redback

There’s another WordPress blog that auto-linked to mine some time back, written by a Peace Corps volunteer in Belize named Shannon. The reason it linked is because Shannon has a problem with spiders too. Her blog is new (she just arrived in Belize) and she’s established a widget on her page to track her Scary Spider Count. I looked the other day, and the count was 0; this morning it’s up to 2. Apparently her arachnophobia is pretty severe. I wish her well.

My scary spider count is rising too. When I first wrote about huntsmen (large spiders that are dismayingly common here), I had only seen one — and that one was being subdued by a spider wasp. For a couple of months they occupied my mind in anticipation; I kept expecting one to jump out at me every time I turned on the kitchen light. But nothing ever happened, and eventually my nerves settled down a bit.

But then I started seeing them. There was one on the wall of a dank bathroom at work. (Needless to say I turned and left without unzipping my jeans.) Then I saw one in the yard early one morning as I was leaving for work. Looking over my shoulder as I backed out of the driveway, I saw it perched on a fencepost like it thought it was a goddamned sparrow. I saw it again in the exact same spot the next morning too, and again later that week. This really bothered me. I had thought hunting spiders roamed about and did not keep “homes.” It was a small comfort to believe my little adversaries were not likely to shack up in (or near) our place permanently. But as my wife reminded me, even hunting creatures are territorial. So I suppose our fence is for that spider like a mountain lion’s rocky outcropping — the place she sits every night to survey her domain. (Yeah, watch out for the wasps, bitch.)

Huntsmen are “scary” to me because they’re over a personal size threshold: they’re big enough that they bug me out no matter how brief or controlled the encounter. It’s funny how the sight of them stays with me. I can still picture the one on the brick wall of the bathroom, poised facing the floor, just sitting there as still as a little statue, yet full of potential energy. I didn’t go back in that bathroom for days. And the one on the fencepost really got to me: I stared at it for a moment with the car’s engine running, before continuing on to work with a bad case of the creeps. It was as if I thought it was going to fly six feet through the air and come right through the glass windshield and get on me, like in a horror flick. I spent the rest of the drive with my skin crawling, paranoid there might be other spiders in the car.

But wait, let me back up for a second. Even getting the car out of the garage every morning is a challenge for me. Our garage is small and quite confined; the ceiling is not much higher than me. To step into this small, musty, warm, dark space early in the morning, knowing it’s an ideal place to find a spider — a freaking spider condo — I always have to pause for a moment and screw up a tiny extra bit of courage. And I tend to rush as I’m unlocking the car and getting in, sometimes bumping my head or cracking my shin, before slamming the door in a hurry.

It’s not easy to admit this stuff. Okay, it’s fun to write about it, but at the end of the day it makes me question myself. Should grown men have phobias? I can’t imagine my dad having any. (Though he does often say he’d rather jump out of an airplane than ride in one.) But I thought it was telling when I was getting out of the car early one morning and suddenly a big bat, with a wingspan of two feet or more, rustled out of a tree right in front of me, flapping its wings almost in my face before flying off in a flurry. It didn’t scare me at all; hardly registered in fact. And in Mexico, we stayed in an open cabaña with lizards everywhere: huge iguanas walking around outside, little geckos coming right in the room, running up and down the adobe walls all day and night. I slept just fine. I like lizards.

So the thing about big spiders is specific, and consistent, and contained; it’s like a solid thing in my mind that I can recognize but can’t quite understand. I’m the first to admit it’s irrational. It just won’t be intellectualized. It’s one distinct signal on one channel that jams my radar every time.

Smaller spiders don’t bother me near as much, unless one happens to get on me. And orb-weavers don’t cause me any problems, even if they’re sizeable, because they stay parked in one place on their webs; they don’t have the awful surprise factor of hunting spiders. I can walk right up to their webs and look at them without getting too creeped out. As must be obvious, my dread of spiders goes hand in hand with fascination. And of course the webs are just amazing and beautiful. Again: my attitude rapidly changes if I walk into a web unexpectedly.

