What the Wild Things Do by George Merrill


What wild things do is filled with primal wisdom. Their doings may seem inscrutable but you can be sure they’re informed.

Job, of biblical renown, believed the earth, including its creatures, would teach us what’s important to know about life. ‘Speak to the earth and it will teach you,’ he said. His message was simple. Let nature guide our ways.

In the fall, when the sun’s declination lowers as it makes its daily trek across the sky shadows grow longer. I’ve noticed, too, how the sun’s rays highlight anything that can glitter, the way shining a light beam flush to the floor reveals tiny shards of broken glass.

My studio is about a hundred feet from the house. Walking to it one morning this fall, I spotted a single silk thread shining, one end fixed to a porch stanchion and the other end to a magnolia tree in front of my studio. The single strand stretched over a hundred feet. How it survived wind, rain and birds on the wing is remarkable. It’s inspiring to see how such creative and delicate art, such as spiders weave, can survive in a world that has become so violent. At the most primitive levels, nature teaches us the art of living.

Spiders weaving webs is a task filled with uncertainty. The spider affixes one end of a strand to something solid. She manufactures liquid protein, which solidifies into threads as she lays each strand. The spider then lets the loose end play out and wind currents take it. Where the other end sticks becomes the first strand from which all the others proceed, like the first sentence in a paragraph.

Just why images of the spider’s web, joined witches riding broomsticks as Halloween’s premier spooky icon, I don’t know. From my point of view, a spider’s web is pure art, an engineering marvel and I would add, an inspiring statement of patience and persistence.

Often, the voice first heard in a crowd is a whisper. Gentle words influence others more profoundly than harsh ones. The spider web’s gossamer and flimsy appearance belies its resilience. Those silken threads have a tensile strength that’s astonishing relative to their weight. The web’s threads rival steel and Kevlar, the material used to make bullet -proof vests. Paradoxes abound in the natural world. Appearances deceive: There is great strength in what at first appears weak and fragile. Consider butterflies wings, as thin as tissue paper, and they can travel half way around the globe.

I watched a Monarch on the wing the other day. She darted this way and that, up and down, but always in a southwesterly direction. Soon another flew by and within an hour I must have seen at least fifty all fluttering feverishly, many erratically, but ultimately going in one direction. They were off to southern climes, probably Mexico over two thousand miles as the butterfly flits. Some can travel 265 miles in a day. Considering they don’t fly in a straight line, I suspect the mileage count gets doubled. Inclement weather is a constant threat. It is a long and hazardous journey they undertake, beginning with the same uncertainties that beset a spider’s web productions, namely fragility and vulnerability. What the spider and the butterfly teach me is how important it is to go about my business focused, patient and persistent. As a writer, remaining focused, patient and persistent takes about all the energy I can muster.

While writing this essay my wife asked me to go shopping with her. We left Bozman for Graul’s on the St. Michaels road. I noticed a green leaf bug had settled on the car’s hood just in front of the windshield. He was about an inch and an inch and half long. The leaf bug was bright green. I was sure he’d jump off when we started. He didn’t. Instead he stayed put for the long haul. I don’t know how he did it.

On the St. Michaels Road I was doing between fifty and fifty-five miles per hour. The leaf bug first faced to the side, but gradually aligned his nose with the direction the car. His two antennae, in length as long as he was, streamed behind him like reeds bent low in a windstorm. He was instinctively trying to minimize wind resistance. How, I thought, could he possibly stay fixed securely on the hood of a car? How could he gain sufficient purchase on such a slippery surface to stay put and resist the force of the wind? He did just that and remained as firmly rooted as if he were bolted down like a hood decoration. He did shimmy and shake some – but what else could he do? He was, after all, like a leaf in a hurricane.

For all that, he appeared nonchalant, unconcerned that he might be blown away. He’d move his foremost right leg deliberately and place it slowly forward to his face as if he were trying to keep the wind from his eyes. At times I was up to about sixty mph, but he held his own on the hood. In the parking lot at Graul’s, I took a closer look at the leaf bug. He made no effort to leave, but turned slightly, positioning himself perpendicular to the sun as if trying to get warm now that he was out of the wind. When we returned to the car he was still there waiting. I assumed he was insisting we take him back home where he had been so unceremoniously shanghaied.

We returned home. Before taking the groceries into the house I took a closer look at him. He had only five of his six legs. An accident? Combat? I had no idea. His right rear leg was missing. He’d extended his left rear leg to the hood’s edge, lying just where the windshield extends upward from the car. If he’d been a boat in a storm, he’d effectively have secured himself aft with single stern line and with his other four legs rooted firmly to the hood kept his bow from being upended in the wind.

The lesson? When the ride gets rough, and you’re out of control, and you’re sure you’re going to be blown off, best to simply hunker down and hold on tight.

It’s what the wild things do.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.


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