Earthlings: Humanity’s Essential Relationship with Gravity
by Iris Mónica Vargas
Remember that instant when, as you ran around the shadows of imaginary jungles in your backyard, falling once and tripping twice, your gaze was caught by a fragile silky web with a tiny spider in the middle? You were mesmerized by the steady weaving of its many limbs –it would not easily fall down- simply swaying to and swaying fro, laboriously spinning and laying the symmetry of its web in what seemed to you such a magical, private moment -as though you were observing an ancient secret.
I was a child fascinated with space. The untamed and unsophisticated backyard of our humble house in the rural Barrio Bajuras in Puerto Rico contained an entire universe within it. At night it was the most comfortable seat for watching the grand opera of the skies, imbued with the aroma and consistency of dewed soil. During the day, hiding among branches and leaves and passion fruit vines, the handy-work of a single spider on the termite-ridden poles on which our zinc roof rested would transfix me. The fabric of its creation, the geometry of its silky space, would make me ponder what it was like to be her, that tiny spider, to live in her world, do what she did, and see what she saw. Did she see me as distant as all the cosmic bodies I saw in the night-sky? Was I as mysterious, as unrelated to her everyday life as that sparkling vault was to me? How come she always knew exactly where to weave her next thread? How come her threads were always so perfect, so symmetrical? What was telling her to spin as she did? If she were somewhere else, some far away world, would she still go about her routine, weaving her space fabric like she always did? As a curious child, I wondered what it would be like for a spider to live up on the Moon, or on another planet, another galaxy even.
Within the warmth of my tropical island backyard, I thought the Universe was the extension of my barrio, one welcoming fabric, seamless in its extension. I wondered if other creatures existed, within the vastness of space, that were different from me. Could they jump higher than I could? Would they look different than the tadpoles around me? Sing brighter than my coquies, my tiny Puerto Rican frogs? I daydreamed about how everything and everyone else around me would behave when surrounded by the darkness and the vastness of space. What would space feel like to me? Could it make me feel freer, and would my backyard spider still be able to weave her web? Would it adapt to its new backyard? When witnessing the perfection of that tiny spider’s craft, I wondered if she would still know what to do when no longer an Earthling. What, in her body, would cue her that she was somewhere else, and would she miss the strange pull that had once made her belong?
Anita and Arabella went to space in 1973. That was before I was even born. In her very own yard, 2,684 kilometers from my tropical Caribbean island, and thirteen years before I started daydreaming about it, a young girl by the name of Judy Miles had been wondering too, whether spiders could spin their silky webs in the near-weightlessness of space. Judy was a high school student from Lexington, Massachusetts who managed to send her query up to space where astronaut Owen Garriot released two female cross spiders (Araneus diadematus), the first world spidemauts, Anita and Arabella, into a box similar to a window frame, near which a camera would recorded their spider activities aboard Skylab.
On July 28, 1973, space met two shy creatures unwilling to exit their space capsule -a storage vial with a water-soaked sponge to maintain them hydrated. Their erratic ‘swimming motions’ as they finally emerged from their capsules into the experiment cages, conveyed a struggle to adapt to the strange new environment they had been brought into.
Arabella was the first to decide that life had to go on. On the day after her arrival in space, she weaved a rudimentary web in a comer of her box -the first web ever spun in space. The following day she completed her work. Arabella’s ability to cope with her new surroundings impressed everyone. On August 13, wanting to see whether Arabella was capable of repeating her feat, astronauts removed half of her web. At first, she didn’t seem to fancy entertaining anybody’s whims. When Arabella finally set herself to the task, she consumed the remaining half of her web, and began moving in circular patterns. The resulting web was more symmetrical than the first.
Perhaps because of the stress of their new environment (spiders have been known to behave abnormally under stressful conditions) neither Arabella’s nor Anita’s silk was like that they had produced on Earth. Some parts of their webs were thinner than others. Even the angles of their radial threads were unlike those on Earth. Although Arabella and Anita were able to spin webs in microgravity, they never performed exactly as they had done before they went to space.
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