Priscilla Long’s lead to “Arachne’s Cobweb” came along just twelve hours after I had reminded the kids that we cohabitate with many species besides the cat, not all of them cuddly. The conversation started with the house fly, Musca domestica. With our new house we inherited a fly swatter and we’ll have to buy another because the inevitable competition erupted between the boys. Kids love vermin, which sparked a discussion of fleas, ants, carpet beetles, silverfish, bees, fruit flies, termites, rats and, inevitably, spiders.
My favorite sentence in Long’s essay is this explanation of spider mating practices: “When he approaches to mate he will sometimes offer a fly for her to eat while he inserts his pedipalp into her epigyne.”
Throughout his books and journals, Thoreau writes with enthusiasm about spiders, frequently noting the size, design and timing of their webs. Not surprisingly, he admires their solitary nature and self-reliance. The spider may be Thoreau’s emblem, his animal totem. In his journal for October 1850, he writes:
“Cultivate poverty like sage, like a garden herb. Do not trouble yourself to get new things, whether clothes or friends. That is dissipation. Turn the old; return to them. Things do not change; we change. If I were confined to a corner in a garret all my days, like a spider, the world would be just as large to me while I had my thoughts.”
Thoreau revised the passage and incorporated it into “Conclusion,” the final chapter of Walden (1854):
“Cultivate poverty like a garden herb, like sage. Do not trouble yourself much to get new things, whether clothes or friends. Turn the old; return to them. Things do not change; we change. Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts. God will see that you do not want society. If I were confined to a corner of a garret all my days, like a spider, the world would be just as large to me while I had my thoughts about me.”
“Sage” is a good pun, better deployed in Walden, but most of the other changes between journal and finished text soften the language, making it flabbier, less punchy and more equivocal. I like the terse contrariness of “That is dissipation,” a paradox worthy of Chesterton. “Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts” is too cloyingly clever, and he already mentioned clothes three sentences earlier. The next Walden sentence, beginning “God will see…,” calls for a red pencil. Two changes are made in the final sentence – “in” to “of,” and “about me” added after “thoughts.” Again, I prefer the clipped journal version. I like the way “like a spider” hangs like a spider in her web, three words suspended between commas. “While I had my thoughts”: That and the world are sufficient, and I thought of Matthew 6:34.