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?