Saturday, September 13, 2008

Robert Frost and Charlotte's Web

I've never understood arachnophobia. To me, spider webs things of beauty, especially viewed through hazy morning light. I appreciate the diligent way their denizens make and maintain their homes, the neat predictability of a web. Spiders stay put, never scurry across the kitchen floor when you turn on the light in the morning. Unlike ants, spiders don't bite, in my experience. I've encountered more black widows while moving rocks on the farm than I'd care to dwell on, and yet here I am, unscarred.

So when , as I picked flowers for bouquets, I ran across a strange white spider with overlarge, crablike front legs, my first response was to recite poetry, rather than squeal or move away.


I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth-
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right.
Like the ingredients of a witches' broth
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night
What but design of darkness to appall?
If design govern in a thing so small.

-Robert Frost

Despite the eery similarities (white flowers, a white spider), Frost's poem didn't fit, however. An innocuous white spider as an agent of darkness? Nothing about the scene, with or without moth, filled me with dread or even the faintest suspicion of divine foul play. For while I recognize the appeal of a zero sum and slightly ominous cipher, I can't reduce Frost's vignette to a simple equation whereby life for the spider comes at the price of death for the moth. This would be a limited, misleading sort of truth, as if I found a photograph of someone and assumed from it her whole history.

Looking around the farm, I can scarcely comprehend the scale of the infinite, constant shifting-between what Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn calls "manifestations." A raincloud manifests as a raindrop, then the brilliant new green of a carrot sprouting; a moth manifests as a part of a spider before joining the flower patch in the guise of a bloom. Viewing the farm as I do through snapshots, a montage of daily events, I am hard pressed to recognize these transformations as ongoing.

In my perceptual limitations, I'm much like the cicada that snatched me last night from sleep. Trapped in my windowsill, it buzzed hysterically from side to side and rattled the glass. Spiderwebs and freedom both stretched above it, but ten minutes passed before the cicada found the edge of the window and climbed with blind trust upwards. It had no sense of my watching or more than a vague idea of direction. Confined by limited information of its senses, the cicada threw itself into the glass until, by chance, it found a new path.

There is design to it all, but not an appalling one--death opening new avenues for life in the flux of a healthy system. I will never grasp the expansiveness of the farm any more than the cicada will someday draw a schematic of my window, but I can still appreciate the elegance of the design that places a white spider atop a white flower, waiting for a white moth to venture near. All three will be transformed.

No comments: