Webs, Threads and Other Mysteries

Orb-weaving spider in its web

Toward the end of every summer, the orb- weaver spiders appear around my house, rapidly creating fantastic invisible webs which only become clear in bright sunshine or moonlight. Most often as you walk down the steps or between shrubs, you suddenly feel a thread, surprisingly thick, that splats you in the face or tangles on your arm, harder to break than one would imagine given the smallness of its creator. When it rains, or on occasion during an early snow, massive webs, previously unnoticed, appear and glitter in their incredible complexity. Years ago, one web completely covered the bed of Michael’s big red pick-up truck, prey stranded in disparate sections, as if stored in a pantry as the next meal. Sometimes you’re lucky enough to catch a weaver in the act of building, an opportunity to observe up close, an engineer of amazing talent. Of late I’ve been thinking of the unseen webs, along with those being explored by scientists below the surface of the earth, their size and complexity quite marvelous and thought-provoking.

The largest living organism on earth

For example, we have what is commonly called the “humongous fungus.”

“The humongous fungus is a single fungal organism found in Malheur National Forest in Oregon, and it belongs to a species called Armillaria ostoyae. These fungi can get pretty big, but the humongous fungus in Oregon is an individual that covers an area of three and a half square miles or 9 square kilometers. At that kind of size, you’d imagine that the humongous fungus would be easy to spot. You’d be wrong. That’s because it’s almost completely underground for most of the year. It only pops up when it comes time to reproduce.” From Discovery.com

Photo by Creative Commons

Then there is the fascinating microbial world connecting trees below the ground, an interactive world being studied by scientists.

“Trees, from the mighty redwoods to slender dogwoods, would be nothing without their microbial sidekicks. Millions of species of fungi and bacteria swap nutrients between soil and the roots of trees, forming a vast, interconnected web of organisms throughout the woods. Now, for the first time, scientists have mapped this “wood wide web” on a global scale, using a database of more than 28,000 tree species living in more than 70 countries.From Science Journal.

Image – Arizona State University

When I read about these natural phenomena, I can’t help but think that these patterns of mutual lifelong beneficial relationships are not confined to what’s happening in the ground beneath our feet. The human organism, still full of mysteries, has been shown to be significantly more complex than one would suspect from a cursory physical examination of the body. For example, we now know that DNA and cell exchange occurs between mothers and their fetuses.

“Fetal DNA can enter a mother’s brain and remain there for decades, according to autopsies of female brains. During a pregnancy, cells from mother and fetus can cross the placenta and survive for decades in the skin, liver and spleen – a phenomenon called fetal microchimerism.”- New Scientist.

Gut -brain axis. Image – Live Science

Additionally the science about the connections between the health of the gut and the brain has deepened our understanding of the delicate physiological balance necessary to maintain good health. Top that with the remarkable ability of our bodies to take on the biological characteristics of our partners and you have a complex series of webs functioning below the surface of us humans. “Insights into the gut-brain crosstalk have revealed a complex communication system that not only ensures the proper maintenance of gastrointestinal homeostasis, but is likely to have multiple effects on affect, motivation, and higher cognitive functions. The complexity of these interactions is enclosed in the denomination of “gut-brain axis.” (GBA) National Institute of Health.

X-rays of human couples – Photo by Vuing.com

Couples influence each other’s mental and physical health. Recent studies have demonstrated notable spousal concordance in gene expression patterns, cellular immune profiles, and inflammation. Furthermore, couples’ intestinal microbial communities – or gut microbiotas – and health behaviors are also more similar to each other than those of unrelated partners, providing common pathways for shared disease risks. From Psychosomatic Medicine Journal.

So what about all this stuff? How did I go down this rabbit hole of connections and continuities in nature? Although I’m often fascinated by these topics, I think I really started thinking hard about them last week when I was stunned with the news that one of my old friends, Pat, someone I’d known for over 50 years, had died quite suddenly. In my life, I’ve been fortunate to maintain contact with people I’ve known since I was a small child. Some people eventually fell away, but others remain connected to me no matter how much time or distance is between us. Along the way, I met more people, especially in college in the 60’s and 70’s, people with whom I shared a profound sense of community built around our shared political beliefs, and a vision for a future based on a set of principles out of step with the class, racial and sexual stereotypes of the past. In that heady time, we built families, outside the biological ones from which we came. Not everyone with whom I shared that part of my life stayed in my daily world as years passed, but a surprising number did. With tremendous good fortune, we maintained contact, ultimately aided by the advent of technology, but even before that game changer, with a concerted effort to incorporate our ideals into at least part of our adult futures. My friend who died was part of that family. Although we didn’t have the same continuous contact that we did in our youth, we were always in touch and could easily pick up our communication no matter how much time had passed. For years we all vacationed together with our kids, our parents and each other, whether in pairs or single.

