Early one morning as I stepped outside on a recent visit to a friend’s farm, I was swaddled in the soft hug of a morning fog, feeling like I was stepping through a veil into another world. As the sun began to creep over the hill, its pale luminescence began to brighten the blanket of woolly cotton that hung in the air. The fog’s mantle held me close and helped me to hold onto the feeling of being between waking and dreamtime a little longer, as I ventured out to explore.
Walking up the dirt road, the fields beside me were full of tall grasses with their seedheads held proudly in greeting. Intermingled among them I saw the cheery blue faces of chicory flowers, stickweeds holding their golden clusters high, the last of the Queen Anne’s Lace curling into nests, purple thistles daring me to come close, and daisies with their open their faces—all peering through the drifting fog.
As the golden glow of the sunrise began to shine through, what took my breath away were thousands of spiderwebs spun among the grasses and flowers. Each of them was facing the sunrise, standing one to two feet tall, draped in dew, and bejeweled by the emerging light. As I walked along the road beside them, they faded in and out of my view, like they were winking at me. These fleeting portals let me slip into a reverie where I felt like a voyeur, peering into a world that I once knew but have long since forgotten. There was a language here, a way of communicating wisdom that I could feel, but couldn’t quite grasp or remember.
Glittering in the pale light, these classic orb webs radiated their spokes out to the grasses and flowers that support them. The draping silk of their weft was woven in circles spiraling out from the center, catching the dew that illuminated each spider’s handiwork. The spiders that make these types of webs are called orb-weavers, referring to the circular wheel shape of their webs. The word orb comes from the Latin word orbis, meaning circle or disk. Today however, “orb” is used to mean a sphere, a celestial body—a body like the Earth itself—suggesting that an orb-weaver is an Earth-Weaver as well.
Spiders have long been weavers of worlds in our myths and creation stories. In my reverie, these orb-weaving spiders in the meadow are the wise grandmothers of myth that walk between worlds, weaving them together. They balance on the silken threads with ease, walking between realms—between life and death, waking and dreamtime. I have a hunch they are also a link between the widely varying ways dissimilar living-beings, like the flowers and spiders, sense and perceive the world around them. We have so much to gain when we embrace other ways of perceiving our worlds. On this day, the beauty of the dew-draped webs offered me a window to feel the depth of interaction and community in this meadow that my human senses normally wouldn’t have focused on.
As my attention expanded over the whole meadow, I could feel the joy of these beings as they danced with, fed, and supported each other. What else was happening in this field of flowers, grasses, insects, and animals that I couldn’t perceive? My strong unscientific feeling is that they were communicating by something like smell—sensing and reacting to the fragrances, chemicals, and pheromones that they emit by the thousands. So very different from our own categorizing, cognitive language, this type of communication is not logical, but it is a language, nonetheless. In the book Immense World, Ed Yong says, “The act of contemplating the sensory world of another being is so deeply human and so utterly profound. Our senses filter in what we need. We must choose to learn about the rest.”
Diane Ackerman, author of A Natural History of the Senses, says that “smell is the sense without words.” In our human language smells are hard to quantify into language, and they are processed in a deeper, sensory, intuitive way of knowing that does not always need to involve cognitive function. This type of knowing comes from the depths of the more primitive parts of our brain. What if we cultivated a better working relationship with, and more respect for, our reptilian brain where our sense of smell resides, alongside our intuition and our “gut instinct?”
In the worldview of flowers and spiders, where vision is limited or non-existent, scent and chemical perceptions reign supreme. Ed Yong describes the sensory world of smell in a way that helps me step out of my own visually dominated world. He says: “Unlike light, which always moves in a straight line, smells diffuse and seep, flood, and swirl. Picture a shimmering environment, where nothing has a hard boundary. There are focal areas, but everything sort of seeps together. Smells travel through darkness, around corners, and in other conditions that vex vision… Smells linger in a way that light does not, revealing history. They can arrive before their sources, foretelling what is to come. Smelling is not merely assessing the present but also reading the past and divining the future.”
Having stepped through the portal of the spider’s web in my reverie, I am reeling as I imagine the layers of diverse types of sensory communication happening between the spiders, wildflowers, and grasses—not to mention other insects, rabbits, turkeys, foxes, turtles, deer and more that are here. The flowers and spiders are busy working together in this sensory world of chemical messaging, and science bears this out. In one study, crab spiders were shown to respond to increased chemical messages—a certain scent—from flowers that were being attacked by other plant-eating insects. Other studies have shown that flowers attract insects as meals for the spiders. Perhaps the flowers orchestrate this dance with the spiders, calling them to the fields where they grow, where they feed and protect each other. While the first spiders appeared 400 million years ago, these orb-weaver spiders evolved around the same time as flowering plants, approximately 140 to 125 million years ago. Perhaps they have been partners and lovers all this time.
How do we know the nature of sentience and intelligence in the plant and insect world? What is the wisdom of a field of thousands of spiders and their webs woven together with the flowers and grasses? What if the limitations of our own senses keep us from understanding the vastly different ways other life forms experience their worlds and accumulate knowledge? Allowing me to broaden my perception on this foggy morning, the spiderweb’s sparkling dew illuminates for me the intricate connections of life that are always present even when I can’t see them, hear them, or smell them.
The ever-widening rift between humans and nature is in desperate need of mending, of being re-stitched back together, with awareness and respect for our Mother Earth. The portals woven by these orb-weavers are more than a metaphor. They invite us to change the way we perceive the world. Each time we step into deep awe of how the intricate beauty and balance of Nature is interwoven, that change in our perspective becomes a deeply healing portal for us, the planet, and our future.