This Gardening column is guest-written by Stephanie Kaza, my treasured dharma sister and close colleague of almost 30 years. Guided by her keen intelligence and deft observation, I hope you will be intertwined in the orb weaver’s web. —Wendy Johnson
This fall a large orb weaver spider of bulbous abdomen took up residence in the southeastern window of our living room. A summer refugee from the garden, it clearly did not belong there, and yet it settled in as if it would be staying awhile. She built an exquisite web, anchored by three mainstay threads to the windowsill. The concentric circles of gossamer silk were stitched together at regular intervals, forming a flat food net. Every night the spider would come to the middle of the web and hang in place, waiting for prey. When day came, she would climb up to the edge of the frame and tuck in for the day, legs outstretched on the web to receive vibrations from visitors. One early morning before dawn I found the spider carefully repairing the net, one small stitch at a time. Its abdomen would touch down and attach a bit of silk, and then the spider would pull it to the next attachment point, make the link, and move on to the next rung.
Across the warmer months we watched the windowsill fill with carcasses, mostly box elderbugs, who had a record hatch this year. When a bug stumbled onto the web, the orb weaver moved swiftly to the site of struggle and delivered a dose of paralyzing toxins. This allowed her to quickly wrap the bug in swaddles of silk, fanned out in a thick bandage from the tip of the abdomen. In a matter of seconds the bug had been mummified. Often the spider would carry the bug in her palps up to the top of the web, where she could dine at leisure. At times I could see the spider snipping her own web lines with its mouthparts to clear a path. Then in the early morning hours she would repair these breaks, reinforcing the web, especially in the middle, with a dense network of sticky lines.
As it grew colder and prey became scarce, I began to worry about the orb weaver’s survival outside her native garden home. Most people would long ago have put the spider outside or dispensed with her in some objective or perhaps even unkind way. But for me, something had shifted. I thought I was merely observing nature, following my own curiosity about this unexpected visitor. Now I was emotionally involved and felt some compassion for the spider’s vulnerability. I considered whether or not to feed the spider even though I knew this was crossing a line. It would mean actively choosing to kill one being to feed another. How could I reconcile that with the first Buddhist precept? How many times had I recited the ten precepts and taken a vow not to kill, not to harm life? I also knew too well that the act of feeding another being very quickly leads to attachment, whether it is a cat or dog, a houseplant, or an elderly parent. If you are feeding someone, you are taking responsibility for that life. Ethical decisions get complicated.
I considered the alternatives and decided to take action. I captured a few bugs that were sunning on the south-facing wall and offered them to the web. One bug landed on the windowsill by mistake, and I tried to retrieve it. The interference was costly: I snapped a key guywire thread. The web sagged, and the spider froze. I wanted to repair the damage and make everything right again. I watched my mind generate projections, hoping the spider would fix the problem, wishing I hadn’t been such a klutz, realizing I was now caught in the sticky web myself.
Several times a day I came to the corner window, sometimes staring at the orb weaver with magnifying glass in hand, transfixed by her delicate beauty. I was full of questions and concerns. Would the spider have enough strength to take care of its web? Would she freeze to death in the cold window? Would that be sad, or just the way the story ended? I had to acknowledge my selfish desire to keep this spider alive so that I could enjoy her presence. I thought of her as a friend, a garden ambassador of sorts, though certainly the feeling was not mutual. In spite of my yearnings, the spider had her own life, and at some point, it would be over. I felt clumsily human in my unexpected tenderness toward this fullhearted being.
The orb weaver persisted into the deepening of winter but ate very little after one prize large moth. Things were not going well. I debated buying mealworms at the pet store, but I could not bring myself to sustain the orb weaver to that degree. That was too far over the line. It did not seem right to buy food for a wild animal. I could not, in full awareness, choose to feed my own attachment.
Weeks later, I arrived home at the end of a very long day and found the orb weaver hanging upside down. I blew lightly, but she did not move at all. Not even a slight contraction. It was clearly dead. A sudden wave of sorrow and clinging crashed over me, and I burst into tears. I felt I’d lost a friend, someone I had checked on many times a day. At the same time I felt I’d betrayed the friendship by not keeping the spider alive. I hadn’t wanted to turn this wild animal into a pet, and yet here were the awful consequences: the end of a life lived unexpectedly in a city window frame.
The sense of loss was deeply familiar—a sudden hole, the universe altered, a recognition of “the end” of something meaningful and important. How often does one get the chance to be this close to a wild being? I wanted to honor the full measure of the gift. I sat quietly in the corner with the fallen queen, trying to grasp in some way the magnitude of this one small life.
The next day I returned to the window to see this beautiful being up close, when I could no longer frighten it or disturb its web. The spider’s legs were stretched out, the graceful curve of clinging now slack. The colors on the abdomen were dulled, the palps by the mouth seemed almost dusty. And there in this scene of death I spotted a very tiny spider that appeared to be a baby orb weaver. This very small being was clamped onto the big spider’s leg, digging in for a meal. All day we checked on it as it moved from one leg to another. Now my garden visitor was food for the next generation—a spider Jataka tale spun in the window frame. My speculating mind began running wild again, entertaining itself with questions, possibilities, hypotheses. The tiny spider gave good attention to the fallen queen, but when the temperature dropped below zero, it pulled into a small hole and did not come out again. My delight was short-lived.
The once magnificent web still hangs in the window, the body of the orb weaver lying in state. All the various stories I made up along the way are now dust. Wonder, grief, and ethical struggle have passed on with the turning of the seasons. Morning light pours in through the window, the frame empty now of tension and contradiction. What next for this corner of the world?
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