If you type ‘Australia’ and ‘spider’ into Google, the first pages of results are dominated by accounts of danger. Australia has 2400 species of spider, but pest control companies and tourist guides only want to talk about ‘the ten most dangerous Australian spiders’. They show mugshots and profiles and advise people what to do if they’re bitten. Since I’ve been in Newtown, however, I have seen no spider more dangerous than a huntsman.
This arachnophobic culture has supported the spread of the factoid that, no matter where you are, you are never more than 3 feet from a spider. While this claim is too simplistic, it is truer than you might imagine. Spiders are among the most common terrestrial animal, found in all environments. In a review of spider ecology, AL Turnbull reported spider population densities as high as 842 spiders per square metre, for an English meadow. The average density in the 22 studies he reviewed was 130.8 spiders per square metre.
I do not know the density in my Newtown garden, but on any day I will see many spiders, and over a couple of weeks I will see many types of spider. I’ve seen leaf-curling spiders, long jawed spiders, tent spiders, jumping spiders, garden orbweavers, golden orbweavers, and many that I cannot identify. Some have bodies that are two centimetres across, some are so small I have trouble photographing them, and there must be many that I have not seen because of their size or inaccessible habitat.
In our area of Newtown, the basic house block is only about 5 metres across. Neighbouring yards are separated by high wooden fences, and the gardens, traditionally, have been small and rough. The local council warns against growing vegetables because of concern about lead and arsenic in the soil. And there is a large dog and cat population.
This might not seem a promising environment for frogs, but even before we put in our first fish pond, sixteen years ago, we had striped marsh frogs passing through our garden, sometimes even coming indoors. I don’t know where they came from or where they were going, but, since we built the ponds, many seem to have stayed.
Last week I was delighted to come across this animal.
Part of my pleasure was that I thought I could identify it. Even though it was now in the front herb garden, and no longer among the camellias at the back, I presumed it was the same fine grasshopper with which I began this series of blog posts.
I don’t think this recognition was at the heart of my response though. The best clue to this are the words I said to myself at the time. If my response had been recognition of the same individual, I would have thought ‘Oh, it’s that same grasshopper‘. But this wasn’t my response. The delighted thought that came to me was ‘Oh, it’s you‘. Why did I say You? What did I see that made this a You and not just ‘that same grasshopper’?
Looking at this caterpillar, in a basil plant, it is tempting to ascribe it intentions that it does not have. Certainly it has brilliant camouflage, not only in its colour but in its twig-like behaviour, but is it intending to deceive a predator? Is it deliberately hiding in greenery; has it decided to act like a twig? Continue reading Camouflage→
I am fond of this photograph, because of its poor quality.
I find it difficult to take good photos of the birds that frequent the garden. They move fast, they move often, without regard for garden fences, and I don’t own a telephoto lens. But a family of noisy miner birds moved into the back yard during autumn, with a demanding fledgling, and I was determined to take their picture. Several times a day, whenever I heard them being especially chatty, I’d go out with my camera. But they were always too high and too fast for me.
One day I saw a docile pigeon on my neighbour’s TV antenna. Pigeons aren’t exciting, and it was too far away to get a good shot, but here, I thought, photographically speaking, was a sitting duck. I took three images of the distant pigeon surrounded by too much blue sky. As I pushed the shutter button for the middle image, I heard a whooshing noise, but only when I enlarged the photo did I realise that the noisy miners had photobombed me. There they were, tiny figures about to depart the top right corner of my shot. To show their disdain, they had glided past, not even bothering to flap. Continue reading Birds of Newtown→
Gardeners often talk of their state of mind. Gardening relaxes them. It changes their mood or perspective. It makes them feel differently about their lives. Although we often imagine that moods and states of mind are attributes of an individual, these experiences of gardening suggest that states of mind are a matter of ecology or sociology rather than individual psychology. The changed state of mind befalls the gardener; it emerges from their relation with the garden.
Indeed, just to take this thought a step further, maybe this is what is important about gardens. They are special places where people learn that what is innermost is also outside them. This is how they learn how they fit in a broader world that includes them but doesn’t belong to them. Continue reading A gardening state of mind→
Honey fungus is a popular culinary mushroom, praised by Antonio Carluccio. And one particular honey fungus, found in Oregon, is said to be the world’s largest organism, covering 890 hectares and measuring 3.8 kilometres across. At 2400 years, it is also one of the oldest living organisms. The mushrooms that Carluccio eats with spaghetti are the fruit of an underground behemoth, which is made up of vast networks of mycelial cords or rhizomorphs.
I love the idea of these secret organisms, and it delights me to know that some thrive, just below the surface, in my own garden. That is why I’ve had so many fungi sprouting recently. In fact, the stinkhorn that I wrote about last week was the fruit of the rhizomorphic network pictured in the photo that leads this post. And an intriguing form of life it is. Continue reading The fungal underground→
When we decided to have a stream built in the backyard, the landscape gardener asked two questions. What sound did we want from the small waterfall? Did we want moss on the rocks? He returned with metres of pvc pipe, rolls of pool liner, and truckloads of bare bushrock and river pebble. He was finished in three days, and at first his stream looked as artificial as a water feature in a shopping centre.
In our garden there are seven plantation pink sasanqua camellias along the back fence, five dark pink hiryu camellias down the side fences, and there is one prostrate hiryu which will eventually reach across the pond. We planted most of the plantation pinks over 25 years ago, telling ourselves that we’d prune them every year. These trees are now up to ten metres high, taller than the peppercorn tree, the Chinese pistache and the jacaranda which complete the canopy. Each has a trunk circumference of 60 centimetres. Continue reading Camellias→
To learn to take photographs is to relearn how to see. Whereas the selfie and tourist snapshot are confirming, the viewfinder and focus dial on a camera force you to reconsider what you are really seeing and how you are framing the world. They probe both the world and your unconscious preconceptions.
The focus dial, in particular, tests out relations of scale. Working as both microscope and telescope, it allows you to see things that are too small or too large or too distant or too close for you to normally see. As you test its possibilities, you glide between macrocosm and microcosm, part and whole. What is your focus? What is your detail detail of? What are you really seeing when you look at this or that? What are its wider implications? Dare you acknowledge a scale that you would usually brush aside?