Friday, August 03, 2007

A Garden Spider

To walk out on the crumbling back porch and find that, overnight, a spider has created a huge triangular web anchored to one of the uprights and the roof, is an interesting shock.

It hit me in stages. First, the sheer beauty of the geometry, its symmetry heightened by the droplets of dew which catch the rising sun and sparkle like the hat of Kipling's Parsee, "with more than Oriental splendor." Then, an instant later I was stunned by the size. The main line forming the hypotenuse of the right-triangular construction supporting the orb was nearly four feet long. The orb itself seemed well over two feet in diameter, larger than any web I had previously seen in my yard. A zigzag of bright white silk was scrawled across the center.

The lady was hard to find. but I finally tracked her down in the shadows working on something on the edge of the web. She seemed to be re-anchoring one of the spokes.

With a magnifying glass to aid my old eyes, I saw that my new tenant was large, her body over an inch long, with yellow and black markings on her body and bands on her legs. I don't know a lot about spiders, so I had to refer to my field guides. She was a Black and Yellow Garden Spider, Argiope aurantia, and as I suspected her web was an anomaly, much larger than the usual. No-one knows the purpose of the white zigzag in the middle, called a stabilimentum, though some think that it might be camouflage, but its presence gives this spider one of its common names, "the writing spider".

She was a beauty, and her web an adornment to the porch. I decided to give her a housewarming gift. I remembered that there was a half-dead fly on the kitchen windowsill so I retrieved it with some tweezers. It buzzed fitfully but did not have the energy to escape. Being careful not to damage the web, I placed the fly on one of the sticky strands of the spiral. My hand shook a bit and the spider sensed a threat and curled up nearly invisible in the crack of an upright. After a few moments she unfolded sensing the buzzing of the fly through the tremors in the web and slowly made her way out to investigate.

She paused near it (I can't help but think, a little disdainfully) then moved in to kill and wrap it. Over the next few days she captured a wasp, a few dragonflies and a bumblebee. Sometimes I saw her sitting in the middle of the web and shaking it.

One day I noticed a somewhat pitiful little zigzag structure with a smaller spider in it at the point of one of the triangles. It seemed to use a portion of the garden spider's web as supports. I went back to the field guide to find that it was the male of her species.

I considered giving him a welcome gift, but when a slight breeze tweaked the web, he dove off the web trailing a silk line like a kind of arachnid bungee jumper. I decided that he was too skittish and I didn't want to give him the spider equivalent of a heart attack.

The following week I was walking past the porch and saw the female sitting in the middle of the orb. Thinking that she must have caught something I went to investigate ... but there was no prey. I wondered what she was doing. Suddenly she moved and a small dark blur streaked across the web. When it came to rest, I saw that it was the male.

I brought a stool out from the kitchen so I could sit with a good view to enjoy some hot spider sex.

Slowly the male retraced his steps. He was plucking at the web, perhaps to signal that he was not prey. When he climbed onto her it was impossible to see him against her coloring, but I didn't want to get the magnifying glass or get too close. I was afraid that even my breath might disturb them.

She moved again, and again the male made a dash for safety. At least a dozen times I watched the same scenario. Once, after a particularly sudden movement on her part, the male just dropped to safety on his silk line.

Finally I saw him move slowly away from her, retreating slowly up her web towards his own. Like a flash she turned, and bit, then, not even bothering to wrap him, sat and quietly fed.

Some days later I noticed three egg sacs suspended near the middle of the orb. They were a little more than a half inch in diameter.

My references tell me that she did this at night. She made a sheet from her silk, laid the eggs on it, then tucked them in under another sheet. She covered them further with a protective blanket of brown silk and formed the whole thing into a small ball. Each sac, according to my sources, contains as many as a thousand eggs. I'm sorry that I didn't see it.

A few days later there was a thunderstorm in the middle of the night with heavy wind and pelting rain. The next morning the web, the egg sacs and the spider were gone.

I looked around for a while, hoping to rescue the eggs, but they had disappeared completely.

Monday, July 30, 2007


I am sitting on the porch this morning in the early morning sun. The dog, as usual, curled up nearby, my wife is still asleep, as is my youngest son.

