AMATEUR NATURALIST

Winter frontiers

Posted Dec. 18, 2011, at 4:39 p.m.
Last modified Dec. 19, 2011, at 5:45 p.m.
Shepherd's purse in late November.
Photo by Dana Wilde
Shepherd's purse in late November.

The day before the November snowstorm, a few vestiges of summer dangled like bits of grass and twigs in autumn’s last spider webs. A lone yellow hawkweed, contracted against the cold, looked up out of the grass by the gravel walk. A little viney beast with tiny white blossoms and heart-shaped pods grew near it — shepherd’s purse, it was. There were dull orange marcescent oak leaves. Stiff willow-herb. Winterberry branches heavy with red berries, like a galaxy spun from seed. A murder of crows in the topmost branches of empty maples. Up above them, two undulating V’s of Canada geese honking in the cloud-strewn distance and flying due south. Lake Winnecook was as flat and gray as slate.

This was late in November. That night in a kitchen window two brown-colored spiders were hunkered down at the center of their geometric webs. These two (Araneus diademetus?) might have lived so long because of the unusual warm this fall, but I don’t know. They could not survive the coming snow, I didn’t think.

It’s hard to accurately identify most species of spiders. The ones who live outdoors, many of them, die in the autumn but rise again in spring when their eggs hatch and a new batch of spiderlings takes over the age-old work. The webs of these two billowed and bounced together in the November gusts. One was constructed in taut, carefully measured rectangles radiating from the center. The other looked miskempt, with trapezoids loosely lashed to rough triangles. This spider was probably older than the other, less disposed to neatness. They were hunched down in the centers, waiting for bugs that would never come. The silk is very tough against the wind which batted them up and down, and they clung there waiting.

They probably did not have long to live. Soon they would starve or succumb to the cold. But if they lasted through the night, they would dutifully build again. They were like two old Chinese poets banished at the end of their lives to the northern frontier and gazing northward into places so bleak it is almost unimaginable. Cold, rolling, rocky grassland in the dark, with nothing beyond but more dark and grassland and strews of boulders and somewhere mountains. No town, no family, no tomorrow. Only vast, empty winter, in the end.

Eight or nine inches of snow came and covered the gravel and willow-herb and goldenrod skeletons where the banded argiopes perished long ago in October frost. Whether the two old poets in the window survived, I don’t know. I haven’t seen any new webs since the storm. The shepherd’s purse lived through two more snows. The oaks are almost stripped. Cold and more snow are coming. Winter is vast in northern China, and in Troy.

Dana Wilde’s collection of Amateur Naturalist and other writings, “ The Other End of the Driveway,” is available electronically and in paperback from Booklocker.com.

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