|The Story Book of Science|
|by Jean Henri Fabre|
|The wonders of plant and animal life told with rare literary charm by Uncle Paul in conversations with three children. Besides such stories as the ants' subterranean city, the spider's suspension bridge, and the caterpillars' processing, he unlocks the mystery behind thunder and lightning, clouds and rain, the year and its seasons, and volcanoes and earthquakes. Ages 9-12 |
THE EPEIRA'S BRIDGE
ERE Uncle Paul caught Claire looking at him thoughtfully.
It was evident that some change was taking place in her
mind: the spider was no longer a repulsive creature,
unworthy of our regard. Uncle Paul continued:
"With its legs, armed with sharp-toothed little claws like
combs, the spider draws the thread from its spinnerets as it
has need. If it wishes to descend, like the one this morning
that came down from the ceiling on to Mother Ambroisine's
shoulder, it glues the end of the thread to the point of
departure and lets itself fall perpendicularly. The thread
is drawn from the spinnerets by the weight of the spider,
and the latter, softly suspended, descends to any depth it
wishes, and as slowly as it pleases. In order to ascend
again, it climbs up the thread by folding it gradually into
a skein between its legs. For a second descent, the spider
has only to let its skein of silk unwind little by little.
"To weave its web, each kind of spider has its own method of
procedure, according to the kind of game it is going to
hunt, the places it frequents, and according to its
particular inclinations, tastes, and instincts. I will
merely tell you a few words about the epeiræ, large
spiders magnificently speckled with yellow, black, and
silvery white. They are
 hunters of big game,—of green or
blue damsel-flies that frequent the water-courses, of
butterflies, and large flies. They stretch their web
vertically between two trees and even from one bank of a
stream to the other. Let us examine this last case.
"An epeira has found a good place for hunting: the
dragon-flies, or blue and green damsel-flies, come and go
from one tuft of reeds to another, sometimes going up,
sometimes down the stream. Along its course are butterflies
also, and horse-flies, or large flies that suck blood from
cattle. The site is a good one. Now, then, to work! The
epeira climbs to the top of a willow at the water's edge.
There it matures its plan, an audacious one, the execution
of which seems impossible. A suspension bridge, a cable
which serves as support for the future web, must be
stretched from one bank to the other. And observe, children,
that the spider cannot cross the stream by swimming; it
would perish by drowning if it ventured into the water. It
must stretch its cable, its bridge, from the top of its
branch without changing place. Never has an engineer found
himself in such difficulties. What will the little creature
do? Put your heads together, children; I am waiting for your
"Build a bridge from one side to the other, without crossing
the water or moving away from its place? If the spider can
do that it is cleverer than I am." Thus spoke Jules.
"Than I, too," chimed in his brother.
"If I did not already know," said Claire, "since you have
just told us, that the spider does
accom-  plish it, I should
say that its bridge is impossible."
Mother Ambroisine said nothing, but by the slackening of the
tick-tack of her needles, every one could see that she was
much interested in the spider's bridge.
"Animals often have more intelligence than we," continued
Uncle Paul; "the epeira will prove it to us. With its hind
legs it draws a thread from its spinnerets. The thread
lengthens and lengthens; it floats from the top of the
branch. The spider draws out more and more; finally, it
stops. Is the thread long enough? Is it too short? That is
what must be looked after. If too long, it would be wasting
the precious silky liquid; if too short, it would not fulfil
the given conditions. A glance is thrown at the distance to
be crossed, an exact glance, you may be sure. The thread is
found too short. The spider lengthens it by drawing out a
little more. Now all goes well: the thread has the
wished-for length, and the work is done. The epeira waits at
the top of its branch: the rest will be accomplished without
help. From time to time it bears with its legs on the thread
to see if it resists. Ah! it resists; the bridge is fixed!
The spider crosses the stream on its suspension bridge! What
has happened, then? This: The thread floated from the top of
the willow. A breath of air blew the free end of the thread
into the branches on the opposite bank. This end got
entangled there: behold the mystery. The epeira has only to
draw the thread to itself, to stretch it properly and make a
suspension bridge of it."
 "Oh, how simple!" cried Jules. "And yet not one of us would
have thought of it."
"Yes, my friend, it is very simple, but at the same time
very ingenious. It is thus with all work: simplicity in the
means employed is a sign of excellence. To simplify is to
have knowledge; to complicate is to be ignorant. The epeira,
in its kind of construction, is science perfected."
"Where does it get that science, Uncle?" asked Claire.
"Animals have not reason. Then who teaches the epeira to
build its suspension bridges?"
"No one, my dear child; it is born with this knowledge. It
has it by instinct, the infallible inspiration of the Father
of all things, who creates in the least of His creatures,
for their preservation, ways of acting before which our
reason is often confounded. When the epeira, from the top of
the willow, gets ready to spin its web, what inspires it
with the audacious project of the bridge; what gives it
patience to wait for the floating end of the thread to
entwine in the branches of the other bank; what assures it
of the success of a labor that it is performing perhaps for
the first time, and has never seen done? It is the universal
Reason that watches over creation, and takes among men the
thrice-holy name of Providence."
Uncle Paul had won his case: in the eyes of all, even of
Mother Ambroisine, spiders were no longer frightful
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