My mother was terrified of spiders. I wasn’t told of this fear until I was much older as she did not want to pass on her phobia.
She must have been very successful at masking her anxiety as, over the years, I had become merely wary of spiders. It seems that, only in hindsight, do we have the opportunity to comprehend just how heroic our parents have been.
Over time, I developed the policy that as long as spiders carried out their role at a reasonable distance from me I was prepared to live and let live.
When I had children, I became acutely aware that I had to remain calm in times of crisis in order to develop their sense of security. Living in the Australian bush can offer many incidences of crisis. Snakes, wasps, bees, mice, unbelievably large rats, feral cats, feral pigs, feral foxes and the like are always arriving in and around our home and they have to be dealt with swiftly and confidently. So spiders, even red backs, were the least of my worries.
I became determined to maintain my “live and let live” spider policy with an additional pledge to avoid poisons. If they became a problem inside the house, I would deal with them on a one-to-one basis using the vacuum cleaner, a fly swat or simply capture them and relocate them.
Oddly enough my pacific approach was a phenomenal success in the garage. Apparently, the Daddy Long-Leg Spiders (Pholcus phalangioides) and Black House Spiders (Badumna insignis) control the more dangerous and highly venomous Red-back Spider (Latrodectus hasseltii) population and, although they were prevalent, we rarely find them now.
However, the outside of the house seemed to be permanently festooned with spider webs. The Golden orb-weaver Spiders (Nephila edulis) seem to thrive in our yard. Visitors from the city are often alarmed at the size of some of the older specimens dangling about the house and I have often been left with feelings of shame. Spider webs are apparently a measure of poor housekeeping.
I did feel vindicated the day my daughter arrived home from school with a junior reading book for her homework. It was titled “Spiders” and the text encouraged the reader to view spiders as friends and asked that they be allowed to carry out their job of cleaning up the insects in our homes.
But I must admit that there have been times when conditions can be too good for spiders and it can become too much even for me. One such time saw nearly every part of the house, fence and yard trees connected by the strong invisible silk. After being trapped a number of times, I decided that I didn’t need quite so many “friends”.
I am happy to report though that the solution to my spider problem came to me in a surprising form.
One afternoon I was hanging out the washing when a bird landed on the railing around the back stairs. I turned to look at it, careful not to make any sudden moves as it was only a metre or so away from me. It wasn’t the Australian Magpie (Gymnorhina tibicen) I had expected to see but it was black and white and, not only was it unafraid of me, it appeared to be smiling at me. We watched each other for a while until I decided that I couldn’t keep still any longer so I returned to hanging out the washing. The bird remained upon the railing watching me and, shortly after, began to swoop about the windows.
It wasn’t until my husband told me that it was a Butcherbird (Cracticus nigrogularis) that I realised it had come to solve my excess spider problem. I was relieved to find that Nature had found a way to solve my spider problems and I didn’t need to resort to poisons.
Although my children have never shown any disproportionate fear of spiders, there were times when I had wondered if the fear of spiders was innate and that the children just might develop a phobia despite my modelling.
The answer came one day when I found my four year old daughter resting on her bed, her eyes transfixed on an enormous spider residing outside her window. Had she been watching its every move and was she beginning to fear that the window pane was not enough of a buffer zone?
I calmly asked her what she was doing, expecting to hear an anxious complaint about her neighbour. Her attention turned to me and her little face lit up with delight as she told me that she had been watching the spider weaving its web and, with great earnest, she tried to retrace the pattern of its movements with the index finger of her right hand.
The legacy of my “live and let live” approach to spiders continued as she grew older because, after one episode of cleaning her room, she become annoyed with me when she had found that I had vacuumed up a Daddy Long-Leg Spider from the corner of her bedroom ceiling which she had considered it to be her pet.
Looking back, I feel such pride in knowing that I have been able to continue a tradition of peaceful coexistence with these creatures thanks to my mother’s heroism.