I was watching a spider in his web, today. An impressive, hard-working and clever creature, really. He had, over the course of weeks and months, built himself an elaborate web, which of course he depends on for his survival, that spanned impressive distances. It was intricate, delicate and yet strong. No doubt, hours of spider labour and considerable strenuous effort had gone into the construction of this organic marvel. There he was, having achieved the remarkable, through Herculean exertions, but the whole edifice could be swept away in an instant by a strong gust of wind or a careless passer-by, without a thought for the poor old spider. His monumental achievement was ephemeral, in the face of forces much bigger than him.
Art is a bit like a spider web. We take such pains over making art and yet Spotify is full of recordings that nobody has even listened to once! The greater part of our early silent film heritage is lost forever, recorded as it was on explosive to the atmosphere nitrate stock, or recycled to recover the silver content in the film’s emulsion. A great French Impressionist, Caillebotte, who painted under the harshest conditions of weather and penury, had to abandon his body of work and flee, when the Germans invaded. The Germans, for their part, used his finished canvases to mop up blood when they were butchering animal carcasses for their evening mess.
We know that artwork that is stolen is often destroyed, rather than returned, to prevent the detection or apprehension of the thief. Everything we make is subject to time and tide, wind and erosion. Our creations are organic and spend their time, from their moment of creation, decaying, withering, fading, crumbling and disintegrating, returning to a state of maximum entropy. The universe prefers chaos and disorder.
I look at all those poor people that have had their homes flooded or blown away by storms, or burnt down by bushfires and wonder how many of those home owners spent most of their worry and effort on choosing the wallpaper, instead of attempting to secure their home against natural disasters. Would it have even been possible?
None of this means we shouldn’t strive, though. Like the spider, our life depends on creating. If we give up creating, because we know that what we create is fragile and ultimately impermanent, then we give up a large part of what it means to be a human being. Our achievements may not last, but they were achievements, nevertheless. For the time that they survive, they mark our existence and inspire new generations to create even better than we could.
Most importantly, it teaches us to respect the remarkable constructions that issue forth from our imaginations and our hands. They won’t be here forever. The time we have to appreciate them and enjoy them is finite. The same goes for our relationships, friendships and communities. If you ever find yourself in the presence of greatness, it is wise to pause for thought and soak it in. Far better to offer your praise and acknowledgement, while you still can and while the recipient is still there to receive it.
There was a picture of a park bench on my facebook today, with the question, “More than anybody else, who would you like to spend an hour with, on this bench, overlooking this view?” The answer that came to me was my grandfather, who I never knew. He died shortly before I was born. I sure would love to know what he knew and be able to build what he built. I want to know how he survived what he survived.
At the present moment, I am trying to rescue a failing hard drive and it’s looking bleak. There are sectors on the drive that are no longer readable. I don’t know which files I have lost, but it’s some of them. That might be a bearable, recoverable loss, or it could be catastrophic. I don’t know which. I have some backups, but even those don’t provide an iron-clad guarantee that nothing is gone forever. Even this blog post will, one day, disappear into the annals of history, unread and no longer accessible.
We assume many things to have permanence and longevity, but if the spider teaches us anything, it’s that our notions are wrong. Everything changes. About the only thing that protects us from the terrible loss is constant renewal. This is why creation, innovation and acceptance of the flow of time is so important. It’s the only thing we can do to counter the forces of impermanence.
Take a moment to appreciate something marvellous and temporary today. It may be the last chance you get.