The Australian Christmas is an exercise in survival. History’s poets tell us that ‘heat drives people to madness’, but I suspect the dangers of summer have more to do with the insect-to-human ratio than Shakespearean melodrama. I’m not saying that we should follow the United Nations’ advice and switch our lamb cutlets for scorched cockroach, but it wouldn’t hurt to send a threatening memo that humanity is considering adding them to the menu. If we’re going to eat something to extinction, it might as well be a phylum that deserves it.
My motivation for this animosity is not entirely virtuous. I have no idea what the carbon footprint of mosquito flour is, or whether a platter of tarantulas can stop Pacific nations rummaging through Australia’s pockets for loose change.
This is about revenge.
After a decade acclimatising myself to ‘farm life’, I can handle the sand monitor tanning itself on the air-conditioning unit and the wedge-tailed eagles sizing up the meat-to-fat ratio of our guests. The snakes are harmless unless you want to walk around and the bull sharks help to keep the population of waterskiers down.
The Mid-North Coast of NSW is practically a padded social justice safe space compared to the wildlife of Far-North Queensland where five-star hotels put cages inside the bedrooms. From experience, may I suggest sleeping in the cage, because humans are the only wildlife stupid enough to walk into a trap.
That said, I can always tell when summer is approaching. Our driveway transforms from a romantic promenade of plane trees gracefully arching against each other into a murder-scape with a 10 p.m. curfew enforced by tennis-ball-sized spiders.
It’s one of those situations where there’s not much you can do except back the 4WD up and take a running start at the matrix of webs slung across the driveway. If you drive fast enough, the spiders ‘bounce’ off the windscreen and land safely in a paddock. Those that survive the impact tumble over the Duco and latch onto the roof racks.
There they wait, angry and bruised, ready to assault the occupants of the vehicle.
I fell victim to one of these attacks and subsequently discovered that ‘spider bite’ is an emergency room cheat code that gets you rushed in front of people sitting around with bits of bone poking through their clothes. Hospital venom experts don’t get out much and the one who attended me was beside himself with glee at the prospect of my approaching demise. He produced a range of glossy books creating a line-up of arachnid serial killers to pick from so he could administer an antivenom that (hopefully) wouldn’t finish me off.
It was here that I learned a medical term I never want to hear again; ‘fang-spread’. Speaking of fangs, I later discovered one had snapped off in my arse which took eight months to surface and extract. I can safely say that the only thing worse than being bitten is knowing a single-fanged spider is roaming free instead of on a skewer.
These days I spend Christmas avoiding danger. Writing is considered a ‘safe’ activity for those who pour out their soul with a bottle of wine on a Tuscan porch, but I’ve discovered that’s not entirely accurate when you’re forced to turn the recently enclosed ground floor of a farmhouse into an office.
It doesn’t matter that the place has been sealed and painted – or that it contains a quaint antique bar which looks like it fell out of a Manet. This is stolen land as far as the ‘farmlife’ is concerned, and every day a battle is waged against the occupants.
Very late into one particular night I was preparing a tweet for the endless noise of modern civilisation, when I pushed myself back from the desk in a violent thrust entirely beyond my control. It was a weird, defensive action left over from an era when humans passed as snack food. It took a moment to realise that the cause of my outburst was a Huntsman that had crawled over from the back of my laptop (where it had probably been sitting for hours) and spread itself across the touchscreen. There it sat, legs comfortably spanning the screen, threatening to tweet on my behalf. All eight eyes looked at me with a smugness that said, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ knowing full well that I couldn’t spray it or hit it while it occupied my laptop.
Once that problem was dealt with, I continued on with my evening – albeit a little paranoid.
This time I ducked.
There was no obvious cause for my bizarre action until I ducked again a few minutes later and caught sight of a shadow zooming through the columns and beams of the poorly lit room. The lights went on – all of them – and a few minutes later I spotted a tiny micro-chocolate-wattle bat running figure eights around the concrete pillars accompanied by the barely perceptible chatter of its echo-location.
These creatures follow you indoors at sunset, wait until it gets dark, and then spring into action wrongly assuming they’ve discovered an amazing cave. Once I was greeted by a pillow sitting on my office wastepaper bin. I lifted it to discover my brother had left an irritated captured bat as a present. Their love of warm, snug places has made them a repeated visitor to my brother’s bed where he has awoken to the adoring eyes of a carnivorous bat on more than one occasion.
If you want the bat to live, you have to catch it. Hats are an ideal tool, but at 1 a.m. all I have is a room full of antiques my mother would kill me for using in the service of bat-rescue. So, off comes my shirt and so begins the spectacle of attempting to time the flight pattern of a rogue bat. This eventually works and the tiny bundle of squeaking fur is released into the night.
Having dismissed writing as a life-threatening activity, I took my laptop and headed upstairs – this involves going outside because of the unique way old farm houses are designed to give the wildlife one last shot to pick you off.
Barefoot and wearing nothing but shorts and a bra, I made my way up the ramp towards the front door.
Perhaps I have been too harsh? Moonlit summer nights are an infinitely better way to spend the holidays than shivering through a localised ice age. They are full of fireworks, BBQ smoke, and poor music choices courtesy of neighbours who cannot be prevented from stopping by for a drink.
Then again, there is also a nine-foot diamond python wrapped around the screen door.
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