The latter works for a major caffeine pusher, so the coffee I'm drinking is particularly good I am enjoying the dark, rich bitterness of something poetically called Komodo Dragon as I listen to the birdsong and watch the shadows ooze slowly across the shaggy grass and the flower beds.

It's warm and not yet humid, but I can feel the potential for a muggy day on my skin. In its way it is a perfect moment of pleasure.

It occurs to me that it might help people visualize the scene if they knew what I look like. I am a big man though not tall. I am what you might, diplomatically, refer to as "burly" ... barrel-chested, a bit heavy, everything about me, everything that you can see that is, is a bit over sized. Legs, feet, arms, hands, fingers, head, all seem a little large. My shaggy, graying, black hair (well overdue for a trim) is thinning a bit on the top, and I have a full, mostly gray, beard. (When I let my beard grow and wear a hat I can easily be mistaken for a Hasid.) Today I am wearing denim shorts, a short-sleeved olive-drab shirt and a pair of cheap sandals.

The porch that I am on is a mess. The paint is peeling and some of the floorboards are rotting. It reminds me that the roof needs repair and that there is a dead pine that needs to be cut down. Having acknowledged my failure as a handyman, I put the thought of repairs out of my mind and just enjoy the sun and the sound and movement of wind, branches and birds. In spite of all the motion and sound it is a kind of stillness. I am absorbing the day like a sponge.

But then ... 

A small, swift motion catches my eye. A tiny flicker of brilliance flashes in the sun. It darts this way ... stops ... then that way ... then, in a fraction of a breath, it leaps towards me and lands on my bare knee.

It is a dragonfly. It is about two and a half inches long and an iridescent blue. Its transparent wings, wings that look too fragile for flight, quiver briefly and then go still as it sits quietly in the patch of sun on my right knee. An instant later, seemingly from out of nowhere, my left knee is similarly adorned with another jewel-like insect, but this one is green.

It has been a wonderful summer for dragonflies. They are everywhere. They flit across the gardens and sun themselves on the clothesline and in the bare dead branches that I have not yet pruned from the small beach plum tree in the middle of the yard. A few days ago there were so many of them on the little tree that it looked like it was jeweled. Intense flashes of green, blue and red covered every branch.

They are so beautiful and inoffensive. They seem the gentlest of creatures, but there is an interesting dark side to them as well.

Some years ago my oldest son and his cousin went off one morning with a bucket to gather creatures from a local pond. They came back with a few small minnows, some tadpoles, and an odd but dangerous-looking water bug with bulbous eyes and nasty-looking jaws. This last creature lurked in the bottom of the bucket. Quite an interesting haul, and they displayed their collection to me proudly.

The boys put the bucket outside the back door while we had lunch at the kitchen counter. We heard some splashing. "The fish are trying to escape," said my son, and went out to check on them. He came back in a moment later, eyes wide.

"Dad," he said, "You gotta see this."

The bucket was empty except for the bug which was near the surface and looking very much like an H.R. Giger alien. Small fragments of tadpole and fish drifted around it, slowly sinking to the bottom.

We got out our tattered and stained natural history guide. It took a while, but we finally found that the voracious little monster-bug was a dragonfly nymph, an aggressive predator that eats other insects in the water (including each other), small fish and tadpoles. They catch their food with a toothed lower lip that shoots out in a flash to grab its prey and pull it back to the rest of the waiting mouth.

I bet Giger knew about them.

What’s interesting about the Dragonfly Nymph?

What's amazing is that most of the dragonfly's life is spent in this form, eating and moulting for years before crawling out of the water and moulting one last time to become the delicate creature that sits on my knee.

Even as an adult they are predators though. Now their prey is smaller, mosquitoes, gnats and other small flying insects.

Richard Feynmann in his book "The Joy of Finding Things Out" talks about how knowing how things work adds to the aesthetic enjoyment of their beauty. I must admit that knowing the yin and yang encompassed by the life of this flying jewel makes my delight at having one on each knee in the early morning sun all the greater.

Tea break

At this time of year the sun rises from directly behind the white pine in the corner of our backyard. It is a large tree for a suburban yard, nearly 30 inches in diameter at the base. The trunk rises straight for about 25 feet and then changes direction back and forth slightly.

