Chapter XIV. The Garden Spiders: the Question of Property

Jean-Henri Fabre The Life of the Spider

garden spider

Garden Spider (Araneus Diadematus)

A dog has found a bone. He lies in the shade, holding it between his paws, and studies it fondly. It is his sacred property, his chattel. An Epeira has woven her web. Here again is property; and owning a better title than the other. Favoured by chance and assisted by his scent, the Dog has merely had a find; he has neither worked nor paid for it. The Spider is more than a casual owner, she has created what is hers. Its substance issued from her body, its structure from her brain. If ever property was sacrosanct, hers is.

Far higher stands the work of the weaver of ideas, who tissues a book, that other Spider's web, and out of his thought makes something that shall instruct or thrill us. To protect our ‚bone,‘ we have the police, invented for the express purpose. To protect the book, we have none but farcical means. Place a few bricks one atop the other; join them with mortar; and the law will defend your wall. Build up in writing an edifice of your thoughts; and it will be open to any one, without serious impediment, to abstract stones from it, even to take the whole, if it suit him. A rabbit-hutch is property; the work of the mind is not. If the animal has eccentric views as regards the possessions of others, we have ours as well.

‚Might always has the best of the argument,‘ said La Fontaine, to the great scandal of the peace-lovers. The exigencies of verse, rhyme and rhythm, carried the worthy fabulist further than he intended: he meant to say that, in a fight between mastiffs and in other brute conflicts, the stronger is left master of the bone. He well knew that, as things go, success is no certificate of excellence. Others came, the notorious evil-doers of humanity, who made a law of the savage maxim that might is right.

We are the larvae with the changing skins, the ugly caterpillars of a society that is slowly, very slowly, wending its way to the triumph of right over might. When will this sublime metamorphosis be accomplished? To free ourselves from those wild-beast brutalities, must we wait for the ocean-plains of the southern hemisphere to flow to our side, changing the face of continents and renewing the glacial period of the Reindeer and the Mammoth? Perhaps, so slow is moral progress.

True, we have the bicycle, the motor-car, the dirigible airship and other marvellous means of breaking our bones; but our morality is not one rung the higher for it all. One would even say that, the farther we proceed in our conquest of matter, the more our morality recedes. The most advanced of our inventions consists in bringing men down with grapeshot and explosives with the swiftness of the reaper mowing the corn.

Would we see this might triumphant in all its beauty? Let us spend a few weeks in the Epeira's company. She is the owner of a web, her work, her most lawful property. The question at once presents itself: Does the Spider possibly recognize her fabric by certain trademarks and distinguish it from that of her fellows?

I bring about a change of webs between two neighbouring Banded Epeirae. No sooner is either placed upon the strange net than she makes for the central floor, settles herself head downwards and does not stir from it, satisfied with her neighbour's web as with her own. Neither by day nor by night does she try to shift her quarters and restore matters to their pristine state. Both Spiders think themselves in their own domain. The two pieces of work are so much alike that I almost expected this.

I then decide to effect an exchange of webs between two different species. I move the Banded Epeira to the net of the Silky Epeira and vice versa. The two webs are now dissimilar; the Silky Epeira's has a limy spiral consisting of closer and more numerous circles. What will the Spiders do, when thus put to the test of the unknown? One would think that, when one of them found meshes too wide for her under her feet, the other meshes too narrow, they would be frightened by this sudden change and decamp in terror. Not at all. Without a sign of perturbation, they remain, plant themselves in the centre and await the coming of the game, as though nothing extraordinary had happened. They do more than this. Days pass and, as long as the unfamiliar web is not wrecked to the extent of being unserviceable, they make no attempt to weave another in their own style. The Spider, therefore, is incapable of recognizing her web. She takes another's work for hers, even when it is produced by a stranger to her race.

