The Raconteur

by Katharyn Privett-Duren

“After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.”
~E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web

There it is, that wondrous spun sack that marks the end of summer hanging in the corner of our high tunnel. The child I used to be would have cringed in horror, as I identified more with Wilbur than Charlotte in my favorite story. Now, something in me lights back up. It turns out, I have more in common with spiders than I first thought. Perhaps, that comes with age.

As is proper, I suppose, my love for orb weavers did not grow until we had a true garden. A friend of mine brought over a Mason jar with an egg sack that fall, and although I had to stomp down decades of baseless fear, I am still thankful for that gift. We placed it judiciously under a porch eve and forgot all about it until spring—but the big day did come.[1] I still find it horribly poignant that some babies will simply balloon adrift in the wind, never to be seen again, while only a few remain to carry on tradition. It’s a bit too close to home for me.

Thankfully, some chose to stay.

We’ve named them all Charlotte, like folks tend to do. It took quite some time, but the two sisters who took up in the rattlesnake beans that first year eventually allowed me to pick around their delicate webs. My husband, however, incited the threatening bounces (called “flexing”) that come from a perceived menace—which is understandable. After all, these are the descendants of a long line of female trappers who tend to eat their mates.[2] I’ve warned him.

Since that spring, these eight-legged gals have graced our land. Argiope aurantia (the yellow garden spider) are writing spiders—not to be confused with E.B. White’s Araneus cavaticus (the barn spider), although they are both orb weavers. They are considered crepuscular (active during the morning and at nightfall), usually remaining on the web in still contemplation within the daylight hours—that is, unless dinner arrives.

There is so much to respect about their miraculous, brief lives: They rebuild/repair their web as night (usually the interior portion), expending most of their energy while a farm is at rest. These silken strands and the requisite zig-zag, properly named stabilimentum, reflect ultra-violet light—a beacon, really, for their prey. Birds, who also see UV light, can easily avoid these structures. (In fact, these webs have inspired an innovative glass used in high buildings that have significantly reduced bird death and injury).[3]

The lives of these spiders are embedded along the netting of nature, itself . . . a crafting, really, within the minutia of a day in a garden. There is a quiet persistence in the fragility of it all, one that most might weigh as a vulnerability. Of course, it’s always somewhat of a shock when a Charlotte is missing from her perch—but fretting is most often unfounded, as they are known to fall to the ground to rest under the brush, hide from predators, and secure the energy to begin again. It seems that spiders have much to teach us, indeed.

Yet, those lessons are not always warm and fuzzy. As a farmer, it grieves my heart to see a bee caught up in a web. I find myself more akin to Wilbur in these moments, aghast at my carnivorous friend’s composed attention to wrapping up the very pollinator I have begged unto my property. These moments, however, are balanced out by the lack of aphids, beetles, mosquitos, wasps and flies that hinder our harvest and aggravate out summer dinners. I’ve agreed, in light of this benefit, to resist freeing the occasional buzzing victim—although, I have cast some seriously disapproving shade at a Charlotte or two. 

They haven’t seemed overly concerned about my opinion; I haven’t had the arrogance (or is it courage?) to consider repositioning their traps of silk.

An aged, crooked tomato-grower once told me: Take the spider out, you take the heart of the farm with it. Apparently, this holds true for barn spiders, as well. There is something sacred about their presence, something old and thick and wise about the ways in which their webs are anchored against our human efforts on the ground. Sometimes, you just sense that a myth is true. Spiders require a special kind of faith like that—a farmer faith, I reckon. 

And then, there’s also the sweeping corpus of arachnoid myth. From the Hopi legend of Spider Grandmother to the Cherokee fire-bringing story of the brave water spider, Native Americans have woven the spider deeply into the fabric of their cultures and their understanding of nature. In some Pagan/Neopagan traditions, the web is a sacred goddess symbol, the woven fabric of magic itself. Whereas most of us have attributed the orb weaver’s webs to the décor of Halloween and the genre of horror, other cultures have understood these creatures as healers and guides—though not without their share of warning against disrespect. Even country folklore dictates that, if you destroy a web, the spider shall write your name in the new one at dusk. (This is not a good thing.) I’ve mindlessly walked into one and immediately begged for amnesty as a spider scuttled down my arm and I awaited my fate. Of course, I understand now that she wouldn’t have bitten me—these particular gals are fairly docile, only biting in the direst cases of self-preservation.

I can dig it.  Clearly, one must have boundaries.

And so, they are the (sometimes) cringe-inducing best friend to the superstitious, yet scientific-minded farmer. It is my contention that folklore has it right: They are storytellers, the other writers in my life. I watch them at dusk as they recreate all of their hard work, unaware or unbothered by the brevity of it all, and lean into their stories.

Their tales are just as valid, just as profound, as those created in type and ink. They transcribe the struggles, plans, endurance, and transcience of a unique time and place. I am a rapt and somewhat desperate reader of that work. At times, I have brooded over the fate of this farm when my own life is spent—as if all of it could just dissolve into the past. I have spun myself against the hours of the day, weaving the weight of my life into the green of a season. What, if anything, will remain of this weaving when it’s my time to go? Indeed, there’s a certain melancholy to an abandoned web—the haphazard remnants of a life after one of my Charlottes has fallen to the ground for the very last time. These masterpieces will not be repaired. They were begun only to fall apart, strand by strand, unencumbered by sentiment or necessity. It would be easy to assume that the work then didn’t matter, that in its crumbling down it all somehow disappears from the fabric of a farm like so much dust.

Yet, much like the exquisite gossamer paintings of the 16th century, the work of the spider artist was done in diminutive strokes, culminating in glistening orbs that could—somehow—withstand wind, rain, and the occasional struggle.[4] In every reconstruction, there exists a story of that effort. Each book began as the sun loosened its grip on the sky; each dissolved as morning dew blurred its pages. When a farm has that many stories, the retelling of them resonates alongside rows of melons, beans, and pumpkins and becomes legend.

And legend doesn’t die in the fall—even if only the trees remember. In fact, that egg sack under the eve has its own web, the circular base plate that supports spiderling life until their second stage. While the most fragile web of all, it will catch and hold the next storytellers of our beloved plot of land. It’s all hanging on by a thread, this hope for another season. Sometimes, regardless of the validity of faith, it’s the radical belief in its possibility that matters most.

“I think I’ll try again,” said Wilbur, cheerfully.  “I believe what I need is a little piece of string to hold me.”

It could be that a spider has saved me, from time to time.  Watching her dogged commitment to another day—but more, making it art—has been a gift. I’m sure, she’s cast some serious shade at my blubbering and grief during this pandemic. I’m certain that I’ve heard her whispering something about the blasphemous waste of a sunset as I retreat for my human shelter of sheetrock and tin. It’s so tempting to just go inside and hide, lay down my spade and pull the curtains against the world.  But then, I would miss the bloom of a roasted horizon, all dressed out in flame against the deep violet of the approaching night. My story isn’t over until it’s over, Charlotte has taught me.

And even then, there’s this little piece of string . . .

photo credit: Thomas Lardeau, Unsplash

[1] It is not recommended to move any spider egg sac.  Their placement took wise consideration and we are interfering with nature. However, if done, the removal must consider the new location, its similarity, and protection from the elements. Without the spiderling web, the chances of viable life is greatly diminished.

[2] Some species of males will happily sacrifice themselves—quite on purpose. This is not the case with my husband, who is thoroughly traumatized by the story found here:

[3] For more, see:

[4] For more on these paintings, see here: