I have a few ideas for future blogs and was pondering which one to muse about today. Deep in ponder I happened to glance down and I saw an intrepid baby white-tailed spider taking his afternoon stroll on my keyboard. He has now lodged under the top left key just above the Tab key and that is okay – I never use that one anyway. In fact I’ve never noticed it before – there’s not much call for “~” in my world. Anyway, that little bloke has helped me make a decision.
Spiders! I’m talking the arachnids, not the ghastly concoction of ice cream dropped into your glass of Fanta (which was undoubtedly the surprise result of someone licking their ice cream cone too hard….). And for my money, the idea of drinking – or eating (is it drinking or eating?) a dollop of ice cream frothing like it’s got rabies while it’s swimming in your lemonade, is far, far more horrifying than the eight-legged wee beasties.
Probably more poisonous too.
You know, spiders get a bad rap. As a three-year-old my folks moved us up to the Perth Hills and the bush. That is where I remember seeing my first spider, although I knew what it was and so must have seen others prior to that one. It was huge and undoubtedly after me; not, as may have been the case, just walking to wherever it was that he wanted to go to, to do whatever he wanted to do. It was probably a huntsman, the first of hundreds I have since encountered.
My dear parents were a little clueless as to small insect-y creatures, as was I. Anything beautiful was safe and anything ugly was dangerous. Lucky we don’t judge ourselves like that…. Ladybirds and butterflies were warmly welcomed; spiders, scorpions, centipedes, flies (we had a genuine thunderbox, so there were lots of flies – big, bomber blowies) were all a threat and thus destroyed. This was in the sixties, so we even had one of those old flyspray pumps with the long cylinder and the manual pump action. The spray that came out of that sucker wasn’t so much a spray as a fire hose; thick, oily horrible stuff that shot out of the pump and then fell solidly to the ground. Many a critter found itself at the receiving end of the Mortein. I remember my Mum spraying anything and everything that was classified “Ungeziefer” (vermin in German), including big spiders. Mum once shot a wolf spider carrying her spiderlings on her back; sprayed till she drowned in a sea of toxic white foam and all her babies were dead.
God, what a tragedy.
This is how I was brought up and how, undoubtedly, my folks were educated about Australia’s many insects, etc, after they stepped off the ship to begin their new life in Oz after WWII. Dad had a tangible arachnophobia, which he selflessly passed on to me. I think I was in my twenties before I started to question how I reacted to these small beings (the insects, not my parents….). My first foray into learning to live with – and not despite – them was when I decided I would no longer have flyspray in my home. I was living on my own in a small unit at the time and it had flywire on the windows and a screen door. That’s some fab stuff! I threw out the last of the flyspray and haven’t even entertained the idea of buying any more since then.
When I lived in a small villa in Como (Perth), we had a thriving population of redbacks. Mum, who was by that time vetoed from harming critters around me, named the first one Olga. That was Olga 1, and by the end of the summer we were up to Olga 41. We left them to do their thing and they left us to do ours.
Then I got awfully homesick for the Hills and moved back there. Our property is in a bit of forest, there is bush on the other side of the road, lots of rocks and logs – perfect for spiders. And the word has obviously got out, because we do, indeed, have spiders. Shitloads. In fact I soon realised that I had two options regarding the spider plethora here – either learn to live with them or go insane. I chose the former, a very conscious (slightly nervous) choice and can hereby trumpet that I have come a long, long way over the past decade. From being paralysed by fear at the sight of a huntsman (when I still lived in Bickley) to loving them to bits and gleefully cohabiting with them in my home, always happy to spot another.
The first rude arachnid shock came early in the piece, shortly after we’d moved to our new home. The backyard was a bit of a mess and there were lots of things that critters could hide in and under. I’d gone out to the pool and spotted a hippopotamus in it; no, wait – an elephant. A really big one. It turned out to be a large, chunky, heavy, black spider who, I swear, bent the scooper pole when I lifted her out of the water. Trembling with terror. Me, not her. She had by all accounts shuffled off this arachnid coil. I can’t remember how I researched it, but I discovered that she was a trapdoor spider. “We have trapdoors in Australia?” I whimpered. “And in our freaking POOL?!”
