Hilary Schaper’s essays have been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize, earned Honorable Mention in New Letters’ nonfiction contest, and been a finalist in the Prime Number Magazine’s creative nonfiction contest. Her work currently appears in the most recent issue of Under the Sun, and has appeared in Hotel Amerika, Masque and Spectacle, Shark Reef, SLAB, and other literary journals. She was an artist in residence at the Vermont Studio Center. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University. In a previous life, she practiced law.
Yesterday, through the kitchen window, I happened upon a spider dismantling a web suspended from a bougainvillea’s thorny branches. Scurrying up one of the web’s spokes, it pulled and folded an adjacent spoke into its body with its legs, until that spoke vanished. As it climbed around the web, the spider neatly folded each successive spoke into itself. The web evanesced. This morning, a new web hung in its place.
Through this observation, I’d stumbled into the natural world in a way I never had. A spider—whose habits I’d never before contemplated, was, in fact, incurious about—mesmerized me. My attention to it transformed it for me from an unremarkable creature—remote, almost abstract—to something real, something intriguing. The spider beckoned to me, prodding me to look deeper into, to research the process by which it knits and obliterates its webs.
Spiders, I discovered, produce silk internally, and, with their back legs, extract it through two small spinnerets. They regularly destroy their webs by eating the silk, only to use it to create new ones. The same strands connect myriad webs to one another. With each iteration, the web seems to expand to include the rings of each previous web.
Floating on a filament, I hang in the air, scale the web’s lattice, straddle its rails, and peer out between them to the bougainvillea bush, its petal-like leaves vibrating fuchsia. The web trembles in the breeze, fanning out in all directions, its rings appearing to multiply exponentially, one upon another, upon another. A fly dangles from a parallel spoke. Its transparent wings recall the intricate patterns of lead strips in stained glass windows. On a nearby lemon tree, grains of pollen bloat and swell under a dewdrop’s lens. Suspended in the web, I am the spider—I see as it does, perceive as it does.
I slip into the spider’s double-lobed, hourglass shape. Thin, pliant legs skip beneath me; each step transports me into a tango, a jig, a merengue, a cha-cha. My instincts keen, I sense the wet slippery leaf, the scratchy tree bark, the crunchy gravel underfoot. The jasmine’s aroma fills me. My newly-adopted form enlivens me much as regenerated cells transform the physical body. The quadrillion cells of the skeleton replicate every seven years, the astonishing skin cells, every seven days, and those lining the small intestine, about every five—figures that change forever the way I feel about the simplest, most humble parts of my body.
In yoga class, the teacher instructs us to gaze at a particular object when meditating, and to repeat silently, “I see you.” In that moment, he suggests that we see that thing as it truly is. We’re learning to fix our attention, to look beyond our presumption of what we think something is, to consider that there’s more to discover—to uncover—than a quick glance offers up. And in that discovery, a familiar object springs to life, delightful and surprising, like on the recent morning when I lay on my yoga mat staring up at the industrial-looking air vents. Against a backdrop of slender intersecting pipes and large cylindrical ducts, a series of nesting circles reaches down from the ceiling. Like some wild plant growing out of the rafters, the vent pushes into the foreground. Amid a thicket of stems and stalks, a multi-petaled peony opens to the light.
An early evening in May. My husband and I walk along the British Columbia shoreline. The beach, long and flat, seems to stretch out forever. At its edge, a forest of fir and pine converge. The sea is at low tide. The sun, still bright, won’t set until nearly ten.
The surf bathes the beach, etching intricate arabesques of wavy lines of varying thicknesses and depths. They twist together, unravel, re-twist, unwind, lengthen, fray, and feather out like tresses of hair, tributaries, reticulated blood vessels. Calligraphic images emerge, repeat, and metamorphose: an ibis—lithe, long-necked—sways into a gentle “s” amid a flock of ibises and a muster of peacocks. In other sand patterns, tasseled onion, leek, and radish roots appear. Even a jack-in-the-pulpit—its spathe arching up and over its spadix, forming a canopy—materializes in the grainy imprints. Farther up the beach, the tracery dissolves. There, the sea has excavated furrows, and molded a ridged landscape out of the hardened sand. Farther up still, the tide’s lanky fingers have whittled a cobblestoned mountain range. A concretized image of waves, their evanescence memorialized.
