The spider inspector

NEXT to centipedes on my loathing list, for many years, were the spiders. I found, however, after making the acquaintance of one kindhearted Charlotte A. Cavitica, a true friend to Wilbur, the pig, that I looked upon these solitary ladies with a more sympathetic eye. I assume that most are females, descendants of Arachne, sentenced to hang and to perpetual spinning by the jealous Athene.

One soft summer night as I turned into the drive, the car lights picked out a large black and yellow spider spinning a flat web which was attached to the drainpipe at the corner of the house and to a nearby hedge. I brought a flashlight and sat on the cement step a few feet away to observe, for I had never seen a web woven.

The spider seemed oblivious to the light and I wondered how she could know what she was about in the dark. I wasn't sure, as I watched, that she did know. She seemed to be rushing at random, going up and then coming down, then going up by the same road again. I considered her scaffolding scanty.

In the center of her structure, she began making a thick white spot, a little cushion that looked more comfortable than my cement step. She rushed out from this to the edge of the web and back, making for the right and then the left, for the top and then the bottom, diving down and climbing up, laying her disordered roads. By putting down a nearby road, rather than one on the opposite side of the web, I thought she could have accomplished more in less time.

These marvelous mechanics were finished in an hour and a half and I went in for a late supper, delighted that I would have her company the rest of the summer, pleased to think of the mosquitoes she would snare.

In the morning I was horrified to see a great gash down the center of the web and immediately suspected my eccentric neighbor, who wanders our backyards of evenings, trimming any bush he feels may harbor a robber.

I found the spider putting the finishing touches to a new web that evening, but couldn't tell whether she had started from scratch or had simply repaired the tear. As I sat watching, a fly blundered into the net and the spider rushed down and threw her silk out, wrapping the victim.

I sat on in the dark, thinking. Was my life held by strands of gossamer as gentle as this web? Could I be so entrapped?

As I locked the door the next day, I was again outraged to find the web torn. Could the neighborhood boys have thrown a ball late in the evening? I doubted this; what was the answer?

I kept watching for the spider's precise pattern, but she didn't return. I brought books from the library and learned that if I had counted the number of rings in the web I would have known the kind of spider she was - 50 for the web of the silky epeira and 30 for those of the banded and the angular epeira.

I felt foolish when I discovered that the spider is far from disordered in her web weaving, that her changes of course, which I considered illogical, were highly logical. If she were to lay her roads in a regular order, they would distort the web by straining. Hence, she neutralized those forces by other roads in the opposite direction.

Without experimenting, with no measuring instruments, she divided her circle into a given quantity of sectors of equal width. How did she do it?

I most enjoyed J. Henri Fabre's book, ''The Life of Spiders.'' He said, ''To appoint one's self . . . an inspector of Spiders' webs . . . means joining a not overcrowded profession. Heaven knows, it does not enable one to put money by! No matter: the meditative mind returns from that school fully satisfied.''

Ah, I can testify to that. Mr. Fabre also said a spider herself tears the web in removing her prey, and spins a new web the next day!

I hope my thrifty, industrious, and shy spider will return sometime to spread her nimble lace in my domain. Meanwhile, I bid my eccentric neighbor an unusually gracious good morning.

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