I had once read about Sydney funnel web spiders going into suspended animation if they were unlucky enough to end up at the bottom of a swimming pool, and decided to put my trapdoor somewhere safe. Sure enough, the next day her animation was anything but suspended and she scuttled off to see out the rest of her life.
Over the years I also hauled out some males. Those guys have got a real attitude problem. I risk my life to pull them out of the depths, find a nice sheltered rock at the back of the pool enclosure, carefully pop them on there and caringly cover them with something to hide them from birds. When I go and check on them later, the bloke trapdoors are so bursting with gratitude, they just want to bite something. They rear up on their back legs, let me check out the size of their ancient (downward facing) fangsters and, I am almost convinced, yell “Fuck off!” in loud thought language. Once there was this bloke trapdoor who wasn’t quite together after coming out of his coma. He looked like he’d been on the booze for three weeks, rearing up and falling over, and being all wobbly. But he was still utterly pissed off. I left him alone to carry on coming to.
As it turned out, it wasn’t just the trapdoors who fancied a dip. The frequent discovery of a long centipede or gargantuan scorpion at the bottom of the pool was so prolific, it became known as “The Daily Arachnid”. I have since discovered that centipedes take the longest on average to get over their near-death experience, some of them needing a good couple of days to get mobile and move off. Trapdoors and scorpions who get rescued in the morning have often moved on by the time I come out and check them at night. There is always a sense of something good having been done when I lift the camouflage leaf and find nothing underneath it but rock.
Up here we have bugger all redbacks, but we sure do get a lot of hunting spiders, namely huntsmans and wolf spiders. I am particularly fond of huntsmans and fyi – I checked the plural in Spider Watch: A Guide to Australian Spiders by Bert Brunet and even as I justify the grammar, writing “huntsmans” instead of “huntsmen” is giving me a migraine. Anyway, huntsman spiders are just too cool. They have the most amazing faces and eight legs and one eyeball for every leg, and the eyeballs are divided into two park lights, two driving lights, two spotties and two super troupers. They’ve got these big, furry ….things…. that their fangs poke out the bottom of, sort of like fang-warmers. Hidden behind the fang-warmers is a pink mouth. Around our home they suddenly appear in a spot, and that’s their spot for as many nights as they want it to be. So one night a big male will appear in a spot on an external garage wall. He will disappear during the day and then the next night reappear in his spot. Because it’s his spot.
Over the course of many encounters with huntsmans, I became aware that when the males are out looking for the ladieeeeees their abdomen sometimes appears to shrivel like a raisin. One day while looking at one of these little prune-dudes, it occurred to me that perhaps he was dehydrated. I filled an eyedropper with filtered water and offered the tip to the spider and tarnation! If he didn’t respond immediately! So immediately I shrieked a bit and dropped the dropper. But you know, I was on a mission. Picked the eyedropper up and offered it to him again. For the second time he responded to the water; this time I (who is about a million times bigger than the spider) was steeled.
The little fellow grabbed onto the dropper with three of his four front legs, parted his fang-warmers, manoeuvred his mouth to the tip of it – and started drinking. It was so great. He drank gallons and gallons, at least two drops, and as he drank I witnessed a little miracle – his abdomen plumped up again to its true handsome appearance, no more the hairy sultana. When he finished drinking he let go of the dropper, backed off a couple of paces, and – I could almost swear – licked his lips and sighed, “Ahhh, that’s better.”
