Now I’ve often thought that fear is a good thing. As a means to survival, fear is our best friend, the little voice in our head that tells us not to step in front of the bus. There’s an argument that fear of spiders is a genetic response passed down to us from tree-dwelling ancestors.
In those pre-Neanderthal days, our species was much smaller and the spiders were much bigger. Even a non-venomous bite could prove fatal due to blood loss or infection. In the humid jungle, Homo precursor and Proto arachnoid competed for insects and shelter among the trees. The spiders won the battle when the first Homo scaredy pants hit the ground running. This committed us to a million years spent evolving better ways to run away.
This tribal arachnophobia was triggered in me at a young age. I have a vivid memory of my father hurling Little Golden Books across my room as he attempted to kill a huntsman. Books ricocheted around me so I took cover under a blanket. I found Dad’s fear of spiders particularly shocking given that our backyard was a breeding ground for redbacks. Maybe it was the hairy legs that incited his terror.
My spider aversion was reinforced by television. As a kid, my weekend highlight was being allowed to stay up late to watch old horror movies introduced by the ghoul’s answer to Bill Collins, Deadly Earnest.
Among the vampire and werewolf flicks there was the odd morality tale about the nuclear fallout. One that scarred my pre-adolescent mind was The Incredible Shrinking Man. In this B grade classic a man accidentally sails through a radioactive cloud then gradually shrinks to the point where he takes up residence in a doll’s house. He ends up trapped in the basement of the American dream home where he is remorselessly hunted by (to him) a giant tarantula. The penultimate scene is a life and death tussle that ends as he stabs the hairy predator to death with a hat pin.
When we did our tree change to the Bass Coast, encounters with Big Hairy Spiders became an almost daily occurrence. I had to overcome a million years of programming and four decades of negative re-enforcement. Experience showed me that spiders were actually incapable of leaping to my throat and pinning me to the wall. Observation showed that they just wanted to be left alone. A year or so into our bucolic sojourn I was able to quell my flight mechanism and learnt to place a large plastic container over each intruder and slide paper underneath to facilitate removal to a distant paddock.
There have been a few setbacks along the path to peaceful co-existence between species.
Early this summer my trusty old Victa ran out of fuel near the end of a long mowing session. I grabbed the fuel can and bent over to remove the fuel cap as a B.H.S. rushed at me from the air filter housing, reared up on its six back legs and waved its front legs in a threatening manner inches from my face. I screamed and bolted for the house, leaving spider, mower and fuel can in the hot sun. Around sunset I pushed the mower back to the shed. I’ve used it since but I pay more attention to the imaginary B.H.S. than to the grass.
Some months prior to this I was being driven through Melbourne in a two-door car. I was the front passenger with two more adults snug in the back. I spotted a B.H.S. gradually making its way along the driver’s door. Fighting the urge to leap from a speeding car I contemplated the potential outcome of the spider’s progress. Sometimes fear isn't a good thing. To avoid mass panic I casually lied to the driver that I was about to be sick: we needed to pull over. The vehicle was swiftly parked and I put a hand on my door handle.
Although I was tempted to abandon my fellow occupants to their fate I remained motionless while I explained the situation. By this point the spider occupied the only other door handle. It also controlled that window button so the driver was trapped, unable even to shoo the monster away. The driver tried to move across the car but couldn’t negotiate the console. Eventually a long arm and a swift slap sent the spider to Arachnid Valhalla.
Recently, as I was slipping into top gear at the edge of Wonthaggi, a huntsman emerged from behind my sun visor. It headed across the roof lining toward me but my girlish screaming sent it to the rear where it stopped. I pulled into the first driveway where I grabbed a shovel from the back seat and tried to swat the spider from outside the car. It ran out onto the roof and took refuge in the door seal. I flung the door open and eventually squashed it with the shovel on the passenger door exterior. Several cars drove past. I’m not sure what they thought was going on as I attacked the car, but no one stopped to help.
On this sunny morning I thwarted yet another eight-legged home invasion. I reminded myself that in the scheme of things this was no big deal. I reached for the bowl and a suitable sheet of paper as I made sure that I didn’t turn my back on the monster. For the good of the species, of course ...
April 12, 2016
Enjoyed Geoff’s adventures with our eight-legged friends. Living with an arachnophobe, I get a lot of practice catching them using the reliable container and card method, then taking them for a ride somewhere to a safe distance from our house, and hopefully far enough away from other people’s houses too.
Miriam Strickland, Wonthaggi
February 16, 2016
I really enjoyed Geoff Ellis’s article. Could recognise and empathise but I was cured of those horrors when it comes to THE huntsman in '83. Living in the Dandenongs, they were daily visitors. I would nervously catch them, line up the jars on the kitchen bench. There they would wait for Laz's return from night shift to regain freedom. On our last night, there were 6 jail jars waiting.
Later that morning, I was saying goodbye to the garden when one ran across my hand. It was like being brushed with soft French velvet and totally took my fear with it.
Geoff's portrait is of a beautiful, benign face. A Bug-Catcher is a wonderful temporary home and a way of observing these critters.
After moving to Wonthaggi we experienced fewer invasions but one hot summer day, I was taught a lesson about awareness of creature comforts! It was one of the most memorable encounters of a natural kind. Armed with my faithful Bug C I trapped a very large huntsman from – you guessed it – behind a painting!
Its release was interrupted by a long phone call. I had carelessly placed the BC on the porch table in the sun and on return, was horrified to find a rather stressed looking spider. I decided to sprinkle it with water and to my surprise it moved to where the water trickled down the cylinder and as I watched, sucked the drops.
It is quite amazing to see water slowly being drawn into a spider's mouth, drop by drop, at eye level through transparent plastic.
Long may our fellow travellers of all description accompany and enrich us on life's roads.
Heather Tobias, Wonthaggi
February 13, 2016
As for spiders I see around the house, car, shed, I look the other way and
hope my husband does not see them before they find a crack to go home to.
Everyone's welcome in my home.
Felicia Di Stefano, Glen Forbes