The tide tables reveal that two high tides and two low tides will occur on the first day of our visit, the highest (10.8 feet) at 1:48 am, the lowest (two feet), at 8:41 am. Waves fan out across the beach daily, arranging and rearranging the sand. Sculpting new terrain from old, they sketch designs, scour them, engrave new ones, burnish them, and, finally, whisk them off, only to etch another, and another. Transformed, ravaged, replaced, last month’s impressions—last week’s, yesterday’s, even earlier today’s—yield to the ocean’s rhythms.
The same sea tramples the same sand, on the same beach. But, this isn’t entirely true. Tides churn the sediment on the ocean’s floor, altering the water’s composition. On their path to and from the shore, waves thrash bluffs and cliffs that flank beaches. Over many years, their incessant motion grinds these formations down to sandy particles. In these infinitesimal grains glimmers a hidden trove, the repository of the secrets of their origin. Other sand travels to beaches from the continental shelf. Still other finds its way to rivers and tidal deltas.
The beach’s composition changes, too. The surf, which ferries the sand to land, alters the blend of particulate matter on the beach, scattering it, sweeping it out to sea, and tendering a clean canvas on which to inscribe anew. The sea, the beach, the cliffs and dunes all tell a story of transformation—of how one thing becomes another while retaining the imprint of its previous self.
From several feet away, it looks like a puddle of stagnant water in a dimpled rock. I walk on. My husband stoops to inspect the tidepool, and calls me over. I hesitate, anxious to reach the end of the beach. Tidepools have never interested me. A friend has told us, though, how much he enjoys scouting for them with his young son along the California coast. That these shallow depressions contain a whole world and possess their own ecosystem amazes him.
And once I stop and look, this small, cupped space does burst open to reveal a miniature, fairy-like landscape of knolls and sounds, hummocks and gullies. Here the water magnifies, clarifies, and distills it all. Under the brilliant sun, on sand flecked with shell pieces, the rockweed’s tattered strands glisten sienna, algae flare chartreuse, and mussels phosphoresce blue and black. Sea lettuce dusts rocks, and barnacles pitch colonies, fashioning castles and villages. Anchored to sand and rocks, sea anemones shimmer, their gelatinous casings encrusted with broken shells, their tentacles forming a fringe along the inner edge of their oval shape, like crystals in a geode. Alert, their feelers reach and crane for food.
A moment’s attention to the pool—as to the spider—hooks me. I reel myself in closer to explore. Ocean waters pour daily over the rock, hollowing it out, buffing it, transforming it into a tidepool. Each tide remakes not just the rock, but also the pool’s condition, rendering a different environment—a new pool. At high tide, energetic, even violent, waves batter the pool’s plant and animal life. Then, cool water fills the pool, and submerges it for part of the day. At low tide, the sun heats the pool, causing photosynthesis to increase in sea plants and algae resulting in a higher concentration of oxygen, and a lower concentration of carbon dioxide. At night, the reverse occurs. Then, animals—like the sea stars we come upon late one afternoon—rise to the surface in search of more oxygen.
A quarter of a mile offshore, across the now near-dry ocean floor, we climb a rock, despite warnings that big waves can hit at any time. We are hunting for tidepools. In the shady damp, we shimmy along the rock’s paths, bypassing small puddles and wet, slippery crags. I start to step down into a shallow crevice before noticing the sea stars that press into it. They slump and tumble into one another. Their viscous bodies, orange and purple, twist and curl, their legs flop and slap against each other. In the low light, their sugary spines emit a dim glimmer. The sea stars huddle like a human couple in bed on a winter night, finding in each other’s bodies, I imagine, the same warmth and familiar reassurance.