Who knew? I never stopped to consider that spiders like a drink. Since that first experience, I have offered the dropper to several more of the small guys. Sometimes they don’t want a drink and they are not at all shy about letting me know. Rarer still you get Mr Total-Poopypants who just wants to be left alone, even if he’s looking a bit thirsty. That’s his choice, of course. Besides, huntsman spiders have this unnerving tendency to let go of whatever vertical surface they are clinging to with all eight legs, and drop like a bag of mini-potatoes. This is why I never offer the dropper to a huntsman on the ceiling. Their other trick is similar, except they execute a bungy jump – one spider, one thread of silk, eight legs splayed: rapid vertical drop (no bounce). I love them a lot, but I’m still a bit unsure whether I want that landing on my face. I’ve had issues about my face being used as a helideck by multi-legged lifeforms ever since I saw Alien.
The girl huntsman has got a different gig. She will find a safe nook or cranny in which to have her babies, then she will sew a beautiful round, flat, white, broody bag, about the size of a twenty cent piece. Once her precious cargo is safely ensconced in this soft haven, she holds onto it, hugging it tucked under her, like she will never let it go. She just sits and sits and sits and holds and holds and holds. Eventually her babies come out, these comical, tiny-weenie, perfect long-legged replicas of Mum and Dad. Many a time we’ve had these pint-sized kids on our ceiling, and they are funny things – they will sit in one spot for ages (practising for when they’re grown up), but suddenly one will get it in his head that he really needs to be over there – so he charges, pedal to the metal, to over there. Then he sits in that spot for ages, until he realises it’s going to be a whole lot nicer one metre and twelve centimetres to the left. And off he goes. Full throttle. When you have hundreds of spiderlings doing this all at the same time, it’s quite a show.
As mentioned, we have white-tailed spiders too. I’m still a bit jittery about them, but they have usually shown themselves to me to be quite well-mannered and tolerant (although there is sometimes the occasional Mr Total Poopypants). I very carefully catch them in my critter jar, slide the Christmas card under it and escort them across the road to the bush. I like to relocate them because I am very fond of our window spiders and white-taileds enjoy a good meal of window spider. At the moment we have a very large, velvety black window spider I’ve named (no, auto-correct – “black WINDOW spider”, not “black widow!”….go away) “Lady Eight-legs”. She hangs around the tunnel in her web at various levels of exposure. Sometimes she comes right out and I must say, she’s a big girl. Since it is now Autumn, I expect she’ll be having some kids soon. A couple of weeks ago, three days apart, I discovered white-taileds near her, facing her and obviously thinking about lunch. I took those guys across the road to a nice fallen log.
Jiffy also came across a web next to his garage, home to a large orb-weaving spider. She is about 10cm long, including her stripy legs (and that measurement is without her legs being fully stretched). Her abdomen looks a lot like the alien’s head in that same movie, but it’s a beautiful creamy colour and has no double-snapping jaws at one end. We have to be grateful for such things. She sits in her orb web, while around it she has spun a network of crazy lines of silk that are quite untidy – a bird deterrent? Or camouflage? Down the middle of her web, from the top edge, is a line of debris. At the bottom of this pile of debris is the middle of the orb, where she sits all day long. A-a-a-a-ll d-a-a-a-a-y l-o-o-o-o-ng. It’s a spider thing. Golly, she is beautiful.
As you can see, my opinion of spiders has come a long way and changed for the better. I realise that these little beings have value and each of them is a miracle, as is all life. Sure, they are different from me – heck, in terms of legs and eyeballs, I’m only 25% the being that a spider is! And sure, it was easy to get caught up in the “ew, they’re ugly and scary” scenario, but that says more about ignorance and fear than anything else. I wouldn’t want to tangle with a Sydney funnel web, no way, but I still feel they are here as the result of something much bigger than me. They have a place in this world and sometimes that place crashes head-on with ours.
I let myself imagine that they are trying to make sense of their spider world in much the same way I am trying to make sense of mine, except in the spider equivalent of that. I don’t expect they experience their life in the way I am experiencing mine (as in spider senses versus human senses) but you know it is possible that they do. One thing I am certain of, and that is the fact that I have far more pleasure and wonder in my life because I have consciously learnt to love spiders.
They are freaking awesome.
For the critters..