Thursday, July 2, 2015

On Spiders



The great forests of the north have a very different odor than the sad little groves and wood-lots on the prairies. Those southern shelter belts and hollows unsuited for cultivation smell of rotting leaf litter, a stagnant odor like a wet basement and pesticide and rust from abandoned farm implements and barbed wire hidden among the trees. The great northern woods smell of pine needles and oozing resin, creosote, water animate in cascades and acidic with tannin, huge cold lakes breathing like glaciers, a mint, mountainous air. But in the odor of both forests, there is the smell of their burning – a warm, embedded stench of fire. The great forests of the north are unlit torches but the smell of their harvest by fire is always intrinsic in them.

On a cool July morning, I stood in my backyard an hour after dawn playing with my dawn. In the air, I was surprised to scent campgrounds and canoe portages, evergreen and fragrant sap – the smell of the great northern woods at least two-hundred miles away. But this was the odor of these places burning, the forests distilled to their essence in an alembic of fire and, then, wafted on the winds south onto the prairies. In Canada, there were great forest fires raging out of control and the ash dimmed the jet stream so that the sun on the horizon was veiled in purplish majesty, pale and faint in its shroud of soot that you could look directly into its face and trace its edges. At noon, the sky was a featureless haze, luminous and cream-colored overhead and, at night, the moon skidding amidst rafts of cirrus cloud was orange, inflamed, a portent in the heavens. It was unseasonably cool and sky was dim and lightless and people with asthma choked and coughed, sinuses acted up, dogs curled up with their noses buried in their tails so as not to be perplexed by the faint, but pervasive odor of the Canadian fires.

I smelled the blaze and the odor made me nostalgic for mountains and campgrounds. I thought of climbing out of a sleeping bag, stiff from resting overnight on the hard ground, and standing at a pump to draw a pail of water for the campsite, the heavy garbage cans stinking a little of beer cans and fish guts and their metal sides beaded with dew, a lake somewhere nearby at the base of a steep slope slippery with fox-brown pine needles, and I remembered my father, who is long dead, and a camping trip to Mille Lacs Lake, the foul-smelling outhouse, campfires, people cooking flapjacks on a griddle, the hush of the morning broken now and then by laughing, someone coughing in a camper, a loon calling across the waters.

A silky-looking spider hovered in mid-air in my backyard. No doubt the spider was attached to something, hanging by some subtle and invisible cord from the ashen sky. I waved my hand over the spider and must have caught its web-parachute on my wrist because the spider followed the motions of my hand. I saw another tiny spider, tinted yellow-orange, also suspended mid-air, hanging on invisible strands. As I gestured at that spider, it ran up an unseen scaffolding, ascending into the sky.

Bees suck honey from flowers. Spiders suck poison from those same blossoms. Each flower is abundant with both honey and venom. This is the nature of the arboretum in which we live. Spiders convert the gall in flowers into their poisons. They are mobile sacs of venom with delicate, scalpel-like fangs. The sky is full of the smell of fire. In his poem, "Twickenham Garden," John Donne writes of

The spider Love, which transubstantiates,
And can covert manna to gall.
The image suggests a spider sucking the "manna" or honey-resins produced by a flower and converting them into poison.

The wind stirs and the smell of burning taints the air and ash drives the little spiders down from the sky into our backyards. The great northern woods are on fire.

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