Spiders and wild swimming
The slender intersection between the two, some notable rivers and lakes — and an awkward encounter with a neighbour.
Joel woke me yesterday morning with a whispered but urgent “Jill”.
He was half sat up in bed, eyes following something moving across the bedclothes towards me.
This brought me to waking fairly quickly, as you can imagine.
It was a rather large spider, advancing steadily towards my chest.
Now, I don’t really mind spiders, both real and in chart form. The real ones eat creatures I would rather not have in my house (mosquitoes, flies, etc) and the chart ones let me link thoughts and ideas otherwise unrelated.
Joel had a spider fall on his face once, in bed, when he was little. The lights were off, he was cozy in his PJs and — slap! A fat juicy house spider landed on his face and scuttled off to oblivion. Because of this, he is immune to my reasoning that they won’t go for you, that they’re pretty harmless really.
“They’re evil. Don’t you get it?”
His theory is that we have an extreme aversion to spiders at a base neurological level because our ancestors were terrified of spiders, so we are too. He says if I’m not afraid of them it’s because I’ve conditioned myself to be unafraid. We condition ourselves not to fear lots of things, to forget things, things we know might harm us, so that we can function. We’re just reacting to our programming, he says.Some programming is inherent, not learned — and some programming is unlearned.
Our fear of spiders is atavistic, unquenchable. Think about a tribe in the mists of pre-history. A bear attacks, maybe you fend it off, maybe it bites you but the injury is known, a visible quantity. A spider bites you and, as if by magic, you’re dead. Silently, invisibly defeated from within. You can defend your home from bears, but not from spiders. They’re assassin killers.
His brother too, a dairy farmer, tells me about how spiders are the enemy and all trace of cobwebs must be cleared from a cow shed, because the webs carry salmonella. Now, I’ve just googled this and it’s nonsense. In fact, there is anecdotal evidence that gossamer — spider silk — has antimicrobial properties.
So there. Spiders are awesome.
I know what I’m talking about when it comes to spiders because I lived in Thailand and Burma for five and a half years and, let me disclose, they have some really fucking huge spiders there. There was one — a huntsman — that lived in the gap under my cutlery drawer and emerged only at night, only when I was in need of a late night implement (say a spoon for a cereal snack) and only when I forgot to bother to switch on the lights.
There was another that I saw when I went swimming at a very remote spot between the Yunzalin and Salween rivers, in a little river deep in the jungle in eastern Burma. There, teak hundreds of years old, long protected by ethnic conflict, cast deep shadows. Above the stream hung a bedroom-sized web, at the centre of which nestled a black and yellow bird-eating spider bigger than my face.
The spider made that wild swimming spot pretty wild indeed. I could take this theme still further. Draw a spider chart of all the places — all the rivers and ponds and lakes — in which I’ve gone wild swimming. It would look like a map, with lines like spider legs jumping across continents.
In descending order, my top three wild swimming experiences are:
The river near where I grew up in upstate NY. The spot is shrouded by a twee New England covered bridge that rowdy teenagers jump from when they get drunk. When I was a kid, before people cared about that type of thing, the potato fields around the river would be a mist of Monsanto-laced chemical spray. You’d duck your head into the river just to escape the fumes, stay under as long as feasible, and come back up for a poison-laced breath only when forced by lung limitation.
North Wales: the stream that tumbles off Snowdon, the lake under Cadair Idris, a nameless lake in the Rhinogs. The limpid clarity of Welsh water belies its startling frigidity: a cold so chill it freezes the genitals instantly upon contact (a fact only noticed after a minute or so when a painful throb attests to their total numbness).
Lake Baykal, deepest in the world, a gash in the surface of the earth, wrinkled where the Himalayas continue to ruck Central Asia like a Turkish carpet. Made balmy by the sun on a warm day in late September and aromatic by a whole smoked omul fish inhaled at the water’s edge. Word on the Trans-Siberian is that if you wash your hands in the lake it adds a year to your life. Splash water on your face adds five, neck and arms ten. Whole immersion, twenty. By this count, I expect to live a long (if not necessarily healthy) life.
