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THE SPIDER
By Jean Henri Fabre


  All day invisible, crouching amid the cypress-leaves, the Spider, at about eight o’clock in the evening, solemnly emerges from her retreat and makes for the top of a branch. In this exalted position she sits for some time laying her plans with due regard to the locality; she consults the weather, ascertains if the night will be fine. Then, suddenly, with her eight legs widespread, she lets herself drop straight down, hanging to the line that issues from her spinnerets. Just as the rope-maker obtains the even output of his hemp by walking backwards, so does the Epeira obtain the discharge of hers by falling. It is extracted by the weight of her body.

  The descent, however, has not the brute speed which the force of gravity would give it, if uncontrolled. It is governed by the action of the spinnerets, which contract or expand their pores, or close them entirely, at the fallers pleasure. And so, with gentle moderation, she pays out this living plumb-line, of which my lantern clearly shows me the plumb, but not always the line. The great squab seems at such times to be sprawling in space, without the least support.

  She comes to an abrupt stop two inches from the ground; the silk-reel ceases working. The Spider turns round, clutches the line which she has just obtained and climbs up by this road, still spinning. But, this time, as she is no longer assisted by the force of gravity, the thread is extracted in another manner. The two hind-legs, with a quick alternate action, draw it from the wallet and let it go.

  On returning to her starting-point, at a height of six feet or more, the Spider is now in possession of a double line, bent into a loop and floating loosely in a current of air. She fixes her end where it suits her and waits until the other end, wafted by the wind, has fastened its loop to the adjacent twigs.

  Feeling her thread fixed, the Spider runs along it repeatedly, from end to end, adding a fibre to it on each journey. Whether I help or not, this forms the "suspension-cable," the main piece of the framework. I call it a cable, in spite of its extreme thinness, because of its structure. It looks as though it were single, but, at the two ends, it is seen to divide and spread, tuft-wise, into numerous constituent parts, which are the product of as many crossings. These diverging fibers, with their several contact-points, increase the steadiness of the two extremities....

  Once the cable is laid, in this way or in that, the Spider is in possession of a base that allows her to approach or withdraw from the leafy piers at will. From the height of the cable she lets herself slip to a slight depth, varying the points of her fall. In this way she obtains, to right and left, a few slanting crossbars connecting the cable with the branches.

  These crossbars, in their turn, support others in ever-changing directions. When there are enough of them, the Spider need no longer resort to falls in order to extract her threads; she goes from one cord to the next, always wire-drawing with her hind-legs. This results in a combination of straight lines owning no order, save that they are kept in one nearly perpendicular plane. Thus is marked out a very irregular polygonal area, wherein the web, itself a work of magnificent regularity, shall presently be woven.

  The spiral thread is a capillary tube finer than any that our physics will ever know. It is rolled into a twist so as to possess an elasticity that allows it, without breaking, to yield to the tugs of the captured prey; it holds a supply of sticky matter in reserve in its tube, so as to renew the adhesive properties of the surface by incessant exudation, as they become impaired by exposure to the air. It is simply marvellous.

  The Epeira hunts not with springs, but with limesnares. And such limesnares! Everything is caught in them, down to the dandelion-plume that barely brushes against them. Nevertheless, the Epeira, who is in constant touch with her web, is not caught in them. Why? Because the Spider has contrived for herself, in the middle of her trap, a floor in whose construction the sticky spiral thread plays no part. There is here, covering a space which, in the larger webs, is about equal to the palm of one’s hand, a neutral fabric in which one finds no adhesiveness anywhere....

  It is only on her resting-floor that the Epeira sits, motionless and with her eight legs outspread, ready to mark the least quiver in the net. It is here, again, that she takes her meals, often long-drawn-out, when the joint is a substantial one; it is hither that, after trussing and nibbling it, she drags her prey at the end of a thread, to consume it at her ease on a non-viscous mat. As a hunting-post and refectory, the Epeira has contrived a central space, free from glue....What a number of products to come from that curious factory, a Spider’s belly!