Saturday, December 29, 2007

Spiders Catch the Sun

The river valley is filled with sparkling jewels and precious metals. The trail is awash with emerald, peridot and jade scattered above the the thick brown mud along the mangrove-hugging creek and interwoven within the steep and rocky embankment.

Over the past few weeks the tall Eucalypts have been shedding their bark. It falls to the ground in thin strands, sometimes hanging down in long strips as if the old bark is flowing from the tree right into the earth. Beneath the old skin is revealed a brand new trunk of lustrous bronze glistening in the sunlight. Also shining are the new leaves sprouting from the gum and wattle saplings and other bushes - sometimes glowing a bright copper, sometimes a luscious deep ruby, sometimes a blue-tinged silver and sometimes a brilliant lime-gold.

Walking along the pathway I duck to avoid the precious gold and silver threads of intricate spider webs woven between the branchlets. Within the web dead insects are wrapped as treasures; they hang from the web's centre as the spider sits and waits ... for more prey perhaps? As the sunlight catches its golden cord I'm reminded of a comment from the biomimicry biologist Janine Benyus (2005) who suggests that spiders have valuable lessons to impart. She points out that:

'A spider makes silk ... that is five times stronger, ounce for ounce, than steel. It's resilient and tough - a true miracle fibre. Even more incredible, a spider uses flies and crickets as raw material and creates the fibre at body temperature (a life-friendly temperature), because the manufacturing plant is the spider's body. Furthermore, the fibre is biodegradable, so the spider can eat the web to make more web.'

The clever spinning spider inspires people like Benyus to create biodegradable, sustainable and useful products. This is done, she says, by entering 'into deep conversation with organisms' which 'absolutely fills you with awe'. The first step for scientists is not to rush into research but first to reflect on the evocative questions she poses: 'How does nature teach? How does nature learn? How does nature heal? How does nature communicate?' In the process of contemplation, Benyus advises a respectful listening to the natural world and an acknowledgement of thanks for the inspiration it offers. This engenders an ethic of care. She says:

'Seeing nature as model, measure, and mentor changes the very way you view and value the natural world. Instead of seeing nature as warehouse, you begin to see her as teacher. Instead of valuing what you can extract from her, you value what you can learn from her. And this changes everything. ... When what we learn improves how we live, we grow grateful, and that leads to the last step in the path: stewardship and caretaking, a practical thanksgiving for what we've learned.'

This practical awareness of the spiders' gifts has been implemented by tribal cultures in the Asia-Pacific region who gather spider fibre to make fish nets and traps and capture small birds with the sticky web fibres. And I was always told that spider webs can be used to stem the flow of blood on wounds.

More recently the strength and elasticity of the Golden Orb Spiders' silky web have led scientists to research the properties of spider silk and ask how spiders actually create their silky home. They are looking to transform the spiders' clever spinning into military use as armour (e.g. bullet proof material) as well as creating their own forms of synthetic biosilk for use in textiles and other products like fishing line through the use of genetic modification (see: Borchardt, Christian Science Monitor, 2004).

For instance, Japanese scientists, reports the Times of India (2007), have genetically modified silkworms to produce soft silky socks with which they 'aim to revitalize both the wearers' feet with possible anti-ageing effects and Japan's waning silk and socks industry'. While in 2002, the New York Times (2002) reported that goats had been genetically adapted with a gene from the Golden Orb Weaver to produce milk laced with spider silk (See Osborne, 2002, an article well worth a read).

Reading about the scientific and military uses of spider thread I think again about the biomimicry perspective of Janine Benyus who advises on the need for gratitude towards nature for its teaching and guidance and wonder if her perspective incorporates the questionable ethics and morality of the spiders' genetically modified science and military journey.

Benyus J, 2005, 'Genius of Nature,' Resurgence, 230.
Borchardt JK, 2004, 'Soon, Spider-silk Togs and Mussel Glue?' Christian Science Monitor, Aug 26, 2004.
Osborne L, 2002, 'Got Silk,' New York Times, June 16, 2002