We now come to the tragic side of this confusion. Wishing to have subjects for study within my daily reach and to save myself the trouble of casual excursions, I collect different Epeirae whom I find in the course of my walks and establish them on the shrubs in my enclosure. In this way, a rosemary-hedge, sheltered from the wind and facing the sun, is turned into a well-stocked menagerie. I take the Spiders from the paper bags wherein I had put them separately, to carry them, and place them on the leaves, with no further precaution. It is for them to make themselves at home. As a rule, they do not budge all day from the place where I put them: they wait for nightfall before seeking a suitable site whereon to weave a net.

Some among them show less patience. A little while ago, they possessed a web, between the reeds of a brook or in the holm-oak copses; and now they have none. They go off in search, to recover their property or seize on some one else's: it is all the same to them. I come upon a Banded Epeira, newly imported, making for the web of a Silky Epeira who has been my guest for some days now. The owner is at her post, in the centre of the net. She awaits the stranger with seeming impassiveness. Then suddenly they grip each other; and a desperate fight begins. The Silky Epeira is worsted. The other swathes her in bonds, drags her to the non-limy central floor and, in the calmest fashion, eats her. The dead Spider is munched for twenty-four hours and drained to the last drop, when the corpse, a wretched, crumpled ball, is at last flung aside. The web so foully conquered becomes the property of the stranger, who uses it, if it have not suffered too much in the contest.

There is here a shadow of an excuse. The two Spiders were of different species; and the struggle for life often leads to these exterminations among such as are not akin. What would happen if the two belonged to the same species? It is easily seen. I cannot rely upon spontaneous invasions, which may be rare under normal conditions, and I myself place a Banded Epeira on her kinswoman's web. A furious attack is made forthwith. Victory, after hanging for a moment in the balance, is once again decided in the stranger's favour. The vanquished party, this time a sister, is eaten without the slightest scruple. Her web becomes the property of the victor.

There it is, in all its horror, the right of might: to eat one's like and take away their goods. Man did the same in days of old: he stripped and ate his fellows. We continue to rob one another, both as nations and as individuals; but we no longer eat one another: the custom has grown obsolete since we discovered an acceptable substitute in the mutton-chop.

Let us not, however, blacken the Spider beyond her deserts. She does not live by warring on her kith and kin; she does not of her own accord attempt the conquest of another's property. It needs extraordinary circumstances to rouse her to these villainies. I take her from her web and place her on another's. From that moment, she knows no distinction between meum and tuum: the thing which the leg touches at once becomes real estate. And the intruder, if she be the stronger, ends by eating the occupier, a radical means of cutting short disputes.

Apart from disturbances similar to those provoked by myself, disturbances that are possible in the everlasting conflict of events, the Spider, jealous of her own web, seems to respect the webs of others. She never indulges in brigandage against her fellows except when dispossessed of her net, especially in the daytime, for weaving is never done by day: this work is reserved for the night. When, however, she is deprived of her livelihood and feels herself the stronger, then she attacks her neighbour, rips her open, feeds on her and takes possession of her goods. Let us make allowances and proceed.

We will now examine Spiders of more alien habits. The Banded and the Silky Epeira differ greatly in form and colouring. The first has a plump, olive-shaped belly, richly belted with white, bright- yellow and black; the second's abdomen is flat, of a silky white and pinked into festoons. Judging only by dress and figure, we should not think of closely connecting the two Spiders.

But high above shapes tower tendencies, those main characteristics which our methods of classification, so particular about minute details of form, ought to consult more widely than they do. The two dissimilar Spiders have exactly similar ways of living. Both of them prefer to hunt by day and never leave their webs; both sign their work with a zigzag flourish. Their nets are almost identical, so much so that the Banded Epeira uses the Silky Epeira's web after eating its owner. The Silky Epeira, on her side, when she is the stronger, dispossesses her belted cousin and devours her. Each is at home on the other's web, when the argument of might triumphant has ended the discussion.

