Friday, December 9, 2011

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Well, it's finally December, and you know what that means, right?

Tinsel?  Lights?  Santa?  Presents?

Wrong!  At the Shed, December always means . . .


Lots and lots of spiders.  Colorful, festive spiders adorning everything.

The entire block (where the Shed is) is presently criss-crossed between every tree, shrub, bush and plant with spiderwebs.  Peter Jackson could film most of The Hobbit right here and save a fortune on fake webs and giant spider animatronics.  Plus my recently-acquired ear hair qualifies me to be an extra in the film, maybe even a supporting extra.

I was up there a few days ago checking on the rainwater tank (finally full, which I determined with just a glance at a most ingenious tank gauge)  and making sure the drip irrigation system was in good order for the start of summer.  This simple task was rendered almost impossible because I literally could not move an inch or turn around on the spot without going straight through some spider's ludicrously ambitious web, some of them eight feet across.  I had to carry several sticks with me at all times (second most useful thing ever) and constantly wave them around, high and low.  If I passed through one way, there'd be a new web in the spot by the time I returned.  At one point there were three bewildered spiders clinging to my stick at the same time probably asking themselves in their creepy spider language, "Why, God?  Why is this happening to me?"

The main culprit in all this Holiday Madness is called the Christmas Spider.  Now tell me this: what the hell kind of country has something called a Christmas Spider? But there we are.  Deal with it.

Christmas Spider photographed at The Shed

Austracantha minax is a type of Orb Weaver found only in Australia, and is also known as the Christmas Spider, The Australian Jewel Spider, the Spiny Spider, and for some reason, "Bowser Henderson."  Are you finally convinced that Australia is the strangest place on Earth?  As though Mel Gibson and Steve Irwin wasn't proof enough.  Then tell me, what other country in the world would name an entire species of spider "Bowser Henderson?"*  (SEE BELOW - NOT TRUE)

They show up in late November, and by Christmas there is a spider sitting in a web filling every possible web-making space in certain parts of the outback.  A month later, they are nowhere to be found.  They celebrate Christmas by feasting on the explosion of moths, mosquitoes and other flying nuisances that erupts this time of the year, and then vanish until next holiday season.

We're just crazy about Christmas here.  Australia also has something called Christmas Island, but you wouldn't want to go there.  It has no snow, no elves, and nothing even remotely resembling Holiday Cheer. It is most famous as the location of a concentration camp for refugees who are permanently detained by the Australian Government while politicians decide how best to use them to their electoral advantage.  Unfortunately, most politicians can only see their existence as a political disadvantage and are simply hoping the problem will go away if they ignore it long enough.

Christmas in Western Australia also means Christmas Trees, of course.  But it wouldn't be Australia if that, too, were not also weird and a little bit sinister.  A Christmas Tree is a parasite (technically, a hemiparasitic plant) somewhat related to Mistletoe (so there's that, anyway), which bursts out in the most violent day-glow orange display each December.

This large, free-standing plant known scientifically as Nuytsia floribunda and found only in Western Australia uses its roots to tap into and hijack the roots of almost any other tree or plant to obtain the nutrients it needs.  When the colorful Christmas Trees are in full bloom, that is a signal for everyone to get ready, hang up their stockings and watch out for . . . Santa?  No!  Spiders.  Hang up your stockings and anything else that you don't want spiders getting into.

Nyoongar aboriginals consider it to be extremely poor manners to cut down one of these trees.  Oh, it might bring bad luck, who knows.  Anything's possible, I suppose.  But these trees are an excellent source of shields fashioned from bark, and produce an edible resin gum.  And they make a pretty cool natural calendar, too.

Have a Holly Jolly Creepy Crawly Christmas!  And don't forget to BUY STUFF.  The economy needs you.

* This "Bowser Henderson" factoid sounds a lot like bullshit, doesn't it?  Interestingly, wikipedia is the only reference to this usage (other than sites that just copy whatever wikipedia says), and it is looking more and more like bullshit as I continue my attempts to verify it.  I suspect it is someone's private joke on the world, because the name doesn't appear to have any cultural or popular meaning.  I am attempting to raise the question with Australia's leading spider and lingual experts.  I will keep you informed.

UPDATE 17 DEC 2011:  I have been in communication with a spider expert at the South Australian Museum who agrees that this "Bowser Henderson" thing is probably bullshit.  He has never heard of it.  I have also been in contact with an expert in Australian Linguistics who knows more about Australian slang, regional terminology and dialects than probably anyone alive, and he says he's never heard of it.  He surmises it may be a term used only within the contributor's own limited circle, own family, or possibly even within his own mind.   Therefore we will declare that this factoid is BUSTED and  "Bowser Henderson" IS NOT a "commonly used" alternative name for the Christmas Spider at all.    -j.j.

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