Walking on Water.

Walking on water is one of those things that does not normally happen too often. All considerations of the divine to one side, it’s a question of optimism over physics, mass over buoyancy - and mass wins. Attempts at water-walking inevitably end with wet feet, laughter from colleagues and embarrassment. The scale of the embarrassment is directly proportional to the degree of wetness. We learn this at an early age. And yet we still try to outrun that sinking feeling associated with water walking - it’s as if we believe that you really can get your foot out of the hole you have made in the water faster than the water can get back in. Speed walking once immersed is only likely to result in tripping over - which leads to greater wetness, more laughing and increased embarrassment.

However, a compromise version of water walking is available - one with significantly reduced wetness and only slightly reduced enjoyment. You can walk along piers and jetties. You can linger in the middle of bridges. You can walk over water, rather than on it. Once you are on your pier, jetty or bridge you can indulge in the kind of reflective peering that they encourage. Neither water nor land - they exist in a kind of never never land betwixt and between the two, and they invite exploration.

The water flows in tangled currents around the legs of piers and the piers of bridges. It heaps up on the current side and slips away downstream. With luck fish will glide between the uprights. Flashing sunlight from their flanks as they turn to pick off a morsel of this, a snippet of that. Chubb in the Brue chasing flakes of bread, salmon in the Leven holding their own against the current, a pike smashing into a shoal of roach under an unnamed bridge on an unknown drain. A shower of scales, a death, gone.

The piles and blocks that push down below the surface and hold the piers firm, pass from a world of light into one of growing darkness. Light holds the key, and plants drifting past settle and grow. Vertical reefs form, and gather more life to them as each tide, each flood, passes. If the piles and blocks gather plants to their surface, then the plants gather fish and other plant lovers. It seems only natural, small plants, small fish, bigger fish.
Where fish gather, so do fishermen, drawn by the visibility of their targets. Fish haunt the structures, glide in and out of visibility. Anglers seduced by the seeming simplicity of the task gather. The fish drift, tantalising, to the bait and hover, inspecting, before they are off with a flick of the tail and visible disdain. On occasions fish gather in shoals, dance in groups and display a strange confidence. On two occasions I have seen shoals of Toad Fish - the name tells you how popular they are - drifting around the piles of piers. Was it food? Was it protection? Was it something more productive that caused them to gather? Normally a fleeing fish of the wave’s edge, here they floated in full view. They are a boxy fish with clear strips and an unfeasibly large appetite. They are unpopular with fishermen, being seen as bait stealers. Yet I have a strange fondness for their sheer unmitigated ugliness. And when they occur in large numbers they are actually fun to watch as they jink and jive around each other doing whatever they are doing.

Rods leant on painted rails nod to the rhythm of tide and current, move in harmony with the wind. The fishermen wait for a change in motion. The double tap of whiting. The violence of salmon. The misleading drag of weed. But mainly, they just wait. Greek men talking with rattling tobacco voices, discuss the day. Young men talk of future plans, of last night, of missed chances, of things to come. Time passes and the rods nod, the fish may or may not cooperate. Garfish from Swan Bay jetty, squid from Queenscliff pier, trevally from Lady Barron pier on Flinders Island where, for once the wait was short. Mystery fish, almost lost in the last seconds, from Kangaroo Island. All caught from piers, all caught whilst walking on water.

If anglers chase fish at the end of piers, then their edges and undersides offer a different place to hunt. The mobile replaced by the sessile, the still patience of fishing replaced by hunting and gathering. Peering under piers, searching under rocks, in still pools, on wave washed edges. Wading instead of waiting. The water, cool and delicious in summer, sharp and biting in winter, calls to be explored. Sea anenomes blob in the air, flower in the water. Limpets react with a panicked settling to a tap on the shell. Crabs hide in cracks, under rocks, and snap claws at the unwary. Starfish with short arms, long arms, missing arms glide on tube feet. Sometimes brightly coloured, sometimes rock like. In deeper pools fish dart. Are they trapped until the return of the tide, or have they emerged into the safety of the turned tide? The slap and hiss of waves over sharp edges, the distant call of gulls. There is neither stillness or silence, but there is richness here for the observant, for those willing to leave the beach and wade, watch and wonder.

Back on the top of the pier birds gather on the rails in loose groups. If you have plastic sleeves you could lean there too, but only once the birds have gone. Gulls hover, waiting for fishing boats to come home. Waiting for fish frames, bait scraps, pie crusts. Sometimes birds dart under the pier and emerge on the other side - they could be hunting, but they could just be enjoying themselves.

I hope they are, because it’s not really possible to wander out onto a pier without enjoying yourself.

Come into my parlor ........

There have been a number of articles in the papers this week about animals - predictable animals, popular animals. The PR departments that are employed by dolphins, pandas and dinosaurs must be very pleased with themselves. There have been no articles that I have noticed about slugs or hyenas, and definitely no articles about spiders, which is a shame as this time of year their webs are easy to find on trees and fences.
The word above is a kind of spoiler alert for those who have no fondness for these eight legged beasts.
Although I have not seen it for a number of years, I can remember fields silvered with the webs of tiny spiders, catching the early morning sun, diamonded with dew. If you walked through the fields your shoes and trousers would become swathed in silk. Tiny threads, stronger than steel - trap, parachute and egg case in one, produced by an animal not always associated with beauty.

