Thousands of spider webs coated in dew are revealed to plain sight on misty Autumn mornings. The phenomenon was famously written about by one of the earliest modern naturalists, Church of England vicar The Reverend Gilbert White in his seminal study A Natural History of Selborne published in 1789. Beginning with a carpet of webs draped everywhere the day in question – 21st September 1741 -“turned out to be one of those most lovely ones which no season but the autumn produces; cloudless, calm, serene, and worthy of the South of France itself.”.
Spider webs can lay claim to being one of the everyday wonders of the creation. Notwithstanding the latent arachnophobia which seems instinctive to human beings still we marvel at the intricacy and resilience of the spider web despite its obvious fragility.
In language and culture the spider web has metaphorical associations both positive and negative. In its prolific dust-laden manifestation as cobweb the spider web is indicative of places which are neglected and where active human life is absent, and so associated with the dead. The cobweb is a familiar motif at Halloween parties, on fairground ghost trains, and in horror films. Coupled with the fear of spiders the cobweb is a visual cliché provoking dread of death and evil on the one hand, and yet affirming by its vulnerability that these enemies of life and joy can be cleared away and conquered.
In English the idiom “web of deceit” is commonly used in reference to criminal activities. Increasingly it characterises popular views of governments and corporations, inspired by conspiracy theories. Yet there is sufficient evidence from whistle-blowing activities such as Wikileaks, Edward Snowden and the recent release of the Panama Papers, to warrant reasonable beliefs that there is a web of information and connections between powerful agents both legitimate and otherwise which are rarely if ever cast into the light of public view.
Now the most common use of the word web in English refers to the internet’s worldwide web. A vast network of interconnected computers ensures a resilience and a distribution for information which has allowed for much greater public access to knowledge; and yet also has enabled the global spread of pernicious ideologies.
In a positive vein the classic best-selling children’s novel Charlotte’s Web by E.B.White (1952) has provided millions of children and adults with a wholesome assessment of spiders and their webs.
Its combination of evident fragility with symmetrical beauty and resilience and the ability of a relatively small creature to produce it gives the spider web an enduring place in the human imagination. Leaving aside its association with predatory behaviour it may inspire confidence in human endeavour to persevere in protecting the earth.