1863: John Vonderlin Asks: Really? Icky Cobbie-Webs Over San Gregorio

Hi June,

   When I ran across this short article in the California Newspapers Archive, I was reminded of my first encounters with this subtle phenomena and the trouble I had convincing others I wasn’t imagining it. This report from the October 4th, 1863,  issue of “The Daily Alta,” concerns a mysterious event that was reported near San Gregorio.


“A Shower of Cobwebs. — Mr. J. Shumway writes to us from  Mountain View, under date of the 1st inst, (sic) that on the previous day; a shower of snbstance resembling cobwebs, fell on the San Gregorio Rancho. In some pieces there were strings 30 feet long; in others there was a little tangled mass. The sky was clear; the wind was blowing from  the southeast, and the shower lasted for an hour.


   Being a fan and student of the odd and exotic, I was fascinated as a youth by the writings of Charles Fort. He collected a great number of reports of anomalous events such as this and along with Robert Ripley fed my developing view of the state of reality at Nature’s fringe. His reports of the raining of various animals from the sky through the years and across the continent were amusing if seemingly dubious, even to a wide-eyed youth, who assumed most anything written in a book must be true. As it turns out “Raining Animals” (Wikipedia) is a generally accepted weather phenomena, though its mechanisms are still debated. On the other hand, this particular phenomena of  “A Shower of Cobwebs” is a well-studied and well-understood subject, being called spider ballooning or kiting.

  When I first observed them, gobs of cobs that is,  flying in front of me as I was speeding down Highway 5, north of Bakersfield, I couldn’t get anybody to believe me I wasn’t seeing things. When after unsuccessful efforts to point them out to others I pulled over and began searching for these invisible things they assumed I’d gone off the tracks as well as the road. Just as I, in triumph, held up a small tangle of webs, pulled from a tumbleweed, to show them, another mass flew through the space between us and the truth was obvious to all. Of course, I used this event for comic effect in tall tale telling for the rest of the trip. You do know of the large vampire bats in the Sierra that rangers will not tell you about because they are an Endangered Species don’t you? Enjoy. John 


Here’s a short Wikipedia excerpt about Mr. Fort’s philosophy. No wonder I liked his stuff.


Charles Hoy Fort (August 6, 1874 – May 3, 1932) was an American writer and researcher into anomalous phenomena.
Jerome Clark writes that Fort was “essentially a satirist hugely skeptical of human beings – especially scientists – claims to ultimate knowledge”.[1] Clark describes Fort’s writing style as a “distinctive blend of mocking humor, penetrating insight, and calculated outrageousness”.[2]
Writer Colin Wilson describes Fort as “a patron of cranks”[3] and also argues that running through Fort’s work is “the feeling that no matter how honest scientists thinkthey are, they are still influenced by various unconscious assumptions that prevent them from attaining true objectivity. Expressed in a sentence, Fort’s principle goes something like this: People with a psychological need to believe in marvels are no more prejudiced and gullible than people with a psychological need not to believe in marvels.”[4]



Ballooning (spider)

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Ballooning is a term used for the mechanical kiting[1][2][3] that many spiders, as well as certain mites and some caterpillars use to disperse through the air. Never is an actual lighter-than-air balloon formed; the silk has form enough to react with the wind to give lift and drag enough to mechanically kite the spider; researchers prominently applied the term ballooning for such dynamic kiting where the animal’s body is the dragging anchor to the silken kite. Biologists also applied the term “balloon silk” to the threads that mechanically form the lifting and dragging system. Distinguish the mechanics from the biological literature term.
Many small spiders use silk threads for ballooning. They extrude several threads into the air and let themselves become carried away with winds—both updrafts and windward. Tiptoeing behavior occurs as a prelude to ballooning: the spider stands on raised legs with the abdomen pointed upwards. Although most rides will end a few meters later, it seems to be a common way for spiders to invade islands. Many sailors have reported that spiders have been caught in their ship’s sails, even when far from land (Heimer 1988).
It is generally thought that most spiders heavier than 1 mg are not likely to use ballooning (Suter 1999). Also, because many individuals die during ballooning, it is more unlikely that adults will do it than spiderlings. However, adult females of several social Stegodyphus species (S. dumicola and S. mimosarum), weighing more than 100 mg and with a body size of up to 14 mm, have been observed ballooning using rising thermals on hot days without wind. These spiders used tens to hundreds of silk strands, which formed a triangular sheet with a length and width of about one meter (Schneider 2001).











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