A fragile strength

This morning I walked my usual three miles up and down the road by our house. It was the first sunny morning we’ve had in three or four days, and the dew was heavy on the grass. It is also late September – that time of year here when spiders are large and their webs larger. This morning the sun and dew conspired to make me notice all the spider webs along my journey.

An orb weaver web sparkles in the sun

The big orb weaver webs are always impressive, but the sheer abundance of sheet webs on the grass and among the pine needles were hard to ignore.

Dozens of sheet webs dot the pine needle ground cover

A closer look at some of the webs revealed both the sparkles of sun on dew and the wear and tear of use or abuse as predator and prey, wind and rain, time and circumstance altered their intricate designs.

Half of an orb weaver web remains, lit up by the morning sun’s rays
Orb weaver webs dangle with the weight of the morning dew

The sheet webs, thought less dramatic from a distance, are particularly fascinating in their construction and function. The trip threads strung above the concave sheet or sheets below will knock unsuspecting prey into the sticky net below. One such sheet weaver is the unique bowl and doily spider which hangs upside down between the upper “bowl” and lower “doily” or sheet.

A sheet web spider hangs upside down from the top layer of its web

Some sheet webs have funnels where the spider goes to eat or to lay her eggs…

A dense sheet web with a funnel

As I was admiring the structure and function of both orb webs and sheet spider webs, I began to think about the strength and fragility of those webs. We’ve all heard that spider silk is “stronger than steel” and “lighter than cotton”. Indeed, most spider silk is about five times stronger than steel of the same diameter. Turns out it’s also thinner than human hair.

There are seven known types of spider silk – a tougher, stronger silk used for the frame of the web and a silk used for the connecting threads or the area that captures prey and another type for its drag line or ballooning line that allows it to fly through the air. They use a different silk to spin egg cases and even another kind to attach the circle threads to the frame threads! Spider silk is made of different kinds of proteins and is produced and stored in the spider as liquid, but turns solid as it leaves the spider’s body.

Even though it’s super strong, spider silk still can be broken. Every one of us has a strength equivalent to that powerful spider webbing, but in tough times we, too, can be broken. Our fragility , our strength depend on a lot of things – how we view ourselves, what kind of support we have, how our minds and bodies respond to change, whether we have the will or the skills or the resources to negotiate adversity, and so much more. Sometimes we have a choice in the matter, sometimes we don’t.

The spider can’t control when I accidentally walk through its web, tearing it apart. But the spider has the resources and the skills to rebuild it – maybe back in the same place or maybe somewhere else. Each one of us has a well of resources inside of us, whether we know it or not. We have the capacity first to recognize that we can control how we respond to any situation, and we have the love of family and/or friends to lift us up and the gifts of nature to calm us, teach us, inspire us. No one is ever alone because we are all connected to each other in this big, beautiful, messy, strong, fragile web of life.

This has been a heck of a year – 2020 – a year of chaos, stress, injustice, illness, death, loneliness. Every person on this planet has been impacted by it. Every one of us has our own story of pain, loss, strife. But every one of us has in us the capacity to survive and make life better…to help others, to empathize, to share, to be humane as well as human. We are all fragile, and we are all strong – just like a spider’s web.

Let’s be fragile and strong together. Connected. One.


  1. Your writing is always so poignant and especially this piece. Thanks for always connecting nature to our lives and reminding us that we are a part of it and not apart from it.

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