I am a child, and I am cleaning my room. As I dust the old radio alarm clock on my bedside table, I notice a little white piece of something stuck to a groove in the speaker. I give it a few violent swipes with the duster, and a little black jumping spider pops out, on the defensive against this giant wrecking her egg sack. I’m thoroughly (physically and audibly) startled. Another defensive mother, my own, comes in and crushes the spider with a tissue.
It’s a damp cloudy day in Virginia. My mother is driving fast on the dirt road. We’re running late as usual, probably due to the groggy child buckled in the passenger seat.
I sense movement over my right shoulder. I turn and see a massive orb weaver – bulbous brown and yellow body with red and black striped legs – suspended just above the seat belt retractor. Again, I’m thoroughly startled. Momma, calm and collected, stops the car and runs over to my door. In one continuous motion (so seamless it could have been choreographed) she opens the door, removes one of her leather loafers, squashes the orb weaver hanging over her whimpering child, and replaces the shoe with nothing but the swish of her silk dress pants to suggest that a swift attack maneuver has just taken place.
I am living at Redlands Farm. Our bedrooms are on the second floor, which is great, since for three consecutive days, I have come home after long work days to find very large grass spiders in the foyer. I’m older now, less frightful and more sensitive to violence, so I trap the spiders in a jar and return them to the yard. We have an agreement: as long as they stay away from my bedroom, I won’t kill them.
It’s a spring morning and I am sitting on the steps of the house at Redlands. I’m ‘easing into the day’ with my coffee, the bright sunshine, and the symphony “Morning Sounds in Rural Virginia.” I notice a granddaddy long-legs ambling through the uncut grass. It has a dew bead held by surface tension in each of its knee joints. Because of the angle of the morning sun, the spider sparkles. An eight-fingered hand with eight diamond rings.
I’ve rearranged my bedroom at least five times. This time, I’ve positioned my bed under the east-facing dormer window. When I lie in bed at night, I can look up and out the window and see the night sky. I also see a big, beautiful web with an orb weaver resting in the center. She’s there every night, but when I wake up in the mornings, there’s only glittery strands of empty web.
There’s also a tiny spider living in the right-hand corner of this dormer. On the inside.
I decide that I can coexist with this one as long as it doesn’t drop down onto my bed. I watch it every now and then and wonder if there’s enough food in my room for it to survive. One morning, I notice a flurry of activity in the spider corner. It appears to be making repairs, or maybe it has that same restlessness that I do and is rearranging the furniture. Suddenly it slips and begins to fall down. It’s hanging by a thread, dangerously close to my bed sheets. It hangs a moment, composes itself, and begins climbing up the rescue thread. I sit up so I can get a closer look. It’s amazing to watch this little creature gently touch the thread with the tips of its long thin legs. A sensitive touch. And an incredible amount of muscle strength to heave its body weight up the silk against the pull of gravity.
I just read an essay called “Textile, Text, and Techne” by Victoria Mitchell. She opens the essay with a scene from Charlotte’s Web:
It’s the morning after Charlotte has made her first word-web for Wilbur, “Some Pig.” Farmer Zuckerman and his farmhand Lurvy are stunned. They didn’t know they had such an extraordinary animal living on their farm. The pig, that is. Mrs. Zuckerman, however, knows that it’s actually “Some Spider” living on the farm.
Mitchell’s essay is about the relationship between craft and intellect in the making of textiles, and the linguistic nature of textiles. Not all language is verbal. Some knowledge cannot be written down without losing its integrity. Through touch, we have a particular intimacy with our surroundings, and it is only through a corresponding language, a physical one, that we can communicate that knowledge.
The history of textiles before the industrial revolution is a history of women makers. Textiles and fiber arts are still gendered today, associated with domesticity and decoration. These ‘domestic’ arts have historically linked women to the symbol of the spider: (1) In Greek myth, Arachne the weaver, whose name is the root of “arachnid.” (2) In some Native American myths, Spider Grandmother is the great creator of the world, a complex world of interrelated, “interwoven” species and systems. The symbol persists in the artwork of Louise Bourgeois. She was influenced by textiles early in life; Her parents ran a tapestry restoration business. She also associated the spider with her mother: “The spider – why the spider? Because my best friend was my mother and she was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat, and as useful as a spider.”
Unlike stone or metalwork, crafts traditionally associated with men, textiles rarely survive the ages. As a result, a huge body of knowledge is lost to us, a void of material history that mirrors the absence of women in human ‘his’story.
Rebecca Solnit reflects on this absence and the intricacy of women’s experiences in her essay “Grandmother Spider,” an essay that has been on my mind for the last few days. The essay is a series of observations centered on a painting by Ana Teresa Fernandez.
She ends the essay thus: “To spin the web and not be caught in it, to create the world, to create your own life, to rule your fate, to name the grandmothers as well as the fathers, to draw nets and not just straight lines, to be a maker as well as a cleaner, to be able to sing and not be silenced, to take down the veil and appear: all these are the banners on the laundry line I hang out.” *
* Rebecca Solnit, “Grandmother Spider,” Men Explain Things to Me, Granta Publications: London, 2014, p. 82