Photo from our extended family vacations – 1995

Pat’s death was shocking as all unexpected deaths feel to survivors. Within a few days, the old network of our community, held together like a clutch of sturdy threads regardless of time and space, emerged from the past decades. I found myself talking with people I haven’t seen in years. An email network for sharing interesting articles transitioned into communication about the realities facing everyone as we coped with this death. I was out of town, but still we engaged with each other. I wrote a blog. I wound up writing her obituary. Through this last week, I’ve continued to think about this web of people. For me, these thoughts are part of a continuum about the powerful connection I still feel with Michael, now gone for over five years. I’ve gotten used to the idea that feeling his presence near me is a real thing, when at no point in my life, did I ever think that there were possibilities of links between the living and the dead. I’ve never been religious, although I have my own version of a spiritual life. I feel my parents’ presence frequently and I suspect there are more surprises ahead of me in this unknown realm of possibility. I’m intimate enough with my kids that I can feel them without conversation and I have that odd awareness with other people too. I choose to believe that some day, after I’m long gone, these otherworldly sensations will be made explicable by scientific explorers with technology beyond anything I can currently imagine. Why not? As doctors applied leeches to people ages ago, hoping to release the sources of their illnesses, could they have conceived of MRI equipment that could see the body’s tissues in remarkable detail? Unlikely.

9/11/01 – Image – New York Times

In addition to Pat’s death, the 21st anniversary of 9/11 loomed. Like most people, I have indelible images of that day in my mind, along with the other historical moments that sear themselves into our brains. An old friend of mine who became a journalist, and who married a journalist, were covering that story for the Wall Street Journal. Her husband walked into the billowing debris to get first-hand information about that disaster. His lungs were severely damaged and he was hospitalized for a long time. Eventually he was well enough to go home but the rest of his life was a challenge for breath. He died in August of 2020 at age 67, the same age as my husband at his death. His widow, my old friend, was traveling in Europe last week, which I knew from social media. She saw the news of Pat’s death from afar and wrote me to ask what happened. She wanted to contact another mutual friend with whom she was close. I was amazed to hear from her and yet, not. Way back in 1972, when she was studying journalism, she took several black and white photos of Michael and me, as part of an assignment. I treasure those photos which are an incredible gift of a place in time, when camera phones didn’t exist and so many moments were never recorded. Below are a few of those photos, now 50 years old. I’ve always remembered her for that photo shoot.

Michael and me – 1972
Me – 1972

The 9/11 weekend was mixed with moments of fun and happiness, a baby shower for my son and daughter-in-law, who are expecting a baby daughter in early November. She will be my third grandchild, and the first girl in her generation. In addition to local friends and family, my cousin and her family came here from Ohio for the first time in almost three years. After the shower, all the family had dinner and precious time together. The next morning, 9/11, we went out to breakfast before everyone went their separate ways. We discussed the event and shared our different experiences of that time. The rest of my day was quiet.

The first thing I see every morning

Monday morning, I woke up and checked my phone for mail or messages. I was surprised to find one from my traveling friend who was in Italy. She was with her daughter, as part of the trip’s purpose was to strew some of her husband’s ashes in Turin. He was of Italian descent and together, they’d had wonderful trips to his ancestral home. She was writing to tell me of a series of experiences she termed “otherworldly,” coincidences that so powerfully evoked her husband that she felt like she was losing her mind as they just kept coming. She’s read enough of my social media posts and blogs to know that much to my amazement, my relationship with Michael continues beyond his corporeal absence. I think she felt that I’d accept what she was feeling with no judgment, which is correct. Although I have no concrete evidence of the invisible strands that have both astonished me while they provide intense sustenance, I now believe in them. As I poke through the science I mentioned earlier, I hope that someone will figure this out one day. I’ve grown comfortable with being somewhat off the usual beaten paths and totally understand the need to be believed and validated. I was happy to oblige her. I know that for me there’ve been times when some people treat me like an alien because I’m so comfortable in this odd cosmic universe. It’s been quite a week. I expect I’ll be exploring and thinking away about all these mysterious ideas until my brain stops working. Meanwhile, I’ll leave a photo of trees that clearly are expressing respect for each other’s individuality while sharing resources and community. Why not us?

Photo – Natural History Museum

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