How gardening tamed a lifelong fear of spiders
Arachnids and other creepy crawlies abound in our gardens, and I’ve come to appreciate that that’s a good thing
Warning: this post contains references to spiders. What it does not contain is any photos of spiders, because I’m not here to trigger anyone’s arachnophobia. What I am here to trigger is your support for The Earthworm. So, if you enjoy today’s post, please consider upgrading to a paid subscription, to enable me to bring you more of the alternative gardening content that you love/like/tolerate (delete as appropriate). Thanks for reading.
Few details leave you more exposed, few confessions render you more vulnerable, than to tell someone about your fears. In the wrong hands, this sort of knowledge can be used against you, to terrible effect.
Maybe it’s a lesson learned from attending an all-boys’ secondary school, or from watching shows like ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!’ and ‘SAS: Who Dares Wins’, but I’m incredibly wary of opening up about my fears, in case they should be deployed against me. I’ve seen too many insects lobbed in people’s hair, too many minor celebrities locked in snake-filled coffins, too many wannabe special forces operatives crying as rats crawl over their faces, to be stupid enough to arm someone with that kind of intel.
Whenever I’ve been asked directly whether I suffer from any phobias, I have shrugged my shoulders and provided the same stock answer: “No, not really.” Sometimes, I might follow this with a casual, nonchalant “...I mean, I don’t love spiders.” This, of course, is an understatement – a little white lie, issued in self-defence.
The truth is, I really, really don’t love spiders. In fact, until very recently, I thought of myself as being arachnophobic. I don’t think I need to explain what it is about spiders that I find unsettling – if you get it, you get it, and if you don’t, you won’t – but beginning to write this piece has opened up a Pandora’s box of suppressed spider-centric memories.
Most of these waking nightmares involve being surprised by a palm-sized, fast-scurrying arachnid, suddenly, unexpectedly, mere inches from my face; resting on my pillow case; loitering on an about-to-be-picked-up kitchen utensil; disappearing under the sofa, to reemerge I know not where, or when, or with what evil intention.
I once spent six weeks travelling down the east coast of Australia. It was an incredible adventure, and a time that I look back on with fond memories. But it was also terrifying.
I remember camping on Fraser Island, where a total lack of artificial light meant the night sky was illuminated by the glow of a billion twinkling constellations. You could see the dusty swirls of the Milky Way. It was magical.
But Fraser Island is also home to the highly venomous Redback spider (a relative of the Black Widow), as well as equally terrifying tarantula-esque species like the Funnel-web. I was so hyper-aware of the presence of these spiders, scuttling about somewhere out in that heavenly darkness, that I didn’t sleep a wink.
Further down the coast, Huntsman spiders – harmless but humongous – would hang out all night outside my hostel room’s window, with only a sliver of glass to separate us. That Australia trip did nothing to assuage a childhood of arachnophobia, and in fact probably made it much worse.
And yet today, I don’t identify as arachnophobic. These days, my stock answer – that I don’t have any fears, though I don’t love spiders – is actually pretty close to the truth. But why? I haven’t received any psychological support, in the form of hypnotherapy or any other kind of treatment. Nor have I simply “grown out of it”. No, for me, my newfound tolerance of spiders correlates directly with my growing love of gardening.
In the garden, there is no avoiding spiders. On my knees, trowel in hand, head poked between a tangle of branches, I often find myself surrounded by them. Glossy black ones; tiny jumpy ones; big gangly ones with spindly legs and little grey bodies; all bolting for cover the second I bundle in and disturb their peace.
When I first started gardening, I approached plants with trepidation, surveying my surroundings for signs of eight-legged life. If I saw a spider, I might bat it away with a hand tool, toss soil at it, or even, in my darker moments, batter it to death with the underside of a spade. I’m not proud of this behaviour, but fear brings out the worst in us.
These days, whilst I won’t deliberately stick my face into an Orb Weaver’s web, or cup a Zebra spider in my hand as I might do a ladybird, I am able to suppress my fight or flight instinct. I am able to tolerate the spider’s presence. More than that, I am able to appreciate its existence.
Because when it comes down to it, fear is nothing more than a product of our minds. Spiders, clowns, dogs, darkness, heights, balloons – none of these are inherently scary. That's not to dismiss just how crippling a phobia of these things can be, but is simply a recognition that most people go through life not fearing them. And when we do, it is because we are living out a horror story crafted by our own imaginations. But in my experience, with time and with practice, you can rewrite that narrative.
Many of us have begun to welcome wildlife into our gardens. An increasing number of people would go as far as to say that they garden for wildlife. If you fall into either of these camps, and your garden is full of spiders, then you’re doing something right.
Spiders are predators. They will not hang around if there is no food to be found. Any spider dangling between your flowers, or hiding out in your mulch, is doing so because there is other invertebrate life around; fast food for a hungry arachnid. And while spiders are fairly indiscriminate hunters – as likely to trap a bee as they are a wasp – they perform a genuinely helpful role in controlling numbers of common garden pests. But spiders are also food. I’m not suggesting that you sprinkle some over your salad, but for birds, small mammals and reptiles, an arachnid represents a tasty, protein-rich morsel.
The same, of course, is true for all so-called creepy crawlies (a term that isn’t doing their PR any favours – would it be too much to rebrand them as cutie crawlies?). We can grow certain plants, or create certain habitats, to attract certain species, but generally speaking, we don’t get to pick and choose the wildlife that enters our gardens. And the key tenet of biodiversity is precisely this variety, this rich web of life, each constituent of which is interwoven and interconnected and integral to the existence of all the others. Remove spiders from the food chain, and the whole biodiversity pyramid crumbles.
I don’t love spiders. I don’t think I’ll ever get to the point where I feel comfortable letting one scurry along my skin; I won’t ever not swipe at my hair and shoulders after inadvertently walking through a web. But the more time I spend out in the garden, the more I have come to respect arachnids, and to appreciate their presence.
I still find some of the spiders in my garden scary, just not as scary as it would be if they weren't there.
How do you feel about spiders, and other cutie crawlies? Have you found that spending time in your garden, or in nature, has altered these feelings in any way? What are you scared of? I promise I won’t use it against you…