Let us next take the case of the Cross Spider, a hairy beast of varying shades of reddish-brown. She has three large white spots upon her back, forming a triple-barred cross. She hunts mostly at night, shuns the sun and lives by day on the adjacent shrubs, in a shady retreat which communicates with the lime-snare by means of a telegraph-wire. Her web is very similar in structure and appearance to those of the two others. What will happen if I procure her the visit of a Banded Epeira?

The lady of the triple cross is invaded by day, in the full light of the sun, thanks to my mischievous intermediary. The web is deserted; the proprietress is in her leafy hut. The telegraph-wire performs its office; the Cross Spider hastens down, strides all round her property, beholds the danger and hurriedly returns to her hiding-place, without taking any measures against the intruder.

The latter, on her side, does not seem to be enjoying herself. Were she placed on the web of one of her sisters, or even on that of the Silky Epeira, she would have posted herself in the centre, as soon as the struggle had ended in the other's death. This time there is no struggle, for the web is deserted; nothing prevents her from taking her position in the centre, the chief strategic point; and yet she does not move from the place where I put her.

I tickle her gently with the tip of a long straw. When at home, if teased in this way, the Banded Epeira—like the others, for that matter—violently shakes the web to intimidate the aggressor. This time, nothing happens: despite my repeated enticements, the Spider does not stir a limb. It is as though she were numbed with terror. And she has reason to be: the other is watching her from her lofty loop-hole.

This is probably not the only cause of her fright. When my straw does induce her to take a few steps, I see her lift her legs with some difficulty. She tugs a bit, drags her tarsi till she almost breaks the supporting threads. It is not the progress of an agile rope-walker; it is the hesitating gait of entangled feet. Perhaps the lime-threads are stickier than in her own web. The glue is of a different quality; and her sandals are not greased to the extent which the new degree of adhesiveness would demand.

Anyhow, things remain as they are for long hours on end: the Banded Epeira motionless on the edge of the web; the other lurking in her hut; both apparently most uneasy. At sunset, the lover of darkness plucks up courage. She descends from her green tent and, without troubling about the stranger, goes straight to the centre of the web, where the telegraph-wire brings her. Panic-stricken at this apparition, the Banded Epeira releases herself with a jerk and disappears in the rosemary-thicket.

The experiment, though repeatedly renewed with different subjects, gave me no other results. Distrustful of a web dissimilar to her own, if not in structure, at least in stickiness, the bold Banded Epeira shows the white feather and refuses to attack the Cross Spider. The latter, on her side, either does not budge from her day shelter in the foliage, or else rushes back to it, after taking a hurried glance at the stranger. She here awaits the coming of the night. Under favour of the darkness, which gives her fresh courage and activity, she re-appears upon the scene and puts the intruder to flight by her mere presence, aided, if need be, by a cuff or two. Injured right is the victor.

Morality is satisfied; but let us not congratulate the Spider therefore. If the invader respects the invaded, it is because very serious reasons impel her. First, she would have to contend with an adversary ensconced in a stronghold whose ambushes are unknown to the assailant. Secondly, the web, if conquered, would be inconvenient to use, because of the lime-threads, possessing a different degree of stickiness from those which she knows so well. To risk one's skin for a thing of doubtful value were twice foolish. The Spider knows this and forbears.

But let the Banded Epeira, deprived of her web, come upon that of one of her kind or of the Silky Epeira, who works her gummy twine in the same manner: then discretion is thrown to the winds; the owner is fiercely ripped open and possession taken of the property.

Might is right, says the beast; or, rather, it knows no right. The animal world is a rout of appetites, acknowledging no other rein than impotence. Mankind, alone capable of emerging from the slough of the instincts, is bringing equity into being, is creating it slowly as its conception grows clearer. Out of the sacred rushlight, so flickering as yet, but gaining strength from age to age, man will make a flaming torch that will put an end, among us, to the principles of the brutes and, one day, utterly change the face of society.


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