Maine Memories and Spider Migrations

Maine Memories (1971) by Elizabeth Coatsworth is a real treasure. Besides the great stories I mentioned before, there are personal recollections of her life in Nobleboro with her husband Henry Beston.

One afternoon while they were out canoeing on Damariscotta Pond, they saw what they thought, in glaring sunlight, was a turtle. It turned out to be a squirrel swimming across the pond, which is actually more like a large lake.

“He looks tired, like an exhausted man,” Beston said.

“Certainly he eyed us eneasily,” Coatsworth writes, “but as we paddled beside him, he refused to deflect his course. He swam steadily on, only his anguished eye admitting our presence. At a boulder, he emerged nimbly enough, but leaping to the shore, he miscalculated the weight of his wet body and fell into the shallows again, scrambling out in a jiffy.”

Then when they enter their little cove, they encounter “stranger and more ethereal travelers.” The southeast wind was so soft that it “never stirred the water or brushed a leaf,” but it was just right for a certain class of travelers: spiders.

“The sunny air was crossed by glints and slivers of light, some floating parallel to the water, four or five feet in the air, a few in fine half circles, and more at spearlike angles advancing with one end high in the air, and the other nearly or quite touching the still surface.”

“The almost imperceptible breeze carried the threads at a surprising rate.”

They paddle up close and notice that thanks to surface tension, some spiders are actually paragliding, leaving a V-shaped wake as their windborn strands carry them along.

What’s going on here is a spider migration, previously observed by the seventeenth-century preacher Jonathan Edwards, famous for being kicked out of Northampton, later president of Princeton, who got innoculated against smallpox to show everyone it was safe and promptly died. You remember him — Aaron Burr’s grandfather.

Anyway, Edwards actually observed the spiders spinning webs to get themselves in position, then letting out a long strand of filament into the breeze. Then, at just the right moment, each spider has to cut the strands of his earthbound web and fly off on the windborn strand, not an easy call to make, when you think about it.

Edwards declared it was a good metaphor for the human soul in its quest for salvation, and although I don’t go in for that sort of thing much, I have to admit he has a point.