It's 10 o'clock on a cloudy Sydney morning and the temperature outside is 36 degrees and rising. Thunderstorms are forecast for later in the day, so Naomi will lead the expedition to Five Dock Park very soon. I'm coming home in a few days but Clemency will stay here. Nick was riding his bike to work a few days back and was bowled on a roundabout by a distracted driver. He broke the windscreen of the offending Toyota with his head but escaped - miraculously - any damage to his head and neck. 3 cheers for bike helmets! He does have a few other injuries, which are inconvenient rather than life threatening so Clemency will continue the nannying and chauffeuring which have been occupying us for the last few days. She's getting pretty adept at negotiating Sydney traffic and in manoeuvring an electric wheelchair up a ramp and into the back on an SUV.
Ask any Kiwi for their opinions of Australia and odds are they'll mention snakes and spiders in the first couple of sentences. We don't have any snakes here in Five Dock, at least, not that I've noticed, but in Nick's quite petite outdoors Ive seen three really impressive spiders. There's a wolf spider with a body the size of my thumb who lives by the outside tap. Naomi calls him Wolfie and knows not to touch him, but is happy to show off this accepted member of the family. Out on the deck there is an impressively sized and quite beautiful St. Andrew's Cross spider, sitting quietly in her web, waiting for any passing quarry, which doesn't include humans unless they are silly enough to interfere with her day's schedule. But the really good one is the Webcaster.
Nick called me last night to come and look at this, Dad, and led the way outside, hopping on his good leg, lighting the way with the torch app in his iPhone. The spider was hanging, suspended from a shrub by a single thread, about three or four inches above the ground. She was large but not impressively so, a body an inch or so long, and holding in four of her limbs a small square of web. If a victim should happen to pass beneath her in the dark she would expand this square into a casting net to throw on it and trap it.
This is behaviour I find awesome, in the meaning that word used to have. And in the meaning it has now, too, I guess. I can see how there is a Darwinian explanation for it, and a quite straightforward one at that, but somehow a simple description of how behaviours arose, not to mention the associated changes in the physical construction of the web and the ingenious expanding design, miss so many important questions. Such as what is the nature of intelligence?and of consciousness? And for me, these questions are the truly important ones, leading, as I think they do, most directly to the most important questions of all: how did the spider get to be here? and why?
There's one of those party puzzle questions. Suppose you are a bus driver. The bus leaves Dunedin at 3 pm for Timaru with 16 people on board. At Waikouaiti there is a stop and the number of people on the bus doubles. At Palmerston there is another stop and 1/4 of the people get off and another 6 get on. At Oamaru the population of the bus doubles and at Glenavy 17 people leave the bus. The bus arrives at Timaru at 6 pm. How many times did the bus stop and what is the driver's name? The puzzle works, obviously, because the extraneous information distracts the hearer from paying attention to the main question. So the evolutionary history of the spider, while interesting enough, is, similarly, not the main question. If it crowds out all our vision, it is a distraction from what is obvious, and what might lead us closer to the heart of all things: a sense of the wonder and beauty and ingenuity of this elegant Universe, which as a matter of course produces such an extraordinary phenomenon as a web casting spider. And the even more extraordinary one of this son of mine, who in spite of everything else, sees; understands; rejoices; shares.