Mark Sprinkle (www.MarkSprinkle.com) is a gifted painter and the Senior Fellow of Arts and Humanities at the BioLogos Foundation, an organization that “explores, promotes, and celebrates the integration of science and Christian faith.” He and I had an intriguing conversation about our experiences with orb weaver spiders, and he asked to post on his blog an article about my lecture at the University of Virginia-Wise that would include his own (shudder!) close encounters with these spiders.
…While many scientists find the intricate web of internal mechanisms and external influences to be not only fascinating but beautiful, those who have not spent years studying biology and ecology are just as likely to see natural systems as depicted by science as no more than “red in tooth and claw,” an affront to the Biblical affirmation that God created a good earth, though now marred by sin. How do we begin to sort out these issues of conflicting images of evolution? A starting place may be comparing two perspectives on another highly ambivalent natural system and symbol—a fairly common “garden variety” spider and its web.
In April of this year, poet Suzanne Rhodes gave a presentation at the University of Virginia—Wise likening the craft of poetry to the way the family of spiders known as “orb weavers” spin their webs. One of the three largest families of spiders, the Aranedae makes what might be considered the archetypical form of web, with circular bands of sticky prey-catching silk organized around and supported by a structure of radial strands. But just as interesting (and instructive) to Rhodes as the basic form of the web was the process by which it was made and—at the end of the day—unmade.
It was not the gift I wanted, that someone would stand stroking the shaggy face as the drug did its work and the brown eyes closed for the last time. But it was my niece Jenny’s gift, nonetheless, to spare me the grief of watching my dog Heidi “go to sleep.”
Normally I eschew euphemisms as dishonest but this one I gladly swallowed. There is simply no way to comprehend death, not in men nor beasts. That my dog was old and crippled and panted with pain, that it was an act of kindness to put her down does not touch on the fact that she is entirely gone from the world, a small, unextraordinary but beloved presence. She will never park herself near my chair again or poke her nose in the neighbor’s shrub or bark with delicious hatred at the two yip-yappers on the corner. She will not fill up a room with an old dog smell (my daughter used to call her a mildewed rug) or foil my cleverness by meticulously eating all the food surrounding her arthritis pill.
I have witnessed olive shell, starfish, and sea anenome days. Today was clear jellyfish day, with the small, diamond-bright blobs strewn like mirrors along the sand. Another was horseshoe crab day. The beach was a junkyard of their helmets, and I stooped to examine one still wet from the wave that had delivered it downside up. The creature—-part of whose scientific name is limulus, which aptly means “odd”—-was still alive, but barely. More spider than crab, it weakly waved an appendage or two from the jumble of legs at its center, and I turned it over out of respect for its being and its dying..
To watch birds being banded is, for me, to step inside an extraordinary space I recognize as being both an artist’s studio and a scientist’s lab occupied by God the Creator. The recognition is a bit like the sacred glimpse we get in reading Proverbs 8:22-30, seeing the Creator joyfully at work. I’ve observed bird banding twice: once at Steele Creek Park in Bristol, Tennessee several years ago, and again in May, 2010, at Seashore State Park in Virginia Beach, Virginia. The first experience led to my poem, “Banding,” a white-heat composition that left me too excited to sleep, for it was one of those rare occasions when the rod you throw down turns into a snake, and you encounter a power that feels miraculous. Indeed, writing this poem became an act of worship.