Every year, here at Meadow Knoll, in the area between the fence and the photinia bush, a writing spider (a golden silk orb spider) sets up shop and begins to spin. I can't prove it, but since the webs are always in the same place, I suspect that the spider is the daughter of the spider who lived and spun her web in that place the year before. I love looking at her, watching her spin. I particularly like the ZZZ zigzags in the middle of her web, which are designed (so say spider researchers) to stabilize the thing so it doesn't tear to pieces when a large and unruly meal lands in the middle of it. It's those zigzag filaments that have given her the name of "writing spider."
I have a different name for this spider. I call her Penelope, in honor of the wife of Odysseus, who--to deflect ambitious suitors--spins (and unravels) a shroud for her absent husband, promising to remarry only when she's finished her weaving. A master spinner, deft and quick, my Penelope has woven a web of an impressive size: some three feet by three feet. (And yes, this is definitely girl power: only the females spin webs.) Her web is designed to catch flying insects (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) and constructed at an angle. I've read that to make it, Penelope has spun a non-sticky thread into the breeze: when the end snags on a branch or leaf, she walks carefully along it, spinning another but stronger non-sticky thread, then--at an angle--another, until she's constructed a large frame, within which she goes to work, weaving. As a weaver, Penelope is good. She is very, very good.
In fact, the spider silk the golden orb spins has become a prized item. Recently, the Museum of Natural History in New York City put on display a rare piece of silk weaving, produced by these spiders--with a little help from humans, of course.
According to an article in Wired Science, "To produce this unique golden cloth, 70 people spent four years collecting golden orb spiders from telephone poles in Madagascar [the golden orb spiders there are known for the rich golden color of their silk], while another dozen workers carefully extracted about 80 feet of silk filament from each of the arachnids. The resulting 11-foot by 4-foot textile is the only large piece of cloth made from natural spider silk existing in the world today." The extraction process didn't injure the spiders, who were released back into the wild. (Imagine the stories they told their spider friends when they got home!)
I'm a spinner and I know how much work it takes to produce yarn from wool.
I can barely imagine the amount of work Penelope has put into her web, and I simply cannot imagine the task of spinning a gold cloth from the silk of a million wild Penelopes. Sounds like a fairy tale to me.
Maybe my next mystery will feature a writing spider.
Reading note: Writing fiction is the act of weaving a series of lies to arrive at a greater truth.--Khaled Hosseini