Image by Mark Crocker
SPIDERS - FROM FEAR TO FASCINATION...
My mother turned 90 this year. She is perceptive, insightful and beautiful. She has an easy grace and a natural charm. She reminds me more of Lauren Bacall than Marilyn Monroe. She is politically progressive and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Oh, and one more thing... She is afraid of spiders.
I really had no idea my mother was afraid of spiders until I started writing a book about them. She must have known somehow that the fear can be passed on and wanted to protect us from the dread and horror she felt when she saw a spider, or even a picture of one so we never knew.
I was completely unprepared when she couldn’t skim my book about spiders and enjoy the amazing photos. Instead, she recoiled with a shudder and a grimace.
Image by Anne Jones
She might have been afraid of spiders but she loves me, and my two brothers, her “three beautiful boys.” She brought us up to question everything, make up our own minds what was right or wrong, but always on evidence, never superstition. And all this time she had a horror of spiders.
A lot of people have it. It can be a crippling condition. It is passed from a mother, father, uncle, aunt, or even a schoolteacher when they make the involuntary “fear, disgust, alarm, horror, dread” face when they see a spider and this face imprints on the child between 2 and 4 years of age.
It is a real fear, but not a rational one. Certainly there are dangerous spiders, but a fear that causes a convulsive dread is not a helpful one. I have never had this fear myself. But neither was I fascinated. Spiders were just a part of nature along with bugs and beetles, birds and bees.
Until 10 years ago. I had become involved with habitat restoration on our local waterways and was spending a lot of time in the bush, working with regenerators, protecting the good remnant rainforest patches and restoring areas infested with weeds. I wrote a book about that called “The creek in our backyard.” I could see that one pair of hands could only do so much.. but maybe my story could help switch on others. My hope was to see more people getting out there doing rescue work in their local environments.
I was walking with my partner one morning and we noticed a blue spider. Not something you see every day. We were fascinated, and took an image on a point-and-click camera I had at the time. My partner was involved with the Queensland Museum . She knew a guy in terrestrial biodiversity, a spider expert, so we sent the photo to him. His response was “Wow! That’s amazing. That’s an important spider, you have to collect it and bring it into me
The spider was a type of orb weaver, in a very large web. The reason they are blue on the upper surface is that these spiders hang upside down against the sky. Their blue body makes them seem invisible. Looking down from above, predators only see the underside, a reddish green pattern camouflaged against the leaves.
That was how it all began for me. I became a scientist and began publishing papers on new species of spiders. My particular passion was taking macro photos – close up photos of these incredible creatures. I was then invited along to a national biodiversity exploration expedition called “Bush Blitz” where 20 of the best scientists in Australia in their fields go out and look for their target species (animals, plants, fungi or insects) I would have happily done that work for free and I’m sure I wandered around with the biggest smile on my face. I was in my element.
In Australia we are identifying new spider species all the time. In Germany or Japan and in many other countries, you can’t find a new species of spider no matter how many rocks you turn over! But here in Australia, there are more unknown spiders than known. We have identified around 4,000 spiders, but there are probably 20,000 species out there. This is not just for the world of spiders, it’s right across the board in invertebrates; the beetles, the bugs, all these incredible colorful things in the rainforest – there is so much exquisite unknown. With my passion for protecting our ecosystems and the speed of habitat destruction, I knew there were thousands of species that could be wiped out if we were not careful. I thought to myself, here is where I could make a difference. At the same time it felt like such an incredible voyage of exploration.
I knew I had to do my part to educate people about these creatures to understand why it was so important to do a better job of protecting our environment and these tiny beings we share our lives with.
Spiders are an integral part of the ecosystem. The story goes back to about 280 million years ago, when the spiders first crawled out the sea and became land-based animals. This was a significant time before the insects emerged and long before small mammals arrived some 65 million years ago. Spiders at this time were eating whatever tiny little things they could graze on, but not doing that well. Then the insects exploded into the air and spiders adapted to spin intricate webs as nets to trap their food.
It’s a wonderful thing that spiders adapted to this incredibly expansive food source. If we didn’t have spiders, we would literally drown in insects! Spiders are insects biggest predators. They also are the canary in the mine. If you can see an abundance and diversity of spiders in your backyard, you know you have a healthy ecosystem, right from the decaying matter in the leaf litter right through to the canopy of trees above. If spiders are diverse and abundant, things are healthy!
Spiders keep the world in balance. They are not so obvious to see, but anywhere you are, there will be a spider within a couple of meters of you.
I’d love to think that my spider book is helping people get less freaked out in their attitude to spiders. It never occurred to me how many people are very scared of spiders, even my own mother. I remember doing one TV interview and finding that the host couldn’t even make eye contact with the photos of spiders on the screen!
On Japanese TV, Robert helping comedian Ayako Imoto hunt for spiders
There is some danger in some of our spiders, so it makes sense to understand and respect that. The challenge with fears is that left unchecked, it can lead to a determined avoidance of the feared object, which can then take a person into the life limiting territory of a phobia. This can seriously limit a person’s ability to live a life that is happy and full.
For a number of years now my arachnologist mentor Robert Raven and I have taken part in events at the Queensland museum, bringing in spiders for kids to play with. The golden orb weaver which we use in these shows is incredibly harmless, it physically can’t bite you. When I bring one out, the kids who are not afraid rush up and all call out “Can I hold her first? Can I! Can I!” and then they pass the spider from hand to hand, until they reach one child who is afraid. But their curiosity overcomes the fear. Watching a child’s fear leave is an amazing thing.
People get an endorphin rush once they have held the spider and overcome their fear. You can see the freedom they feel after letting go of that heavy constricting feeling.
The classic description of spiders is usually “Ugly, scary, hairy, leggy, fast moving dangerous critters.” The fear many people experience when they encounter an Australian Huntsman spider - is not so much a fear but the involuntary reaction of surprise. These guys move very fast and that can provoke a natural reaction. They move so erratically and so fast.
I don’t believe that people can be afraid of spiders and interested in them at the same time. I have been known to throw down a challenge to people who are scared of spiders to have a read of my spider book, look at all the images and if they are still scared of them afterwards, I will happily buy the book back off them. It is hard to be afraid of something once you understand it. It’s more than desensitization, it’s building connection. Once you start reading you get interested in how spiders communicate, how they have sex, where and how they live. You see them as interesting beings. Understanding those things can take the fear away...
Robert learning from Aboriginal kids from the Kimberley, Home Valley Station on the Durack River
THIS IS AN EXCERPT of Robert Whyte's story from the book Made Beautiful by Nature due out 2018, Connect with our email tribe to find out when the book is available and to read more incredible stories like this as soon as they come out!
About Robert Whyte
Robert Whyte is an Australian scientist, photographer, author, editor and journalist. His works include literary and avant-garde fiction, collections of prose and political satire as well as popular science journalism and books. He is a founding co-owner and director of the Brisbane-based multimedia firm ToadShow. After 2002 he regularly volunteered in habitat restoration projects, notably with Save Our Waterways Now and compiled a web site about Australian spiders. After 2012 he participated in the Australian Government's new species exploration program Bush Blitz. His works include a practical guide to creek restoration, ‘The Creek in Our Back Yard’ (2011) and ‘A Field Guide to Spiders of Australia’ CSIRO Publishing 2017.
Veronica Farmer, Author and Therapist, Brisbane, Australia. Passionate about sharing raw human stories that matter!