So I’m not freaking out every time I see a spider. But they’re everywhere here. I mean all over the bloody place. As Amo helpfully pointed out in a comment on my other spider post, we’re surrounded by the orb-weavers. You can’t walk any distance here in the suburbs without seeing the webs on everything, every shrub and mailbox — sometimes huge and prolific, with six or seven of the yellow-and-black “St Andrew’s Cross” spiders hanging out together. Just now I got up to fix hot chocolate, and there’s a pretty big spider suspended on a web a few feet outside the kitchen window. Mowing the lawn once, I ran into a web and got one on me, and, sure enough, it shook me up for a while.

At my job, in an organic produce warehouse in Homebush, I can expect to see them all the time. They build webs on the brick walls, in the corners, under the shelves and wooden pallets, in every available dry space. I looked between two shelves the other day and beheld an amazing forest of webs and countless little spiders. Sure the little ones don’t bother me, but the sheer number made me pause. And they live in the bins of produce: travellers from the farms in Victoria and Tasmania, feeding on the bugs that also come along on the leaves of silverbeet or cabbage — the bins forming little cardboard ecosystems. I guess I’m getting used to reaching into bins of cabbage or pumpkins or watermelons and finding spiders. Okay, not really.

I’ve somehow landed in the middle of a plague of spiders, a spider apocalypse, which is apparently the normal state of things here in Australia. And I haven’t gotten to the dangerous ones yet.

Not long ago at work, a young woman opened a box of organic grapes and found a redback spider. She took it pretty well — chuckling about it a few minutes later as if it had been a prank. Maybe because a bite from a redback would probably not kill her, but merely hospitalize her for a day. Or maybe because she’s an Aussie, and Aussies have a way of being nonchalant or even happy-go-lucky about dangerous animals, killer rip currents, skin cancer, and dying of thirst in the outback. “Ha ha, don’t worry mate, a redback won’t kill ya. If one bites ya, just skull a couple of Panadol to keep the swelling down and call the ambos! Now if a funnel web bites ya that’s another story, hey!”

Redbacks are common everywhere in Australia. They actually proliferate around human dwellings as they prefer the warm, dry, enclosed environments we provide. Because of this, redbacks are spreading around the world via Australian cargo ships. They are not unknown in New Zealand, Japan, and even UAE. Unlike their North American cousins, the black widows (which they resemble), redbacks are not very retiring, and are notorious for popping up to scare or bite people in the damnedest places, especially toilets. You could say they have a lot of character, a cheerful fuck-off Aussie attitude. That, along with their sleek comic-book markings, are the reasons Aussie humans have affectionately taken to the redback as a national symbol, a wicked alternative to the kangaroo. You see them depicted everywhere in art, in crafts, on T-shirts, surfboards and skateboards, race cars, jewelry, tattoos. My wife’s parents have little sculptures of redbacks in their living room. The name and image is used in all manner of branding and logo design. I googled it and saw Redback Surf & Snow, Redback Studios, Redback Networks, Redback Creations, Redback Mufflers, and some weaselly marketing entity called Redback Solutions. I saw other companies pushing motorcycles, hot sauce, and beer named after the spider. And of course there’s Redback Boots, makers of work boots and shoes and a popular rival to the classic Blundstone. I myself recently bought a pair of Redback chef clogs. So I’m walking around with spider logos on the soles of my shoes. Maybe I should go on and get a tattoo.

Aussies are chillingly (if cheerfully) specific about bad spider encounters. “Make sure you always check your shoes for funnel webs, and when one gets in your pool, don’t play with it.” “Don’t worry, you will find a huntsman in your car one of these days; just hope you’re not driving when it happens.”

Fuelled by morbid fascination, I made the mistake of reading up about Australian spiders when I first arrived. That’s how I found out about things like the redback’s fondness for toilets, and that huntsmen can run very rapidly and are known to exhibit a “clinging reflex,” so that when they get on people it’s often hard to get them off. (My wife had one on her shoulder once when she was a little girl. Crikey!) Then there are the funnel webs…

Atrax robustus, the Sydney Funnel Web spider, is among the deadliest of spiders, one of the world’s most dangerous animals full stop. Aussies can joke about redbacks, but no one wants to meet a funnel web. Unfortunately their main habitat is one of the most densely populated suburban areas on the continent — and it also happens to be right where we live, the North Shore of Sydney. It’s crazy to look at an otherwise green and idyllic wooded area in my neighborhood and know there lurks such terror. It must be like living close to tigers or polar bears, except there are thousands or even millions of them, small and well-hidden killers.

