At a campsite we used on the Pacific Crest Trail, I discovered the late afternoon sun lighting up dozens of silk strands spun by spiders who had apparently used them to descend from the high limbs of Douglas Firs. These thin threads, still holding strong in the breeze, were invisible except when they were revealed by rays from the sun that had descended on their own 90 million-mile journey to the earth. As the breeze moved those spider bridges up and down and in and out of contact with the rays of the sun, it appeared as though celestial light was moving up and down through the them like lightning, like the angels Jacob saw ascending and descending from heaven.
If you’ve been the first or the only one traveling a trail through the woods, you’re familiar with this arachnid transit system. When you tear through their elevated tracks, they stick on your hands or face, making you aware of the volume of nocturnal traffic in the forest. Still, I had no idea so many spiders were also commuting down to earth from hundreds of feet in the air.
What are those spiders doing up in the trees? Is this how they hunt? Do they wander up trees meeting and eating prey along the way and then spin a span to the next stop in the wilderness? Maybe from this vantage point spiders cast their gossamer lines to fish for a tasty gnat. I watched all those waving web strings strung from four or five trees to see if any of the flying insects the sun was lighting on fire overhead would be ensnared, but I saw nothing to indicate that. Is this a safer and more effective method for covering more hunting territory than crawling along the ground? Why not just settle down in a promising shrub or sapling and weave a web like other spiders do?
A spider I once knew descended from the rafters of our garage one night to attach a line to the top of my car's exterior rearview mirror. By the next morning, by forming a triangular frame with another line attached to the bottom of the mirror, the spider had woven a web adapting the usual intricate web design to that frame. Yet in the woods in Washington, when I found a tree where several of the spiders I had observed had landed, I found no webs at all. The spiders had apparently kept wandering, seeking other trees to climb and mates with whom to procreate another generation of adventurers.
And where do all those spider-miles of infrastructure come from anyway? How can hundreds of feet of web, even as thin as it is, be all wound up in one little spider abdomen?
When we returned home, I did some research on the web and learned that spiderlings use this method of transportation when they depart for the first time from the home website. Called ballooning or kiting, spiderlings turn their abdomens into the breeze and begin to release web that serves as a sail. Then “the wind blows where it chooses; you can see the power of it, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes.” Some adult spiders also use this form of travel to cross rivers. Even oceans. They align their spinnerets with the wind and release a silk road of their own until they feel that it has secured itself to some destination unknown. Nothing in the learned sources I consulted indicated if these kinds of spiders then settled down to tend webs or if they used their seemingly infinite store of silk to weave roads yet untraveled.
Whether such wandering is only a matter of leaving home or whether it’s a way of life, one can only admire the audacity of such spiders! The Germans who have a word for everything have a word for the souls of these spiders: wanderlust. Though we think spiders are merely instinctual adventurers, as a backpacker, I embrace my inner-spider, longing always to set out again, on foot and holding a pen, for destinations unknown and more discoveries of the secret trails God’s creatures take and make.