During my first month in Australia I had parked under a gum tree - which was still a novelty. A hour later I opened the back of the car - a hatch back. There, lurking in the space between rubber and steel, was a spider - and by my standard a large one! It was a Huntsman, a common beast in this part of the world. When I saw it out of the corner of my eye it's fair to say I was rather taken aback, less than 1/1000000000 of a second later I was at least five meters from the car. Arghhhhhhh!

Like no other creature I know spiders can fascinate and alarm at the same time. We really don’t know what to make of them. “If you want to live and thrive, let a spider run alive” on one side, and “Little Miss Muffet sat on her tuffet, eating her curds and whey” on the other.

Some people manage to include both sides of the argument in the same place.
A spider wanders aimlessly within the warmth of a shadow,
not the regal creature of Boarder Kings,
but the poor misguided directionless familiar
of some obscure Scottish poet.
Spiders do seem to have a bad press. Spiders destroyed the trees that provided the light to the world in Tolkien’s myths of deep time, and in Lord of the Rings the last remaining kin of those ancient horrors was still able to capture the ring bearer, a thing that all the other forces of evil were unable to do.

Would this poem have been ever been learnt in schools?

“Spider, spider, weaving tight
across the footpaths in the night,
when a mortal hand does spy
they’ ll slay your fearful symmetry”

This I think is the story of spiders. Amazing and scary at the same time. Given the choice most people seem to be on the scary side of the fence on this. And to be truthful, no animal creeps me out quite as much as spiders, especially large ones. However - they still deserve our attention.

There was a cloud of web, sitting near the ground yesterday - a spider web, painted with dew. No spider was in view, but its presence was clear. In the bushes above a leaf hung curled in a web. Not an accidental leaf fall, but the home of a spider. A gentle tap on the leaf and the legs appear. A second tap and they retreat to safety. That must be what it is like all the time for spiders, waiting for lunch to come knocking, but hiding if the knock is too loud.
All spiders spin silk, but they don’t all make webs. As a keen A level biology student, 30 summers ago, I sat by the edge of a small pool, a puddle really and watched raft spiders - Britain's largest - rush from vegetation that crowded the edge of the water to catch their prey. There were dozens of pools, each formed when a small amount of peat was removed, but fewer spiders. I saw one catch a tadpole, which must have weighed far more than the spider. This did not seem right - as if the spider had reached up that mythical chain of life and dragged a “higher” animal down to its level. After the thrashing had died down, neither spider nor tadpole was in sight, but a few minutes later the spider, and its subdued prey emerged from the water, and slowly moved back to the safety of the covering grasses. Come into my parlour indeed!

Black and white jumping spiders, not much more than 10mm long, are common on the brick work around my house. A gentle poke and off they go with an impressive feat of athleticism. I found one with a bluebottle - a type of fly - once.

Again the prey was larger than the predator - a scenario that raises dreadful possibilities if spiders grew to the size of small dogs! The classic spider and fly were on a length of wood that propped up part of our house! The wood shed out the back was prime spider territory as well - collecting wood for the fire was always a risky business. For somebody who is less than comfortable with spiders I do seem to find more than my fair share. Some large and active beast in the wood shed had caught a wood wasp - an impressive animal in its own right. The spider was dragging the resisting wasp - complete with fearsome looking “stinger”, which was really an egg laying tube - into its lair. I suppose this was revenge for the wasps that capture spiders and lay their eggs on the drugged, but still living, animal. Or perhaps the spider just got lucky!

But British spiders really are small fry compared to those in Australia. Although it sounds like some form of urban myth, we actually do have Red Backs in the compost bins. Now these beasts can really do you harm and I treat then with caution.
We found one under the basketball hoop once, as a part of a Grade 1 science project on mini-beasts! This was getting all a bit Crocodile Dundee - so I suggested we look elsewhere! Red-backs really are a cartoon bad guy - jet black body and a flame red stripe down the abdomen. As yet (and possibly for a long while yet!) I don’t have good picture of one - it’s very hard to focus when your hands are shaking!

For a couple of autumns we were joined every night by a Garden Orb Web in (appropriately) the garden. This spider - with bright red legs and white spots - built its huge web every night, and took most of it down before first light. At its largest it would have been 1 meter across (the web, not the spider!!) with anchor lines going much further. I always felt bad if I walked through these lines during the day, as much out of fear that the spider would rush out and give me a good talking to!
For all my forced academic interest in these eight legged beasts, one type of spider still causes a shudder to pass through me. Huntsmen. They are common, largely harmless, occasionally communal and, for me at least, unsettling. They appear, without warning, on picture rails, dashing across the wall behind the TV or worse, on the sunshield in your car. With their legs pulled out to the side in a hopeless effort at camouflage, they pretend to be a stick. But in such places it’s a failed effort. But it’s not this that make me shiver - it’s the fact that they are so thin. Dorso-ventrally flattened. Basically flat. They scuttle about like hairy, animated children’s paper cut outs, and slip slide into tiny gaps. If a creature is going to unnerve me at least it should have the decency to be three dimensional! Although not a spider, I remember watching a bird louse, a creature evolved for the flatness between feathers, slide between the pages of a tightly closed book! It turned sideways, edge on to the sheets of paper and disappeared. Gone. A significant amount of book shaking failed to dislodge it - and as far as I know we never saw it again. Not good!

Watching a spider feels like some form of naturalistic aversion therapy - I’m sure it’s doing me good - but of course, I could be wrong!