Early one morning in late spring, Boomerang Creek was awash with spider webs cast out on land and in the air. Across the meadow’s sea of grass, delicate gossamers of spidery silk woven in the night sparkled with dewdrops in the dawn light. Wherever there is a tree branch, barbed wire fence line, porch post or roof gutter, spiders had left evidence of their nocturnal industry. While we’d been sleeping, they’d been spinning.
For that is the nature of spiders. According to Henry C. McCook—a popular 19th century naturalist and author on the subject—spiders derive their name from spinder, “the spinning one,” root of both spindle and spinster. It was, he wrote, the name “by which the virgin mistress of the distaff was commonly known in the days of our grandsires.”
In the night preceding our walk, spiders had spun webs between the barbed wire fence that separates the eastern boundary of our meadow grasses and our neighbor’s cow pasture. The night’s heavy dew sparkled like diamonds on spidery necklaces spun up and down the fence line. Invisible at night, they were illuminated by dawn light. Each bejeweled web was unique in design, and its existence ephemeral.
When Kit and I first moved to the country thirty-two years ago, we were warned to beware of recluse spiders that lurk in dark corners of basements and barns. I have a healthy fear of these brown spiders known for their venomous bite and hope never to cross paths with one. But as a writer, I have developed a particular fascination with Argiope aurantia—the Golden Orb Weaver. Known as the “Writing Spider,” they spin their webs in sunny places and care only about eating aphids, flies, grasshoppers, mosquitoes and wasps.
Like E. B. White—acclaimed essayist for The New Yorker and author of the children’s book classic, Charlotte’s Web (1952)—I came to observe and appreciate the magic of the Orb Weaver spider after moving to a farm with a barn. Unlike my habit for naming and sharing life with both city and country cats, I had never before named a spider or imagined ever doing so.
E. B. White studied spiders for a year while living on a farm in Maine before writing Charlotte’s Web—the story of a small pig and his friendship with a large grey spider. In his notes on the engineering behind a spider’s fly-trapping web, he wrote—
“The first thing a spider does is stretch a thread from some high point. Then from the center of this, it stretches threads like spokes of a wheel. Uses 2 kinds of thread: dry and tough (for the guy ropes) sticky (for spiral).”
The body of a female Orb Weaver grows almost an inch and a half long, the male only about ¾ inch long. The head is small with silver hairs on it while the large back abdomen section is egg-shaped with distinctive black and yellow coloring. What makes this spider appear so massive is the length of its eight legs—each black with red or yellow bands and three claws on the end.
The female builds the large web, and a male builds a smaller web—a thick zigzag of white silk—on the outer part of her web. That bold, zipper-like pattern was the source of our orb weaver’s name.
The body of a female Orb Weaver grows almost an inch and a half long, the male only about ¾ inch long. The head is small with silver hairs on it while the large back section of the abdomen is egg-shaped with distinctive black and yellow coloring. What makes this spider appear so massive is the length of its eight legs—each black with red or yellow bands and three claws on the end.
One summer a few years ago, a Golden Orb Weaver took up residence under an eave on our porch where she was protected from rain and wind. She anchored her web by a single dry line to the porch gutter and from there to a red grass tropical palm on the deck below. From that fragile foundation, her web spiraled out, creating a massive web two feet wide and each night she rewove the zigzag pattern at its center and held court there the following day.
Ziggy, as I named her, stayed for over a month. Each morning, I greeted her and sensed that she’d grown easy with my presence. “Has she been eavesdropping?” I asked Kit one morning while seated in the Adirondack chairs beneath her web. Secretly, I hoped so.
One morning, Ziggy and her web were gone. Now every summer, I hope for one of her offspring to return and take up residence on our porch. In the closing description of Charlotte in his book, E.B. White wrote, “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.” Ziggy was as well.
Cathy Salter is a geographer and columnist who lives with her husband, Kit, in Southern Boone County at a place they call Boomerang Creek.