Autumn comes to the valley in which I live. The warm sunshine is still (Sunna be praised!) with us, but the pivot point of the September equinox has passed. Mist shrouds the trees in the morning the leaves of the willows fill up with yellow and fall down upon the moist green earth.
This is the season of the spiders, when these miraculous beasts spin their webs between the fast dying stems of grasses. In common with many humans I deeply admire the tenacity and technical skill of spiders. I watched one recently in a still-scented honeysuckle bush, dealing with a yellowed leaf that had become entangled in its web. She (I usually think of spiders as ‘she’, because reasons) carefully made fast some gossamer lines. She ran new strands from her spinnerets and carefully cut other silks. The leaf went swinging out from the face of the web, dangling, quite literally, from a thread. Then she sat for a while, me watching intently to see if she would slice the final connection. She didn’t, and looking down, I could imagine why she had stopped. The leaf hung now away from the prime killing zone of her trap, it was no longer an impediment to her. Had she cut the final strand there was a distinct possibility that the leaf would have become caught on one of the lower main strands supporting her web. If the leaf landed in this position it would have been very hard to remove, and she could have risked the structural integrity of the whole network. Instead she chose to let this now minor irritation stay, to make the calculation between risk and benefit and decide she had done enough.
As in the fabled story of Robert the Bruce the spider is an instructor. In the context of the spider I observerd, she teaches an approach to the things in your life that are irritations, things that get in your way. These things may be social issues (your tiresome ex-partner is still obsessively bad-mouthing you), physical difficulties (you notice that your back problems are getting worse, inevitable as you age) or more esoteric problems. The lesson of the spider (in the honeysuckle) is that you really don’t always need to finish the job. Sometimes good enough is simply good enough. If you’ve already done all that’s needed to get your irksome ex out of your circle of friends, if you’re doing exercises aimed at strengthening your poorly spine and so on, then that may be sufficient. Save your energy for what matters (in her case sucking the life blood from flies) and strengthen your core. Don’t waste attention on that which is good enough, especially if, by trying to completely resolve the problem, you risk ending up with diminishing returns or even upsetting what you have already achieved.
Meanwhile inside my house another lesson from the spiders. A voluptuous garden spider had spun her web right across my kitchen window while I was away at a conference in Cambridge. Upon my return I noticed her handiwork, a lovely circular web of almost Platonic perfection. While I do groove on that Goth style I was minded to remove her until I considered the implications of doing so. On my windowsill (which is pretty deep, it being an 18th century building) sit a number of pot plants. These include aloe vera (essential medicine for minor burns), various exotic cacti and more delicate plants. One in particular is very susceptible to insect attack (this beautiful herb reproduces by getting humans to make cuttings of it, and rarely flowers or sets seed). So why move my arachnid guest, especially when she is protecting my indoor garden?
Another spider who made an appearance in my living room last night was a giant house spider. As autumn arrives so the males of this species leave dark and unmolested webs in the corners of buildings. They race across the prairie of the carpet in the hope of finding a mate. Typically we encounter these chaps when they get stuck in the bath. Whether spotted in the tub or on the prowl along the floor there is a tendency for folk to capture them and ‘set them free’ in the garden. This reaction is understandable. We think of our homes as ours, they are the modernised caves in which we dwell. We’ve bought and paid for them and any other living things inside (pets, plants, children etc) are there because we’ve put them there. Spiders are also, for possibly evolutionary reasons, creatures than many of us are nervous of. Best get their weird eight-legged forms out of our house.
However again the spider has a teaching, and that is that all our spaces are in fact shared. Whether we’re talking about the immense amount of microbial life that swarms inside and upon our bodies, the dust mite denizens of our beds, or our much bigger (and therefore more obvious) eight-legged housemates. We are actually surrounded by other lifeforms all the time. There are very few environments in which humans find themselves where other lifeforms don’t exist (there are perhaps even bacteria on the outside of the international space station as well as those in the guts of the crew). Typically you’re never more than a couple of meters away from an insect and of course the very air we breathe is seething with bacterial beings. Speaking of spiders, several species are specifically linked to human dwellings. We are part of nature, we make and shape habitats, and in any given environmental niche lifeforms will find a foothold; fleas, silverfish, rats, pigeons, foxes, hawks, mice….the list goes on…
While some of us might imagine that we have few dealings with other creatures in our day-to-day lives actually, if we stop and look, other non-human persons are all around us. These facts are one of the considerations that makes that old chestnut, that modern pagans are necessarily cut-off from nature, untenable. We can learn from the attercop racing across the kitchen floor, that this is his territory too. Paying attention to our needs, as I did with the arthropod who now protects my house plants, we can often enter simple, mutually beneficial relationships. And as we observe and interact with these beings, these spirits, we can learn from their wisdom.