There’s only one shed in our garden that was already here when we moved in. It’s an old thing, covered in ivy and other climbers, with a roof lining of straw, a broken window, and a door that we can only keep shut by propping a brick against it. The east-facing side of the shed is home to an expanding honeysuckle bush which, in turn, is home to a proliferation of my favourite creatures to watch – garden spiders, also known as cross spiders (they have a white cross on their backs); Kreuzspinnen in German (which sounds much more romantic than the English).
When we lived in Norway, one such spider lived on our veranda throughout the summer, and deep into the Norwegian winter (minus 28C). I called her (because only the females have such very distinctive markings) Victoria, probably because she was big and stately and very friendly, and talked with her every time I went out onto the veranda for a cigarette.
I haven’t given the spiders in the honeysuckle names because there are so many of them, but I do go out first thing every morning and look at their webs, watch them move about in their webs, and wonder what drives them, if it is really purely instinct, or if they spend time thinking out their strategies, and indeed if any of them watch me from their upside down positions and ask themselves the same questions about me.
My fascination with these creatures is not just because there’s a microcosm of killing or be killed out there on the honeysuckle branches, but because, although I’m not a scientist, the complexity of their webs impresses and illuminates me. Their determination is unsurpassed in its grittiness. They build, rebuild and rebuild. When there’s been a storm, and the webs are hanging in tatters from their security lines, they are out there, clinging on for what looks like dear life, feeding their threads through and around the damage to restore what’s been lost to nature.
One of the webs is particularly huge, and the spider which inhabits it is also quite big for spiders of this variety (I have nicknamed it The Fat One). It seems to be particularly discerning when it comes to prey, because I have seen it ignore small flies which have blundered into its web, whilst hurtling across its highwires when a moth or a crane fly has careered into the trap. I wonder if this has to do with damage limitation for the web (and the need to secure a big meal), or just with a complacency of mind which says that the small fry won’t get away anyway, and if it does it’s no great loss to spiderkind.
What I find particularly touching is that these spiders make little dens for themselves within the curling leaves of the honeysuckle, finding shelter especially in the ones that have curled top to bottom, providing perfect umbrellas to keep away the rain, and some of the cold, I presume, as any warm air that may rise will be trapped within these tiny upturned vases. I have watched them creep into these shelters in the early evenings, curl up into small balls of darkness and go to sleep, if spiders do indeed sleep. It may seem odd to say this emotionally affects me, but it does, because the need for shelter is ubiquitous whatever point along the foodchain we might be on. And I am grateful for my shelter, however inadequate it may sometimes seem in my middle class, mid-winter angst.
For the time being, I will continue to enjoy these autumn mornings with my eight-legged acquaintances, and never cease to admire them and their stoicism, and hope some of it rubs off on me this coming winter.