Honourable wild swimming mentions go to: (i) a river in Spain where I stole a perfect sun-baked orange from a tree and jumped in naked after a day’s climbing; (ii) a lake under Shuksan glacier near the Canada border where the water was so cold that piles of snow half-in half-out of the lake refused to melt, like stubborn little ice-bergs; and (iii) Great White Lake in western Mongolia, where on an October day threatening snow, I spent about twelve hours trying to warm up post dip (and awoke still freezing at 4am, in hat and neckwarmer, when the host came to stoke the fire in the ger).
Now, the reason I’ve been banging on about wild swimming is that it came up in the office the other day. The thing about open-plan offices is that you’re often party to conversations in which you are neither welcome nor particularly wish to be part of.
Most of the time the conversations I overhear in the office are as inspiring as toenail clippings, and quite as brittle. Net Worth. Aircraft leasing. Cross border marketing policy.
Are you still there? No? Thought not. I’m often not either.
Which is why I’ve got pretty good at zoning out. My ears swivel only when unexpected words or phrases are detected.
The other day the phrase was “fishing waders”.
That phrase came from a colleague — an earnest and rather strait-laced individual — who was recounting something to my line manager.
“What was that?”
I turned from my monitor, eager to not think about Net Worth for a moment.
“Oh, I was just saying. I’m a member of this group, you know, game fishermen, and the group organised a protest outside the Royal Courts of Justice.”
The Royal Courts of Justice or RCJ is a popular spot for staging protests and one of the more eminent buildings in central London, above Temple, along a busy stretch where the Strand meets Aldwych. It turned out my colleague had been intending to protest about river pollution and sewage dumping by Thames Water, which is a big enough deal that it’s made it into the US news. My colleague, as a game fisherman, was chiefly concerned about the sewage killing the trout.
“So I went along but it turned out the protest had been called off because of the rain and no one had thought to tell me! So I was just there on my own, in the rain.”
“In fishing waders?”
“Yes, well, that’s what I was wearing, you know, for the protest. My fishing waders. That was part of the plan, you see, to make a statement. About the fish.”
“But no one told you it was cancelled?”
“No! They texted that it was cancelled when I was already standing there!”
“Alone, outside the RCJ, in your fishing waders?”
“Yes. And a fishing cap.”
Now, two things. One: I’m not much of a fisherwoman but this is obviously too good a story to not release back into the wild. Consider this my very first catch-and-release. And two: this story makes me angry, not just because of the trout but also for my drinking water, my desire for poop-free showers and, yes, for wild swimming in quiet local rivers.
I said as much and we bonded over a shared wish for poop-free rivers. I told him about the place where I go swimming near my house. A bit of a magical spot, it doesn’t look like much when you first turn up — you have to ignore old trappings of industry and squirming shoals of crayfish — but once you set off up river, it winds between high banks, overhung with willows, stout with marsh lilies and deep enough that there’s no touching the bottom. Once, on my birthday, Joel and I went alone. It had been baking hot all day and the oppressive mugginess broke into a soft but persistent rain as we swam. Up the river in this rain, it was like swimming underwater but still being able to breathe. I felt like a toad, or a dragonfly, something that exists solely at river eye level or an inch or two above it. It was magic.
My colleague listened, frowned and opened Google Maps, trying to plot where I was talking about. Then he got very excited.
“Oh yes, I know that area so well. I often go there to see my very best friend from school. He lives near there. I’ve known him forever, we were in school together. He’s so lovely, a bit of an odd one, you know. But just wonderful. He’s actually kind of a hermit, won’t come to London, so we go and have dinner parties at his place. Went just last weekend actually. He’s a farmer, you know, and doesn’t like to be around people too much, just likes to keep to himself. He lives in a small village in the middle of nowhere.”
And then he named the village that is on the far side of the field in front of my house.
Well, we slapped thighs (our own; not each other’s) for a moment over the coincidence. He showed me his friend’s Insta page. Turns out he’s a flower farmer of reasonably impressive repute. I looked more closely. There were many dreamy thirst-trap photos of a handsome man, flat cap and distinctive old-fashioned farmer style, swathed in flowers. In at least one photo, he was arse-naked.
“My goodness.” This was suddenly a much more interesting conversation than I was usually party to in the office.
He dampened my enthusiasm only slightly by showing me a picture of said flower farmer’s ex-boyfriend. Apparently they’ve only recently broken up; how sad.
