Gossamer Days: Spiders, humans and their threads
It is September and I’m walking through a clearing in a sandy forest looking for a particular spider. This is Folly Island, South Carolina. With a golf course at one end and a nature reserve at the other, Folly is a marshy sandbar slowly disappearing into the Atlantic Ocean. It is periodically rebuilt with dark sand pumped up from the depths of the sea and deposited along its shoreline. At 6 am this morning I left the nearby city of Charleston and drove south along a single track, across the wooden bridge that joins Folly to the mainland, and for the past two hours I have been walking through the small patches of remaining forest — palms, sand, dead trees, bushes of berries I don’t recognise, and darting lizards. I feel the panic of the spider hunter — not the fear of seeing spiders but the fear of missing them, of being too late in the season. Busy searching the bushes, and flapping away the mosquitoes, I am brought to a halt by what feels like a net pressed against my head. Looking up, my face is inches from a female Nephila clavipes, my hair entangled in the giant golden web she has spun across the path.
. . . And feeding on the prey she captures and even mating with her without her seeming to respond or notice.
In the clear morning light this spider is dazzling. The palm trees of Folly are not just green, they are glowing, in a pact with the sunlight — and the golden yellow silk of the Nephila dances between them. She sits in the centre of the web, and is so large that she must spin extra guy-ropes of threads behind the web to support her weight. Her body is long, thin and almost rectangular, light grey with a patterned yellow stripe down the centre. Her legs are striped dark red and black, with tufts of hair. She is about the size of my hand. She does not scurry, but moves slowly and deliberately. Carefully feeling, she stretches her fine front legs out before her and places them down on my skin.
Hanging in the corner of her web is a male. Like most other species of spider, the females are larger than the males, but in the case of the Nephila the size discrepancy is remarkable. The males are about a tenth of the size of the female, so that one or more might live on her web at any one time, feeding on the prey she captures and even mating with her without her seeming to respond or notice. I am here on Folly Island to make a ring from her silk.
Folly Island was once more forest than it was beach. This changed when it became a key stronghold of the Union army during the American Civil War, from where they could attack the Confederate base of Charleston. In their letters home, the Union soldiers described the awful heat of summer on Folly and the sickness and biting insects that flourished in its marshes. More died of disease than combat, and many suffered from boredom and homesickness. One soldier from Connecticut wrote ‘the white sand, the monotonous moan of the surf at high and low tide, and the lifeless appearance of tree and shrub, all contribute to fill the mind of the soldier with despondence and gloom’. Soldiers passed the days of waiting on Folly by collecting shells on the beach, ‘Day after day, at low tide, the whole beach, as far as eye could reach up and down, would be covered with men toiling as diligently . . . as if they were gathering diamonds’.
Two soldiers, however, found a different way of passing the time. Dr Burt Green Wilder and Lieutenant Sigourney Wales were officers of the 55th Massachusetts regiment sent to Folly Island in 1863. Wilder was the regiment’s assistant surgeon with a passion for zoology and comparative anatomy. The days between battles were his opportunity to explore the plants and creatures of Folly Island, many of which were unknown to him.
It was on one of his meandering walks that he discovered a huge spider sitting in the centre of a golden web that stretched ten feet between the trees. Wilder collected the spider and put it in his hat to carry back to the camp, and he held the hat in his teeth so that both his hands were free — one to break down the webs stretching across his path, the other to ward off mosquitoes. He made his way waist deep across the swamps, an unpleasant trip: ‘What with the extreme heat and my previous fatigue, and the dread lest my captive should escape and revenge herself upon my face while I was avoiding the nets of her friends, and the relentless attacks of their smaller but more venomous associates, it was the most uncomfortable walk imaginable’.
He returned to his tent in the camp and took the spider in his hands: ‘The insect was very quiet, and did not attempt to escape; but presently, after crawling slowly along my sleeve, she let herself down to the floor, taking first the precaution, after the prudent fashion of most spiders, to attach to the point she left a silken line, which, as she descended, came from her body. Rather than seize the insect itself, I caught the thread and pulled. The spider was not moved, but the line readily drew out, and, being wound upon my hands, seemed so strong that I attached the end to a little quill, and, having placed the spider upon the side of the tent, lay down on my couch and turned the quill between my fingers’. He continued at this for an hour and a half, after which time he had collected over one hundred and fifty yards of ‘the most brilliant and beautiful golden silk I had ever seen’.
Meanwhile, during lookout duty, Sigourney Wales had also come across this spider and its golden coloured silk. He had been spending his free time carving metal trinkets and medals, but on discovery of the spider he had found another potential material. Using a spool with rubber rings attached, he wound the silk directly from the spider’s spinnerets to create a series of golden rings. These he was apparently able to sell as real gold jewellery to the other soldiers in his regiment.
Wilder and Wales discovered their mutual interest in the local spider, and became convinced of the commercial potential of its golden silk. Once the war had ended, Wilder wrote that he believed that the silking of the large Nephila spiders of the southern states could offer an occupation for the freed slaves, but that it required the invention of some kind of tool that could twist together the thin silken threads into a strand that was thick enough to be woven into cloth. Along with Wilder’s father-in-law, the men submitted a patent for a spider silk spinning machine.
