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.
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