words by willow defebaugh
Welcome to The Overview, a weekly newsletter in which Editor-in-Chief Willow Defebaugh offers an aerial view of the latest events in climate and culture—and how they all fit together.
“A good life is like a weaving. Energy is created in the tension. The struggle, the pull and tug are everything.”
It’s not often that I start this newsletter with a warning, but this week’s subject might warrant one: If you are in any way arachnophobic, this edition might not be for you. Or rather, perhaps it’s precisely for you. According to the World Spider Catalog, there are nearly 50,000 species of spiders on Earth, found on every continent except Antarctica. I often wonder why so many fear them, when they are emissaries of so many of nature’s most vital teachings. Then again, maybe that’s woven into why we fear them: what they symbolize.
Created by special organs called spinnerets, spider silk is one of nature’s most impressive and versatile inventions. It’s lightweight, flexible, stronger than steel, and tougher than Kevlar armor. As a result, humans have been trying to replicate this wonder material for decades—and recently, we’ve succeeded. Our friends at Bolt Threads have pioneered the low-impact, biodegradable Microsilk, which even Stella McCartney has woven into some of her designs. And last month, researchers at the University of Cambridge created a plant-based polymer that mimics the properties of spider silk, and could become a replacement for single-use plastics.
Depending on the species, spiders weave webs in a diverse array of forms and functions. Those of the family Araneidae (also known as orbweavers) weave circular webs. They begin by pulling out a single thread with one leg, and then use another to weave multiple threads into a balloon-like structure that they cast into the sky, patiently waiting for a breeze to land it somewhere. Once they sense it has, they follow the line, leaving new silk behind to create a secure thread. They repeat this about 20 times, and then test the tension to determine which are the strongest, and then cut the rest. From there, they weave in circles to the center.
Many other forms of architects exist among arachnids. Tangle-web spiders of the Theridiidae family (which includes the black widow) design three-dimensional structures commonly known as cobwebs that confuse their victims. Triangle weavers create triangular webs with an anchor line that they pull taut and then use to fling themselves at their victims when the time is right, while ogre-faced spiders make small nets that they strategically drop on prey from above. Perhaps most impressive is the diving bell spider, which lives entirely underwater—using its signature webs to store air bubbles from the surface.
Whether in the careful crafting of their intricate webs or in the waiting for prey, a common thread exists among spiders: patience. Spiders know that the key to accomplishing anything isn’t the tools used, it’s time. This also extends to the frequency with which they spin. Spider silk may be miraculous, but it’s still no match for the many obstacles that nature has in store; spiders are constantly repairing their work or building anew, sometimes spinning fresh webs every day. They also do so sustainably; they are known to eat previous webs to restore their silk supplies.
From spiders we can learn another valuable lesson: Creativity requires tension. In fact, a strong web can’t be woven without it. This tension not only allows for a stronger structure, it’s also a tool that spiders can use vibrationally to sense danger and capture prey. Their very survival depends on it. Perhaps all of these teachings are entangled into why we avoid spiders. After all, humans are not particularly patient creatures, and many of us are taught to avoid tension.
I don’t know what unique and individual webs you are weaving in your life. What I do know is that they will require patience and endurance. I know that you will need to cast your nets into the wind, to trust the forces of our world, even when they break you down. I know that you will need to weave and reweave many times, that you already have. I know that you will need to follow the threads, that tension will be involved. I also know that this is all true for what we are weaving together, the story we are spinning. The one about how humanity relearned its place in the web.