Years ago I went to a meeting to practice public speaking. A new guy stepped softly to the podium and looked out at us. His eyes twinkled with a fierce white light from behind folded curtains of age.
He began a story of Musical Spiders:
“Spiders weave their webs, producing droplets of sticky goo and dripping it along the silk lines as they go. Once the individual threads are woven together, their overall pattern is finished with music…
The web is tuned.
Reaching out with the tip of one leg, the spider plucks a string – Ting! The masterpiece is complete once the frequencies are properly arranged. The web’s resonance helps the sticky goo to distribute evenly, and the spider’s ability to survive is enhanced by playing the right notes.”
I talked to Bob after everyone left. He’d spent decades in the woods as an ecologist and edited the writings of 500 scientists. When I asked questions, his eyes lit up in a way I’d only seen in one person before, on TV.
A sparkling fascination lay behind those eyes, too bright to originate or end in one man.
I felt like Bill Moyers.
Over the course of the next few months, we met in coffee shops or near his retirement home. We spoke of animals and people and the numinous wonder of interrelating biology. He edited papers I’d written, bringing focus and precision to my stories about truth.
Every pattern of biology and environment was a parable to him, one we can use to learn about ourselves.
Bob was 82. At times, a haze of confusion would drift over him, and a quick flash of embarrassment would accompany its clearing. But a single question could bring him back to shining focus. He’d return with bubbly eloquence and eyes bright like sunlight on a river.
His observations were brimming with mythic significance. They perfectly echoed the wholesome kinship and woven connection of “man with world” found in native cultures.
Bob had never heard of Joseph Campbell. I was shocked.
He seemed to have discovered the same lessons by studying animals and writing research papers that Campbell found by reading lines between the cultures of man.
Salmon and owls had told Bob their stories without symbols, and he had avoided views outside those of science. In fact, the philosophical implications of his research had troubled him as they seemed to drag him reluctantly toward spiritual perspectives.
Only recently in life had he dared to consciously examine relationships between the meaning he experienced in his work, and the Catholicism he had been raised to believe.
One day I went to visit him, and was told he was “unavailable” by the staff. I left one voicemail and another. After weeks with no response, I feared he was gone.
A family member of Bob’s contacted me. They thanked me for reaching out, and let me know that he was physically okay, but no longer mentally “present” enough to communicate.
Did that mean he was “gone”? I’ve wondered what it would mean in Bob’s life-philosophy.
His stories helped me see interrelationships of biology and beliefs and people, where all parts of a system affect one another. Life requires no conscious human decision to blossom and swell in this world, yet its flow may be directed by our choices. What we are as human beings may just as easily thrive though collaboration as survive through competition. Animals show us we have, quite literally, a world of options.
Bob’s life taught me this. Maybe I didn’t have to fear he was “gone.”
Whatever may have happened to Bob’s physical or mental existence, his experience of being alive has affected my own, by directing the way my ideas interrelate within an ecology of philosophies.