The drawings that accompany the patent reveal a torturous machine. The spiders are held upside down on a rotating disk and their legs and bodies are strapped to prevent them from cutting their silk with their back legs. As the disk was turned, the silk from each spider was drawn upwards and twisted into a thicker strand. From these threads, Wilder was able to weave a small ribbon of golden silk. However, spiders are difficult to keep — not only do they need a continuous supply of live prey, they also have a tendency to eat each other. Added to these problems was the vast amount of time it took to collect even a small amount of silk. Eventually, the men gave up their attempts to develop a spider silk industry. Wilder became professor of zoology at Cornell University, where, by his own bequest, his brain is preserved in the university collection, while Wales became a travelling salesman.
The history of humans attempting to weave with spider silk is scattered with similar tales: optimistic belief in the commercial possibilities of spiders, followed by realisation of the difficultly of the task. Yet there’s something about the resemblance of spider silk to thin threads of precious metals that has repeatedly attracted western inventors. To weave with gold — to create fabrics that shimmered like precious metals — this was the dream of the spider silk weavers.
A wooden ring for collecting silk.
Standing in the scrubland of Folly Island, I have my wooden spool ready to reel in the silk and create a golden ring, but I’ve lost the spider. It was here a moment ago, when I went to set up my video camera, but it’s now disappeared. I'm feeling guilty because I had moved her from her web to where the light was better for filming. I was planning to return her, but now she’s somewhere on the sandy ground. How do you find a spider in a forest? It’s hot, and I’m wearing long sleeves and trousers to stop the flies biting. Looking through the trees to the beach beyond I can see people sunbathing. There is a slight touch on my wrist, a caress. I look down. The spider has been crawling over my body the entire time.
Gossamer Days: Spiders, Humans and Their Threads, by Eleanor Morgan, is published by Strange Attractor Press.
This article first published in The Journal of Wild Culture, November 8, 2016.
WILD CULTURE SCRIBBLER'S QUESTIONNAIRE
What is your first memory and what does it tell you about your life at that time and your life at this time?
Running up a street trick-or-treating wearing a pink swimsuit and tights. I think I was meant to be a devil imp. I’m not sure what this tells me, but I like the memory. It was a fine, scratchy swimsuit with a belt and I was fearless.
Can you name a handful of artists in your field, or other fields, who have influenced you — who come to mind immediately?
Dorothy Cross, Angela Carter, Helen Chadwick, Rebecca Horn.
Where did you grow up, and did that place and your experience of it help form your sense about place and the environment in general?
I grew up in a small village in the Midlands. There were cows next door, a fast road past the house, a series of gravel pits and an animal-testing laboratory. It was rural in the way that a lot of England is rural – green but full of industry. I think this entanglement of human and nonhuman activity has affected how I make my work and my interest in making across species. There was no clear divide between where nature happened and where culture happened.
If you were going away on a very long journey and you could only take four books — one art book, one fiction or poetry, one non-fiction, one theory or criticism — what would they be?
Theory: Richard Sorabji, ‘Animal Minds and Human Morals’. Fiction: Shirley Jackson, ‘We have always lived in the castle’. Non-fiction: Michael J Roberts, ‘Spiders of Britain and Northern Europe’. Art: Alastair Duncan, ‘The Technique of Leaded Glass’.
What was your most keen interest between the ages of 10 and 12?
My main interest was probably model making (cars, helicopters, boats, chess pieces, animals made from cheese wax) and turning the tops of my bedroom furniture into landscapes for these models (deserts, seas, mountains).
At what point did you discover your ability with [your artistic practice]?
I think I’ve been lucky because making marks on paper or experimenting with materials are things I’ve never been afraid of - at least in the initial moments of making. The bits that come later – judging, editing, presenting – those I find difficult.
Do you have an ‘engine’ that drives your artistic practice, and if so, can you comment on it?
I didn’t realise until my late teens that being an artist was something you could be — and what I liked about it then and now is that it gives a name to what I do. This can be making a representational drawing, but it can also be creating fish prints with a group of fishmongers or embracing a giant sea anemone or singing to a spider. If I have an engine that drives my work it’s this: what if? What would that feel like, sound like or look like? What impossible or imagined things might it conjure? And these questions mean that everything is relevant.
If you were to meet a person who seriously wants to do work in your field — someone who admires and resonates with the type of work you do, and they clearly have real talent — and they asked you for some general advice, what would that be?
There are some things that I find useful to tell myself. Firstly, being an artist doesn’t mean one thing and it can change throughout your life. Secondly, you can’t completely control or predict how a piece of work will come out. Following the surprising moments and allowing things to take their own path, or even to fail, are important. Instead of attempting to conquer the work or a material, invite it, meet it. Thirdly, make friends with other artists.
Do you have a current question or preoccupation that you could share with us?
I’m currently trying to make ink from local clay, so my question is how to get rid of all the tiny grains of soil and make the ink smooth. It takes a lot of filtering and grinding.
What does the term ‘wild culture’ mean to you?
It makes me think of the fringes and uncertainty. It also conjures up the image of a really noisy party full of squawks, barks, singing and rustling.
If you would like to ask yourself a final question, what would it be?
Should I dust away the cobwebs from the ceiling?
ELEANOR MORGAN is a London-based artist, lecturer and writer specialising in the making processes of humans and other animals. She holds a PhD from the Slade School of Fine Art and has exhibited nationally and internationally at galleries and museums.
Photos by the author, except image at the top of the page.