Any Way The Wind Blows

Beyond our land, and all that we know, lies the ocean.

There are those of us who are comfortable with being alone on the sea; and those who feel seasick just thinking about the rise and fall of the  waves, beckoned as they are by the moon. The ocean still contains mysteries we cannot fathom. Its sounds, its vast expanse, its implacable power to snap a mast and end a puny human life: all make it alien to us.

Yet still, some are drawn towards it.

My husband Phil has a red-haired gothic philosopher as a friend. A man with a razor-sharp intellect, he is one of the last of the London gentlemen with a nice  pad overlooking one of the city’s greens; his father was a Harley Street doctor, and loved to sail.

They kept a house on the harbour at Cowes on the Isle of Wight, and in that harbour was moored a boat. And Max would sail with his father across the sea, and he would become lyrical about the whole business over a pint after his return.

The loneliest sound in the world, said Max, was the Radio 4 shipping forecast. It haunted the deep hours of the night when the rest of the world was not only miles away across a dark wet expanse, but asleep and oblivious.

And he added that the experience of sailing was best in retrospect. While you were sailing, you were damp and cold and alone, but when you got back it all seemed like a glorious undertaking.

A true sailor needs to know his boat. But far more than that, he must know how the wind blows, the caprices of the breeze. And every Sinbad has a tool in his navigation of the Seven Seas: his rope.

Thor Heyerdahl knew that. He wanted to prove that  ancient sailors from South America could have navigated the Pacific Ocean, sailing to the Polynesian islands. His expedition- launched in 1947- used only materials the ancients could have used.

Nine balsa tree trunks, then, were lashed together with hemp ropes to form the Kon Tiki. No metal was used in the construction. It took them 101 days and 3770 nautical miles: but they did it, using wood, ropes and the wind in the sails.

If one’s experience is not equal to the ocean, then surely in such a situation one would learn to read it and its breath very rapidly. Survival is a potent taskmaster.

Today, the ropes of the Kon Tiki came to mind.  Whilst preparing church music, up in the musician’s loft, I was handed a sheaf of paper which I set up on my music stand; and it was not until mid way through a church service that my mind detached from everything else and settled on a stunning little strand of spider’s gossamer.

It was attached, through some quirk of fate, to the top corner of my manuscript. The light caught it as it writhed hypnotically, for all the world like some tiny dust-dragon craning to hear the sermon.

It did not droop: it rode the rising breath of the congregation below, in a slow dance of infinite sophistication.

And I marvelled. This material was natural, discarded by its small eight legged creator, yet capable both of attaching firmly to my music and dancing on the slightest updraft. It was the tiniest, most perfect ballet, a performance put on for me alone. It was astoundingly beautiful.

The tool of the spider, gossamer itself, is like a sailor’s rope: it is capable of achieving miracles, and used for far more than weaving a sticky lair to trap prey.

Have you ever considered how a spider creates vast constructions, many times its body length? It is the ethereal draft-surfing qualities of its threads which are key to its empire-building.

It sends one fairy-light thread out to find an anchor. And in some strange variant of the Indian rope trick it travels laterally and far, attaching itself across veritable chasms in the service of its eight legged rope-charmer.

Gossamer has a bewildering array of other uses. The spider can create different types of rope for different functions: for birth-parachutes, and death shrouds, as guide-lines to find one’s way home, and as alarm-lines; perfumed with pheromones to seduce a mate, and soft to swathe the eggs of the next generation.

It is so easy to overlook such sophisticated miracles.

And I suspect that just as Robert the Bruce took as his lesson the spider’s perseverance, there is a 21st century conclusion to be drawn from this small wonder of the world.

What might that be, I wonder?

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28 thoughts on “Any Way The Wind Blows

  1. Spider silk is the strongest material. Amazing how fine it is yet it can hold so much, strength and beauty.

    Of course spiderwebs also have another attribute. Walking into one can transform me from a shambling old woman to a veritable black-belt in dervish dancing.

  2. Lots of experiences are best in retrospect and I’m sure sailing would be one of them (for me) – I’m a bit afeard of the big ocean but like to look at it 🙂 Your blog posts have a bit of the spider web to them, I think.

  3. I’ve always loved boats and sailing. I had a boat before I had a bicycle. I’m also a friend of spider’s in the house even though there is something very scary about them when scaled up, such as the sculptures that I once saw in the Machine Room at Tate Modern:)

  4. I am continually amazed at your capacity to string “stuff” together, Kate. Daily, I read here and am entertained, enlightened and, usually, encouraged to dig deeper or research more about something or other that you’ve mentioned. This morning, via spiderweb no less, you transported me from the sea to a reconsideration of the spider’s art, whereupon I found a 21st century adaptation: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2012/01/03/genetically-engineered-silkworms-with-spider-genes-spin-super-strong-silk/ . . .and I’ve never left my desk chair! 🙂

    1. You are so good at this stuff, Karen: you never fail to teach me something new about the thread of the day 🙂 Crossing a spider and a silk worm…who’d have thought it?

  5. Kate, you spin a tale as well, no better, than any spider can, and you pull me in so deftly. Wonderfully done.
    I love to watch spiders spinning their webs; their craftsmanship, precision, tenacity. We once watched in horrified wonder as a spider stuned a fly, then worked its thread around like a ball of yarn it until there it was, poor fly, caught up in the trap for another day. This all took place between our ancient window and storm window.

    1. I think, on reflection, I would have wanted to be there to watch that, Penny, even though it was an exercise in hunting. What an incredibly sophisticated creature the spider is…and it is so easy to miss its utter genius!

  6. Absolutely loved the threads you wove together for this piece, Kate. Especially:

    It was attached, through some quirk of fate, to the top corner of my manuscript. The light caught it as it writhed hypnotically, for all the world like some tiny dust-dragon craning to hear the sermon.

    It did not droop: it rode the rising breath of the congregation below, in a slow dance of infinite sophistication.

    And I marvelled. This material was natural, discarded by its small eight legged creator, yet capable both of attaching firmly to my music and dancing on the slightest updraft. It was the tiniest, most perfect ballet, a performance put on for me alone. It was astoundingly beautiful.

    1. It is amazing, isn’t it? You’ve already spun one thread and are about to move into its final phase, already thinking about the next. You have the tenacity of a gossamer-spinner 🙂

  7. “It did not droop: it rode the rising breath of the congregation below, in a slow dance of infinite sophistication.”

    What an image!

  8. Dear Kate, I have no idea what lesson we can learn from the spider architect and its magical gossamer web. But I do know that your posting reminded me of the mystery of webs that I first realized when I read “Charlotte’s Web” by E. B. White. That book changed the way I looked at webs and their creators. Peace.

  9. I love the ocean and make my way there as often as possible, but I don’t have a sailor’s heart. In fact, my son often sails with a friend of his (the friend owns the sailboat) and I worry every time. But I’m sure the experiences out on the ocean are truly amazing and call one back to sail repeatedly! Now spiders I like! I think their artistry is truly amazing. What a fun Sunday visitor…I hope you didn’t get so distracted you lost your musical entrance 🙂 It would be hard to convince others that a little spider cause you to lose your way! Debra

  10. What a mesmerizing contemplation, Kate! I shiver from the chill that the photo to this post evokes, and this sense is deepened by the thought of being alone on a cold dark sea, but then the thought of a spider’s gossamer work brings a smile – focused moments of the dark and mysterious

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