I imagine wading at the shore, then drifting deeper into the ocean until my body is submerged. My arms spread wide, my fingers comb the water. In the small currents, I search for forams— foraminifera—prehistoric single-celled organisms dating back 138–65 million years to the Cretaceous period and now recurrent after years of extinction. At their largest, they can measure about seven inches, but more commonly, only a fraction of an inch. Though some are as diminutive as a grain of sand, they possess the astonishing ability to excrete elaborate shells from their mantles (outer layers) in the shape of orbs, six-sided stars, nautiluses, sand dollars, grenade-like pods, and spiral cones. At a foram’s death, its shell—like that of many other organisms—becomes part of the ocean’s sediment, often combining with coral, algae, and other plant and animal debris, to create calcium carbonate, the primary substance in limestone. A recent New York Times article notes that ancient and modern residents of the Apennine Hills, north of Rome, used abundant limestone to build fortified walls and aqueducts, monuments, churches, and palazzos, which played a significant role in Italian civilization. The article goes on to lament that tourists to these sites never pause to ponder the forams that comprise the stone. I never did. But now, when my fingers trip over the uneven surface of a piece of limestone, and stumble into a small cleft of a fossilized shell, I consider how this minute impression conjures the foram’s birthplace, linking us to the vast sea, and to primordial life. I marvel at my relation, distant as it is, to this prehistoric organism. The act of touching and examining it and reading about its origins has deepened my understanding, rendering it more complex and dimensional. Unexpectedly, I feel tenderness for these creatures.
The water seeps through my fists. I lift my hands from the sea, inspect them. They are empty—at least to my eyes. But I know that these tiny microorganisms, and others as well, swirl around me. Present, like the earth’s magnetic field that birds can see (by means of retinal proteins), but we humans cannot. Still, we accept its existence, observing its effect as magnets attract and draw together, and a compass finds north. We acknowledge, too, the moon’s gravitational pull on the Earth, a primary factor in creating tides. Our eyes take in the waves’ sweep and retreat, never glimpsing the force that controls these undulations.
With the realization that I can perceive visually only a small part of all that surrounds me, I move through the world more carefully, gaze about more closely, open toward the world in a way I wouldn’t ordinarily think to. If I can habituate myself to living with this newfound awareness, perhaps I’ll discover something surprising.
How easily my glance flickers and shifts as I move quickly through my days. I forget to look closely at the things around me, my senses hungry for, distracted by, the newest, brightest phenomena. Though this tendency probably evolved in primitive times as a defense against a hostile universe, it robs us of the pleasure of focusing on a thing, of contemplating it deeply. By seeing with attention, we can grasp and assimilate that object—enter its world in a meaningful way—like the first time I looked closely into my garden. I’d missed so much. Sure, I’d noticed the plum tree’s pale blooms and the aloe’s serrated edges, but the garden had seemed lifeless and static to me—a canvas of a beautiful scene—until that one day when I sat on the low garden wall, leaned into the lavender’s scent, and watched. Bees poked in and out of the Pride of Madeira’s spears, a lizard shot under a rosemary bush, a beetle sidled along the patio. And another time, as I walked up the canyon in which I live, I spotted a deer carcass, camouflaged by dry weeds. The deer's remains fascinated me—its head intact, its torso gnawed bare by coyotes and other animals. By pausing, by observing with attention, I’d become a part of of the world, no more, no less than the beetle or the lizard.
And this world, which I’d never stopped to observe or consider with this attention, had opened to me, too. An interesting thing happened, though, once so much became visible to me: what passed between us suggested the presence of something not-visible. Watching the spider and learning how it spins and re-spins its silk or how a tiny foram becomes the building block of a civilization’s great monuments, roused me from the stupor of perceiving things in my customary way. I meet the world anew. The categories by which I’ve defined and separated things, and tried to make sense of the world have become more fluid, and some, have even cracked open. I find through transformation, a sense of connection, and, it is this connection which helps me in probing the unknown—and, perhaps unknowable—patterns underlying our existence.
Now, when I contemplate the foram’s primitive origins, I think, too, of our own humble beginnings. “We’re made of star stuff,” Carl Sagan said. “The cosmos is always within us . . . We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” Consider that a tidepool, a sand formation, a spider web are ways in which we are able to know ourselves: that each of these things and billions and billions of others provide a glimmering—a reminder, microscopic or colossal—of who we are and how we are linked to all that surrounds us. So when a beetle turns from a large rock in its path and finds another way to the moss, its decision registers for me. A butterfly lands and stills, and I, too, sense the dust of pollen on my own legs.
“ I was never much of a science student. My most sophisticated science experiment involved boiling water on a stove to study the evaporative process, and setting ice cubes on a kitchen counter to document the melting process. Though it required little imagination, this primitive exercise did teach me that matter changes form—that one thing can, in a sense, become something other. ”