It is at those points that the sun casts puddles of light through the branches and needles onto the porch. That warmth of sunlight on my denim-clad knees is a pleasure, and when the sun hits the porch, Penny, my old English setter wanders out of the house and curls up at my feet to enjoy it.

This morning is particularly nice. Just before dawn it rained, but now the sky is clear and blue with an occasional cotton candy wisp of cloud. When the sun is masked by the trunk of the tree, it causes an interesting effect. A light breeze will rustle the long needles of the pine and a small rainstorm will occur as the tree sheds the rainwater. The drops would be nearly invisible from this distance at any other time, but from this vantage point they form bright lines in the shadow of the tree and against the backdrop of a palisade fence.

The perfect drink for watching this little light show is a black Chinese tea called Pu Ehr. The reason for this match is a combination of sight, smell, and taste. The drops of rain being shed and the smell of the soaked earth drying in the sunlight provide a sensory complement to the dark richness of the tea.

Pu-Ehr has a rich, dark, earthy taste which comes from being fermented, molded into blocks and then buried underground to mature. Its flavor makes me want to walk on freshly tilled soil in my bare feet.

Don't misunderstand. I am not a tea connoisseur, the tea I'm drinking cost me a couple of dollars at an Asian market. I'm just sitting here enjoying myself.

The Problem With Blueberries

The problem faced by someone who is both a sensualist and a writer is that is difficult to fully convey the deeply subjective sensual reaction in a universal way. One common method is to assume that everyone for whom you write is familiar with that which you describe. This method lets you take a shortcut. You merely highlight the differences between an assumed standard and that which you are currently describing.

If I say that the blueberries that I picked today are sour, I assume that you know they should be sweet. I could even say that I am implying that they should be sweet since I have chosen to tell you that sour is a departure from the norm. This lets me write tersely and dismiss the subject with a few lines. But it doesn't help someone who has no experience of blueberries, or has only experienced them as chemical or sugar enhanced flavor bombs in processed foods.

This is fine if your thesis is not the blueberries, but the development of some other subject or a plotline. But it does do a disservice to that portion of your audience who wonder what a blueberry is, or, worse yet, think that they are those crunchy sweet things distributed among the flakes of their cereal.

Another common method is to use a synesthetic approach, as oenophiles do, relating the flavor and texture to other things. This is an approach that can easily be abused, leading to meaningless phrases like "they taste like the open sky on a cloudless day;" a pretty sentiment that will mean nothing to someone who lives and breathes in Los Angeles. I see far too much of this sort of folderol and can only hope that overuse of it will lead to the revocation of the writers' poetic license.

I do understand why writers take those approaches. It is hard to put sensation into words in a truly meaningful way. Truth be told, I have used both methods myself. Although they leave me dissatisfied, I have to work with what I have.

Enough of this preface.

There are two general types of blueberry bushes, both bearing the dangerous sounding genus and section of Vaccinium Cyanococcus . The low-bush, as should be explicit in its name, grows low to the ground and bears small berries with intense taste. When I lived in Vermont, I used to gather these blueberries from a series of patches that grew along the fence-line separating the meadows where the cows grazed, from the woodlot. 

Harvesting these small dusty blue globes, about the size of large green peas, required kneeling in the deep grass and wildflowers and sidling on your knees along the row, and because of their small size it took a long time and much wear and tear on the joints to harvest a bucketful. But they were worth the effort.

In my backyard these days, up against the house, there is a large Northern High-bush blueberry (Vaccinium Corymbosum). The flowers are bell-shaped and white with a tinge of green. Each year it bears an extraordinary amount of large, sweet, juicy blueberries, and though I have to battle the birds for my share, there is always plenty.

The high-bush does not require the same type of obeisance. Even the lower branches are easily reachable for an old codger like me. The berries are the same dusty blue color, but they are larger, just a little smaller than a small green grape.

To visualize the size better, a low-bush berry would fit on a dime with room to spare, High bush berries will vary between the size of a nickel and a quarter.