Anyway. That was that.
Cut to that evening, coming back from London.
It had been an eventful day because, well, no, that’s a lie. It had been a really boring day. But anyway, here I was, driving back from the station to my house, trundling along the country road at the spot where it keeps two lanes and runs fairly quickly.
And there was someone walking along the side of the road.
A rangy, farmer-y looking someone with that country walk I’ve written about before, making great purposeful strides.
It was, of course, the sexy flower farming hermit friend (SFFHF, for short) of my colleague. Clothed, but still.
I drove past about one hundred metres, dropped to second gear as I dithered and then found a spot to whip round.
And I drove back. Of course I drove back. You know me.
“Hi. I know this is so weird but …” And I told him I’m so-and-so’s colleague and how funny because he was just telling me about him and showing me his Insta page and I recognise him and can I give him a lift somewhere? All very quickly and without drawing breath.
He rallied quickly and was politeness and charm, itself. A drunk driver smashed into him and totalled his car only the day before, which was why he was walking.
He accepted the offer of a lift and asked me polite questions, where do I live, where am I from, etc. (Always, always, where am I from. It’s the accent.)
Then, after a few minutes of me going on and on about how my colleague had shown me his Insta page and what a funny coincidence this was, he broke in.
“Oh yes? And he knows me?”
I was confused. I wondered if he’s maybe a bit slow. I’ve already said my colleague’s name, first and last. If my colleague is to be believed, these guys are bosom buddies, pals from the womb. Has he exaggerated how close a friend this person is? Why? To what end?
I said the name of my colleague again and Mr. SFFHF’s puzzlement increased.
“Hmm, how old is he? You know, I meet so many people, with the flower farming….”
This is so weird. I’m wondering if I’m going mad. I don’t *think* my colleague would make this up but what do I know. The guy wore fishing waders on a street in central London. Who knows what he’s capable of.
I described him, his height and hair colour, distinguishing features. Said his name again. Explained his role at my work. In desperation, I mentioned he said he went to school with him, came up here only recently for a dinner party.
He looked sideways at me and said an entirely different name.
“Do you mean him?”
Ah. “Yes. That is who I mean.”
And so, it turns out that I have got my little-known (clearly very little-known) colleague’s name completely wrong.
Back to the spider that was on our bed yesterday. Once I had safely excreted said spider outside — Joel has many wonderful qualities but an ability to deal with spiders is not one — we got up. We were staying at his sister’s place in the Brecon Beacons in Wales — and the plan for the day was the waterfalls.
That’s right: more wild swimming.
And the spider-chart-joining of thoughts and ideas, only tangentially related.
When raindrops hit water they create reverse raindrops; liquid shafts of vertical water stipple the surface like hairs and create an impression of the river floating up.
This month is shaping up to be the wettest July on record. When we went to the waterfalls, the river was up, thrusting through its allotted space, claiming more and pulling slides of earth and rocks down to join it. When we made it to our usual spot, the rain had eased but the river was still torrential in places, a fast-moving churn that would dash a body to pieces.
But there were a few inlets and eddies, peaceful, overhung with willows and full of moss-covered logs and boulders, where it was calm enough to enter.
Which we did.
Willow bark is made into aspirin. Neanderthals have been found buried with willow branches and green mould was made into penicillin. We have been battling unseen terrors for millennia.
Did our ancestors have an innate terror of spider bites because they couldn’t develop a method for treating them? Have they passed this down to us, a primordial arachnophobia?
I’m not afraid of spiders, nor ghosts, nor a roaring river.
But we often talk ourselves out of fearing things that perhaps we ought to. Maybe this is why I get into repeated awkward encounters too: I talk myself out of fearing the awkwardness.
Having said that, there is something primal, something impossibly deep, that stirs in me when I get in cold, clear-flowing water (especially when it’s not polluted by Thames Water sewage).
Do I get into awkward situations and like swimming in wild rivers in the rain because my ancestors did the same?
It’s just how I’m made.
Joel is a software engineer. Of course he thinks we are, at root, nought but codes and programming errors.
I dropped a Taster Note™ for this piece yesterday, with more on this particular spider, this river and on ancestors, and the ghosts they leave in and around us. The words — a verbatim excerpt from The Notebooks (Uncut Editions) — go with this drawing.