Caught in a literary web: Hosting spiders and their admirers

Spider in webSpider in web

Did you ever play that game called ghostly hostess — where you pretend you have been given magical powers which will allow you to bring back a collection of guests for a dinner party?

Lately, I keep thinking I’d like to invite E. B. White for a ghostly dinner.

Fellow writers might tremble at the thought since White is well known for pairing up with a man named Strunk to publish one of the most referenced grammar books in the English language.  The tiny volume, commonly referred to as Strunk & White, is a sort of Bible for anyone who learned to write during the twentieth century.  My own copy has been perched above my writing desks for more than 25 years where its yellowing pages have become dog-eared and creased from overuse.

There have been moments in my life when a grammatical misstep seemed to earn Mr. White’s scolding.  At times the pages of his book have begged me to approach sentence-building the way a fine craftsman would approach cabinet-making.  I am always an apprentice.  But I suffer the scolding willingly because the sternness in Strunk and White’s rules can yield gorgeous writing.
On the other hand, I never really imagined either one as a dinner guest.  This August, however, I was actually forced to consider the other literary side of E.B. White – as the writer of books about instrument-wielding swans and talking pigs – when I heard Ira Flatow on NPR’s Science Friday feature a new book called The Story of Charlotte’s Web: E. B. White’s Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic.  As the author of the book, Michael Sims, expounded on White’s life and work with Flatow, I began to change the picture I had of White in my head.

I now think he would make a fantastic dinner guest – at least at our house, where the spiders and pigs and voiceless swans would be discussed with great sincerity.

In his book, Sims describes a man who loved nature and animals almost as much as he loved words.  Maybe more.  “Many novelists admit that their characters are inspired by real individuals,” Sims writes.  “But it seldom occurs to us that the authors of children’s fantasy might make the same confession.”   Wilbur, it seems, was based on a real pig or several real pigs.  Charlotte the spider may also have existed.

Sims says that White studied spiders with such devoted intensity when he was working on Charlotte’s Web that his friends found it unsettling.  So did his housemaid, who was horrified to find hundreds of spiders emerging from an egg sac he’d left on his bureau one morning.

The more I found out the more intrigued I became.  In addition to his books for kids White penned essays on such topics as the scourge of rats and made tape-recorded recitations of Charlotte’s Web.  Supposedly, the scene where Charlotte dies caused him to tear up so badly he was forced to do many retakes before he could read it through to the end.  His heavy New England accent in those recordings made him sound more like a friendly, rumpled and grumpy uncle than the erudite Ivy Leaguer I had always pictured him to be.

Yep, I’d definitely invite White to my ghostly dinner party, and maybe just to round out the table a bit I’d also ask Rachel Carson.  Her words also celebrated the importance of childhood wonderment.  Oh, hey, and let’s ask Sara Stein, too.  Although not as well known than the other two writers, Stein’s words inspired a whole cadre of us to head out to our own backyards to see what the words My Weeds actually meant.  Without Stein there’d be no backyard wildlife gardening movement.

“Hmmm.  All three of these authors liked Maine.  Would serving lobster be gauche?”

Random thoughts like these went through my head as I moved rocks around in my back yard last week.  Those stones, with different shades of milky quartz, were unearthed during last year’s construction.   I want to make them work in my garden design, but I can’t puzzle out where they should go exactly.  So I spend odd moments moving them from one side of the yard to the other.  It is a meditative pursuit and a great substitute for the gym, but I think it might unhinge the crazy side of my brain.

A lot of times I find big spiders underneath those rocks.  I suspect they are the type commonly referred to as nursery spiders.   The abundant rain and rocks seem to have created a haven for them.

Nursery spiders got their name from their habit of carrying their egg sacs around in their jaws until hatching time, when the mother ties leaves together with her silk to form a hanging spot for her bundle of arachnid joy.  These quick-moving brown creatures can get to be more than an inch or two long, and I always feel as if I’m being rude when I come upon one unexpectedly.  I have to fight the urge to say “excuse me” out loud.  They seem to own the garden more than I do, and I suspect that I am nothing more than a bumbling interloper in their world.

Our yard is also brim full of orb-weaving spiders, like the famous Charlotte.  Over each rain barrel they form lovely circular, silken tapestries to entrap flies, bees and moths.  On misty mornings the outline of the web glistens.

I keep thinking that when E.B. White gets here for dinner we can tour the garden first.  He’ll like to see those webs, I bet.  And he’ll probably have some helpful advice regarding our battles with rats in this neighborhood, or at least some consoling words.   I believe he’ll like our dog.

I just hope I don’t misplace any of my modifiers while he’s here.  That would never do.


Photo by Damon Hart-Davis

About the Author

Alison Gillespie
Alison Gillespie is the Sligo Naturalist. She writes about environmental and gardening issues here and on her blog