Stephen Rutt walks a familiar landscape and reflects on the meaning of a pair of wasp spiders and the power of ignorance. Photos © Stephen Rutt.
The Suffolk coast is soft. Between the waves erasing chunks of shoreline shingle and sand, and the wet marshes that hang just back from the beach, the dunes hold a record of what’s happened here. The Suffolk coast is hard, hard enough to hold on to that record in the face of war, tourism and sea-level rise. Fossilised shark teeth wash up here from the primordial North Sea sludge. Strings of pebble-dashed concrete blocks, anti-tank defences from invasions that never came, dot the coast around here like ellipses from a paranoid past. Tern colonies spring up on the shingle and dwindle away to nothing. Thistles burn out and smoke their thick grey seeds into the breeze.
There’s one particular sentence of Barry Lopez’s to which I keep returning. He claims that “In forty thousand years of human history, it has only been in the last hundred years or so that a people could afford to ignore their local geographies as completely as we do and still survive.”1 It troubles me. Ignore? How do we measure ignorance? I visit these dunes every year, in every season, and have done so since I was a child, kicking soft sand at sharp marram grass and watching the stonechats hanging from the top of thorny bushes like fruit, plump and orange. Of what was I ignorant?
It took a man called Steve, stooping under the weight of his camera, to show me an ignorance of mine. One ignorance, twice repeated. He parted the long grass on the edge of the dunes. A wasp spider hanging, inches from the sand, motionless in its web. I forgot to check the edges, but this might be because I have no knowledge of the knots, or the steadfast holds by which a spider’s web sticks to the blades of grass. The spider herself was the length of my thumb, an abdomen the size of a 50p piece and striped with wavering stripes of lemon and chrome yellow, intersected by smudgy, black ink lines. She looked hand-drawn, almost.
The second spider was just behind her. Unerringly well-disguised for something so large and bright, betrayed only by their stripes being horizontal in a world of vertical grass. She had a male — a tiny brown spider — on the edge of her web. He will mate with her before being eaten by her, in an act that leaves me confused as to whether it’s an absurdly generous self-sacrifice on his part, or excellent Darwinian opportunism on hers.
But I anthropomorphise. It’s hard not to, when your head is in the sand, looking up at the spiders. I imagine it was the same pose for the naturalist who, according to Steve, discovered the species in England at Rye, East Sussex, in 1922. And I wonder, if 94 years ago, they were in ignorance of what it was and how it got there, and how it would — enabled by global warming — spread along the south coast before heading north to East Anglia. Steve says, as he leaves us, that they need three months of a hot summer and a mild winter to survive, thrive and breed. They’ve had that so far. The future looks to be their’s too.
Like a word that, once learned, you notice used everywhere, it is the same with animals. Once you start noticing them, you notice them everywhere. It is jarring, uncanny, and not a little unnerving to realise your own ignorance to what exists. A practical enlightenment to your own environment. Maybe I am ignorant of my own local geography. As Lopez says, I’ll still survive even if I’d never noticed the wasp spiders in the dunes I had walked for most of my life. The spiders would probably survive too — barring a catastrophe like having their dunes turned into a golf course. I’m not sure if we can ever not be ignorant of our geographies — as diverse and full of mystery as that word, and its attendant meanings are — and I’m not sure if that’s a bad thing. I’d hate to walk those dunes and know everything they had to offer.
1. Barry Lopez, About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory (London: The Harvill Press, 1999), 135.
Stephen Rutt has just submitted his thesis for the MA Wild Writing at the University of Essex. East Anglian by upbringing, Stephen has spent six months in Orkney, been tick-bitten in a Hungarian marsh and floated in a boat in the mid-Atlantic in search of birds. As well as an obsession with winged things, Stephen has a BA in English from Stirling, and has had writing published in Earthlines, The Harrier and the East Anglian Daily Times. He blogs at stephenrutt.blogspot.com and tweets @steverutt.