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A life and death struggle in miniature

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A plump red wasp-busy buzzing and thrashing-hung by its back legs from the bottom edge of my open kitchen window sash. An inch-long fragment of spider web held the wasp suspended, its back feet ensnared in a tiny gumball of webbing, which a spider seemed to be manipulating from above with flimsy forelegs.

I wasn't surprised to see a spider and a wasp in my window. We live in the country, and spiders, hornets, wasps, bees, dirt daubers and more establish little empires on my turf all the time. Mostly we get along by ignoring each other. Sometimes I have to kill them, but I've found it's a better policy to avoid stirring up their nests, unless attached to the house.

There's something instructive about watching such dramas in miniature. Take the struggle just mentioned. The wasp was strong but in a bind. Buzzing angrily, it kept twitching its antennae, flexing its thick red abdomen, arching it back and forth in an attempt to break free or else a vain effort to sting something with the thrashing tip.

The slight spider, about one-third the size of the wasp and probably weighing less than one-fifth as much, glided up and down above its prey, appearing to spin more webbing, biding its time, as if it had learned from many such conflicts how to wage war with things that fall into its trap.

It's hard not to think of other orders of existence in terms of human drama. Who as a child hasn't watched competing armies of ants fight, and attribute all sorts of emotions--courage, fear, despair--and cries of alarm, even strategic thinking, to them?

Likewise, who hasn't pretended to think of empires on the other end of the spectrum-nation-states--as human beings? France is flighty, irresolute, unreliable, some conclude. Russia is treacherous, bombastic. Maybe you think Britain is steadfast, loyal. Taking your cue from our president, perhaps you look at Iran and see only a trouble-making fanatic and agitator out to get America, which is, of course, heroic, invincible.

We apply human traits to all we encounter. Take this insubstantial spider. Wily, patient, yet active and confident as a puppet master, it manipulates its prize. As if aware of just how close to get to the wasp safely, it keeps just out of harm's way, spinning strands up and down to the growing bundle at the wasp's rear legs, bound now like a helpless giant.

I could only imagine how the wasp had come to this. Had it brushed one slender leg up against a sticky filament, then compromised the other hind leg by trying to kick off that irksome thread? Or had it flown full-blown into the web, confidently breaking through except for the hind legs, which quickly reduced the web to the little ball of goo and a thread that now held it trapped and vulnerable?

From time to time the wasp would seem to give up and swing suspended, but then it would flex its abdomen again, bend double by bringing its mandible up to its rear legs and appear to nibble at the knot that held it. Hmm, was it planning on biting the thread in two and flying off? Or was it bent on severing its own legs and leaving a portion of itself in the alien web?

Several times it began to buzz and contrived to take hold of the lower edge of my window sash with its free forelegs. For a moment it would get traction and try mightily to pull itself away from the goo, only to slump back. Then, like a fatally wounded parachutist or bungee jumper, it would dangle from the thread again by its rear legs.

Sometime later, I walked past and saw that the wasp had managed to break free. It limped along in a corner of the window frame with little fragments of webbing hanging from it, damaged in ways hard to define.

It was impossible not to imagine thoughts racing through even that diminutive nervous system. Had it assessed the spider and its web as just a nuisance? Something it would demolish without effort? Was it surprised at how quickly it became ensnared, how soon it began to seem impossible to break away? And how, in the end, only by doing so, it won a sort of victory.

* NOTE: A new film, "The Ground Truth" premiers in Knoxville tonight (Friday, Sept. 15). The movie explores the human cost of war, focusing on the plight of America's newest generation of veterans. According to publicity sent to my email inbox, "it's a film that does not seek to make a statement about the war, but rather, that hopes add to the national dialogue about the treatment of our returning service members." The film premiers, beginning with a panel introduction at 7 p.m. tonight at Church of the Savior, United Church of Christ, 934 Weisgarber Road. A Q&A session at 8:45 follows.
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Don Williams is a prize-winning columnist, short story writer, freelancer, and the founding editor and publisher of New Millennium Writings, an annual anthology of literary stories, essays and poems. His awards include a National Endowment for the (more...)
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