Blueberries grow in clusters, often hiding beneath small canopies of leaves, and each of the berries in the cluster ripens at a different time. They have a flaring "crown" at the end opposite the stem. After the flowers fall away, the small pale green green berries appear. They increase in size then darken to a reddish-purple, then finally ripen to a dark purple almost black, with a dusty outer coating that makes them look blue. Once they start to ripen in mid-July, I can harvest about one and a half to two quarts daily for more than a week.

A ripe blueberry pulls from its stem with just the gentlest of tugs. If there is any resistance, I leave it for the next day or for the catbirds (who aren't so picky about ripeness). If I turn one of these resistant berries over (being careful not to pull it off) it will show dark red perhaps even fading to white at the base of the stem showing that it is not yet ready.

The real trick in harvesting blueberries is the part where you try to transfer them into the bucket. Since I have a heavy beard, duct-taping my mouth shut is not a good option. Having my wife standing near me smacking the back of my head every time my hand moves in the wrong direction helps a bit but futile. The only real solution is to have a very small bucket and a very large crop.

Luckily ... I have both.

This brings us to the hardest part of my description, the sensation of blueberry. It is a difficult task because the environment is such an important factor.

As you may have gathered, I prefer my blueberries as close to their natural state as possible. Syrups, jams, pancakes and muffins are fine, but there is nothing like the berry itself in its unadorned richness.

Hot Blueberries

It is a hot, brilliant day; one that makes me think of the line from Leonard Cohen's song Suzanne, "... and the sun pours down like honey on Our Lady of the Harbor." It is over 90 degrees and even the birds refuse to venture out of the shade of the evergreens. I am in shorts and the thinnest rattiest t-shirt I own, already soaked with sweat from the effort of picking up an empty coffee-can. I'm wearing sandals and the dry grass tickles my bare toes.

I reach up and pluck a blueberry from a high branch and pop it in my mouth. It is even hotter than the air around it since its dark color has been absorbing the rays of the sun for hours.

I roll it around in my mouth savouring the feel of its roundness, the tickle of the crown against my tongue, the slight salt from the sweat of my fingers. Then I position it between my front teeth and bite down. The skin of the berry ruptures flooding my mouth with the juice and pulp.

The explosion of sweetness dominates the initial experience. It is a burst of energy and temporary pleasure against the tastebuds. But as the shock of sugar fades, I sense a slight tartness, a gently touch against the side of my tongue and a sort of astringent quality that you taste in wine. These last two qualities are, for want of a better term, thirst quenching.

But there is another flavor lurking and it starts to dominate. It is a sensation at the back of the tongue, almost in the throat. I open my mouth and breathe in a mouthful of the hot moist air, and now the taste is more defined. There is a roundness to it and a complexity. This is the true flavor and the one that is so difficult to describe without resorting to synesthesia.

It is a blue taste. A taste so perfectly matched to the color of the berry that it nearly makes me believe in a cosmic designer ... nearly. It is as blue as chocolate is brown, with similar qualities of dark richness, but where chocolate seems redolent of earthy warmth, the taste of blueberry is lighter, more evanescent, more aerial.

It tastes of a hot summer day.

Cold Blueberries

It is drizzling and the cold front has brought a fog. Everything is soaked. The ground is soggy, the cuffs of my bluejeans are saturated and swing heavily against my ankles like a bell against its clapper. My shoes and socks are so wet that every time I change my position they squelch.

Every leaf on the bush is dripping. Each berry glistens with a moist mist kiss. A breeze rustles the branches and I get an impromptu shower. A trickle runs down my collar causing a brief shudder.

I reach up and pluck a blueberry. It comes loose freely, but even the slight tension causes another cascade of droplets from the leaves.

I pop it in my mouth and roll it around, enjoying the wetness of the accumulated mist; marveling at its cold smoothness and its rough crown.

I crush it between my front teeth. The cold delays, for an instant, the rush of sweetness and, by the time it comes, the astringency is already in place.

Even slower to emerge is the back of the throat richness of the berry, but soon enough ... there it is, darker and richer for the cold, and slower to dissipate. This time the flavor seems to move, starting in the back and flowing forward, bathing the entire tongue with its depth.

It tastes of a foggy summer day.

I have my poetic license right here officer. When will I get it back?