The ‘Ah’ of Seeing (H is for Hawk)

An accidental hop to a stranger’s Facebook page sent us to Spiders and Their Spinningwork: A natural history of the orbweaving spiders of the United States, with special regard to their industry and habits, a labor of love written in 1889 by Henry C. McCook. (Scanned copies here; print book of color plates here.) Volume 2 has wondrous drawings of spider webs, whose patterns are so varied as to seem truly…improvised, tailored to their surroundings. When we happen upon a spider’s web —our eyes suddenly focus or the light catches it just right — it seems like a miracle hiding in plain sight. It reminded us of a perfect passage from H is for Hawk. (So we’ve interspersed it with McCook’s lovely webs.)

‘Look!’ he says. ‘Look at that!’

‘What?’ I say, turning and shading my eyes. ‘I can’t see anything.’

‘Look towards the sun.’

‘I am.’

‘Look DOWN!’

‘Then I see it. The bare field we’d flown the hawk upon is covered in gossamer, millions of shining threads combed downwind across every inch of soil. Lit by the sinking sun the quivering silk runs like light on water all the way to my feet…

 

American Spiders and Their Spinningwork

American Spiders and Their Spinningwork

 

It is a thing of unearthly beauty, the work of a million tiny spiders searching for new homes. Each had spun a charged silken thread out into the air to pull it from its hatch-place, ascending like an intrepid hot-air balloonist to drift and disperse and fall. I stare at the field for a long time.

 

American Spiders and Their Spinningwork

American Spiders and Their Spinningwork

 

It reminds me of an evening last autumn on that trip to Uzbekistan. I’d been sitting on the ground outside my tent wondering if the terrible smell was a decomposing cow, or something much worse. Before me were miles of marsh and desert and in the far distance the Fergana Mountains, fading into haze. Then I saw the strangest things hanging in the air, and I could not work out what they were. They looked like white question marks, and they disobeyed the laws of physics alarmingly.

 

American Spiders and Their Spinningwork

American Spiders and Their Spinningwork

 

There was no wind at all, yet they hovered, and sank, and rose with supernatural slowness. What the hell? I ran after one. I walked up to it so that it was within six inches of my nose, and I still couldn’t understand what it was.

 

American Spiders and Their Spinningwork

American Spiders and Their Spinningwork

 

 …It was as long as my hand from wrist to fingertip; it was white, and squiggly like the doodle you make with a running-out pen, and made of some material I couldn’t identify. I thought of manna, and soda, of ash and silly string…

 

American Spiders and Their Spinningwork

American Spiders and Their Spinningwork

 

...And then I looked very, very closely, as it rose very, very slowly upwards, and there, from the base of this white frothy squiggle, was an almost-invisible line. And right at the bottom of the line was a spider exactly this size, the size of the word Ah.

 

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