily, I want no less than a foot between me and most spiders, especially one of this size. If she’d shown up inside my car rather than colonizing its exterior, I would have promptly pulled over, found something to contain her with, and tossed her out the window without hesitation. But over the past few days, she’s gone from being an anonymous stowaway to a female, then an individual, and finally a companion. My spider, I’ve been calling her, in the way I would say, my friend. Now, at the idea that my spider is gone, I feel a deep and real sense of loss.
I don’t pull over. I know, though I want to will it away with images of her riding my roof rack, that my spider is gone. Spiders, I remind myself guiltily, have an amazing ability to survive. They’ve been found in the depths of the ocean and even in the outer atmosphere of our planet, wafting on loops of their own silk—a behavior known as ballooning. Surely Route 33 is a more hospitable environment than either of those extremes. Surely she had time to cast a balloon of her own to whisk her to a new home—a friendly median, a tree, the mirror of someone else’s car—where she can reproduce her web, and maybe this time see a better payoff for her efforts. Certainly my side view mirror is not her first home. Surely it can’t be her last.
When I arrive at work I search the mirror, roof rack, and any other likely crevices on my car, but they’re all empty of arachnids. I fret about my spider through the rest of my day, at the job and then again on my drive home, where her empty web flutters outside my window like a reproach.
“I’ve lost my spider,” I tell S as soon as he gets home, and, trying to assuage my guilt, he reminds me after listening to my story, “You know that they don’t live long anyway.”
It’s true orb weavers don’t make it through the winter. But that’s not the point.
Wednesday, June 26th:
When I walk out to my car the following morning, part of me doesn’t want to look. I can pretend, that way, that the web is remade, that I’ve been granted another chance. Like the erring party in a broken relationship, I make well-meaning, frangible promises: This time, I’ll do the right thing, even though I don’t yet know what that is. This time, I’ll be better. Just let me try again. I’ll move you from the mirror. I’ll find you a safer home. (Haven’t we all wished, at some point in our lives, that we could gather up time and weave a new version of our decisions?)
The web, of course, remains as it was, the crumbled infrastructure of the previous day. As it slowly disintegrates over my next few voyages, it will be this state of it that stays in my mind. A testament to how non-human needs succumb to our species’ economy and infrastructure. A reminder that we can change this; that it’s possible to love anything, as long as there’s some connection—even if it be fine as spider silk.
M. Stevenson (she/her) is a writer, educator, and naturalist with degrees from Brown University (B.A., Geology-Biology) and the University of Idaho (M.Ed., Environmental Education). Her publications include poetry and prose in Tiny Seed Literary Journal, Poets Reading the News, The Florida Review, and Watershed Journal. She is a citizen of the Appalachian bioregion. You can find her on Twitter @marinabirds.