How is it possible such a small creature is so fantastically venomous? Why does it need enough neurotoxin in one bite to kill an several grown men when its prey is small insects? As for what the venom does to people, I won’t go into detail, but it’s like something out of Clive Barker. (Just keep checking those shoes.)

Reading about the funnel webs, there was just no good news at all. I found out they are bigger, more aggressive, and more free-ranging than I had previously thought; they run fast, can survive underwater for hours (indeed a funnel web in a swimming pool is a common suburban experience), and their large fangs can penetrate soft shoes. And they look sickeningly fearsome too, resembling little black tarantulas.

When I posted about funnel webs on facebook, a friend wrote that spiders are the perfect monsters — and the last monsters we have in this world. We don’t believe in goblins or vampires anymore. But spiders, bloodsucking predators with their eight legs and many eyes, able to run up walls or glide down on us from nowhere, and many of them able to seriously harm or kill us with poison, are real monsters that won’t go away.

Mind you in speaking of poison we’ve gone past arachnophobia here. Spiders, and poisonous spiders, are filed in two totally separate compartments in my mind. I don’t want a big spider near me, no matter how harmless; and I don’t want to die painfully after being injected with a powerful neurotoxin by anything, spider or not. The first attitude is not rational; the other one is.

I’ve tried to explain this endlessly to people here. But most Ausies just don’t seem to get arachnophobia. And it makes sense: if you grow up around something, you are less likely to fear it irrationally. Arachnophobia is a syndrome of cold, northern places, where creeping things are historically vilified and kept out of homes. In the tropical places of the world, where nature is so rich and dominant and there’s not the same dichotomy of “inside” and “outside,” people have a more accepting and holistic attitude about fauna of all kinds great and small. If you’re used to having tarantulas in your shack or bamboo hut, why fear them? Hell, in southeast Asia they eat them, as a delicacy, the way Westerners eat crabs or prawns. (I’m a vegetarian, so it’s kind of all the same to me.)

But Aussies aren’t exactly keeping huntsmen as pets or serving them for brekky, so you’d think they could at least try and understand why I might feel the way I do. But talking to some of them about it is like talking to a little kid.

ME: Sheesh! There was a huntsman in the toilet. God, I hate those things.

AUSSIE: Aw, they won’t hurt ya.

ME: I know that, but they just bother me.

AUSSIE: But they won’t hurt ya; they’re harmless.

ME: Well, yeah. Maybe. But anyway they’re not exactly harmless if they scare the hell out of me or make me feel sick.

AUSSIE: But why should they scare ya if they’re harmless? It’s the funnel webs ya gotta worry about, mate. There was one in my pool yesterday…

ME: I just don’t like spiders, I don’t care if they’re poisonous or not. Especially if they’re big.

AUSSIE: Aw, they won’t bite ya. They’re like daddy long legs.

ME: Huh? No, they’re not. Daddy long legs are —

AUSSIE: Because they’re harmless.

ME: –daddy long legs are a completely different kind of arachnid —

AUSSIE: Daddy long legs are the harmless spiders with long skinny legs.

ME: They’re not spiders. They’re related — they’re arachnids — but they’re not —

AUSSIE: They’re harmless.

ME: I know they’re harmless; but they’re not spiders.

AUSSIE: [pointing to the corner] See, there’s one. That’s a daddy long legs.

ME: That’s not a daddy long legs. That’s a small spider with skinny legs.

AUSSIE: Same thing mate. Anyway, you’re new here. You’ll find huntsmen won’t bite ya.

ME: I don’t care if they bite me or not! I don’t like them. I just don’t want them near me.

AUSSIE: Aw, you’ll get used to it mate. You just don’t want one on your face when you’re driving. It happened to me once…

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1 comment so far

  1. […] mascot — seen here in art, crafts, design, and marketing of all kinds. (As covered in this arachnophobically-induced post.) I myself have a pair of Redback chef clogs. They’re as […]


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