This Covid summer we spent more time at home than usual. The view from our windows deepened; ordinary things around us acquired detail, texture, specific gravity – even emotional meaning, now that we have the time to absorb those meanings.
Our garden gets little direct light. In winter, it has corners that the sun never touches at all and this wet summer has been a marginally brighter iteration of that. Into this damp atmosphere we introduced a single sunflower seedling, a gift from our daughter. While other seedlings yielded multiple flowers in other gardens, we watched ours lengthen singly and grow, up and up and further upward, hunting light.
That was a long, green growing, with little reward. Impossibly slender for all that height, surely the stem would snap before the head could grow. But eventually the flowerhead came, high up, taller than the wisteria, taller than us, up among the acacia leaves. It came slowly but one morning it was there: perfect, and perfectly upheld. We watched it day after day as it rotated the growing brightness of its face to follow the path of the distant sun. The core of the flower like nothing so much as a compound eye, all dark geometry and delicate honeycombed seed-harbouring chambers. On bright days the flowerhead blazed, its own source of light. And the sun flower thrived. The word bloom is made for beings like this. That flower glowed, its warm weight impressed on my retina, a solid yellow touch, remarkable.
When I came down early in the mornings, the flower’s bright face waited at the window, my own personal sun. It greeted me with petals spread, strong yellow arms holding up a misty sky threaded with rain. Brave, hopeful. And still its face craved light and turned. And still it grew. And the bees came, loving it. And wasps. Magpies watched, jealous, waiting for the fall, for seeds to plunder. And the winds came to assail it but it didn’t break. Rain drummed on it. Finally during a storm one night when we weren’t paying attention its petals fell, canary feathers, to the sodden, slippery wood of our deck – which really could have been a ship, the way the sky tumbled into our garden, rolling over itself like water. We harvested the seeds, hoping to regenerate all that magnificent staying power and courage for next year, the hidden magic we all need in the months ahead. A solid lonely stem remained, with drooping leaves.
And little by little, two daughter flowers emerged. Or maybe a daughter flower and a son flower. They’re out there now. Not as magnificent as their parent plant as the days turn and shrink and darken, but still hopeful. Brave. Will they have enough time to reach their full potential? We watch in trepidation as autumn closes in.
Meanwhile, a spider. One insomniac night, coming into the kitchen in grey pre-dawn light, a silvery touch like a falling hair crossed my arm. I brushed it away but it clung and, looking down, I saw a small brown spider, legs busy on an alternative route of escape. I set her down and went about the midnight business of my desk. In the morning, the kitchen window displayed a full-size, gloriously intricate, orb-web – the night-time work of that tiny creature, labouring alone. And she at the centre, resting, splayed, backlit by the window, revealing the tiger stripes of her clever, jointed legs. All day we watched her, intrigued. Such effort. Such symmetry. How do they do it, making themselves fly, sailing invisible air-currents?
The next morning she was bundled into herself, clinging to a single filament, the web gone and a tiny white knot of thread an inch away from her. Had she laid her eggs in that tiny cottony sac? She didn’t move all day. Exhausted, perhaps. Starving, her web gone. Where would she get the energy to spin a new one? We left her there and over the next two days we watched as she laboured to spin her single diagonal line, then went down to a corner to try to make another one. Using so much energy and getting nowhere. As if she’d forgotten how to generate the silk or wrap its radials together. She’d lost the knack of it. Had something happened while we weren’t looking to destroy her home and stun her? Was she ill? She must be famished, we said. The egg sac vanished. Had she been driven to desperation and eaten it herself? We didn’t know how to help. Failed threads fell across the radio on the windowsill, the vegetable brush, a box of batteries waiting to be recycled. Her legs worked and worked, god knows she was trying, but with no apparent result. But on the fourth morning, today, we found the makings of a proper web, orb-like, radial, geometric.
It’s low in the corner of the windowsill, a more promising spot, with a tiny cocoon evident higher up – not the best place for spider-babies. Easy prey – for what, a human hand, cleaning?