Animals, Environment, Gardening, Korea
Comments 15

A Korean Flashback #2: I Was a Rice-Paddy Spider Man

The spiders were everywhere over there.

When westerners talk about Korea as a destination or somewhere they lived and taught for a year or two, they often lose me pretty fast as they rave about the food or K-pop or the high-tech wonderlands to be found in the big cities.

Well, I disliked the food, and Busan, the second-biggest city, just an hour or so from where I lived, will stay with me more for its decaying maze of hillside alleys and the really rather squalid seafood markets on its waterfront than any technological buzz it might have had.

(Don’t get me started on the music.)

GREEN GRAVEYARD SPIDER. In a hillside cemetery near Hell Skool, the nasty middle school I worked at on Thursdays & Fridays, so horrible that a stroll through the graves after work might be the day's highlight.

#2. GREEN GRAVEYARD SPIDER. In a hillside cemetery near Hell Skool, the nasty middle school I worked at on Thursdays & Fridays, so horrible that a stroll through the graves after work might be the day’s highlight.

Flashy, cutting-edge, Korea undoubtedly exists, but it was the half-made Korea, the good-enough Korea of the countryside, coast and city fringes that I spent most of my time in.

Sometimes I wonder if I would have loved the country more if I’d been stationed in bustling Seoul with its mix of the gleaming-new and the mothball-antiquated, its countless options for diversion on weekends, holidays and before and after work.

Certainly I would have been less starved for distraction there; I barely scraped the surface of the city on my few short visits. Where I was, alone and just a few miles to the east of Nowheresville, I had to make my own fun.

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#3. THE COLONY AT DUSK. On my 13-day Goat Killer Trail walk up the coast in the Summer of 2012, I gained a fresh and much-needed appreciation for the country on its empty beaches & within its quiet countryside. This is a view from a roadside as I marched into the night, looking west through the webs of an arachnid colony over lush rice paddies.

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#4. YIELD TO THE SPIDER LORD. Goat Killer Trail, almost an hour after the previous shot. If you’re wondering, “Yield” (“Give Way” in Australian) is pronounced “Yangpo” — this blog is nothing if not educational.

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#5. PADDY’S EDGE.  This spindly critter is hanging from a grass head on a rice paddy border. Goat Killer Trail, a pleasant afternoon two days after the previous shot, after a long, hot day wandering mapless and clueless along backroads west of the main coastal highway.

#6. OFF-ROAD ARACHNID. Goat Killer Trail. Three days after the above, this time at dawn after sleeping rough at the roadside and getting an early start while it was still cool.

For me, it was the ragged edges and darker, sometimes dingier but always thriving niches that kept me exploring.

The weed jungles smothering vacant lots and roadsides, the jungly creek banks and shady refuges beneath sun-baked bridges, the forgotten grave-mounds dotting mountains, hills and ridges in their thousands, the mountain paths, coastal roads and rundown fishing villages, and especially the rice paddies with their dragonflies, flowers — and yes, their spiders.

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#7. RED BRIDGE SPIDER. This was on the fringes of Gimhae, my town. I found this whole area pretty tiresome visually, and was always looking for a new angle to keep me interested. The red railway bridge was one of the few dashes of colour on the rice-paddy plain, so I used it when I could & the spider was an unexpected bonus.

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#8. WEB & WALKING STICK. I love walking in the rain, especially in the godawful humid Summers of Korea (and Queensland). This was on a drizzly day on one of the ridges overlooking downtown Gimhae. It was a spider-web wonderland that afternoon.

Koreans are gifted gardeners and farmers, able to coax massive yields of onions, chilies and cabbages from just about any barren corner, trash-filled edge or abandoned strip, but they’re not overly concerned with finer details, impressive workmanship or elaborate designs.

I would be routinely staggered and appalled at their disinterest in the aesthetic dimension. One of my first impressions of Korea was the amount of plastic littering gardens and farm edges — last year’s weed barriers and fertiliser bags and last night’s soju bottles and instant-ramen packaging tossed into a pile next to the shallot bed and left for next year.

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#9. SPIDER SPLENDOUR. This gorgeous specimen was in a dank semi-rural laneway near Hell Skool. You know you’re in a drab place when you start looking for spiders for colour!

And the year after. When the pile got too high you abandoned it, let the weeds & pumpkin vines colonise it, and worked around it. When your plastic furniture and TV sets were busted, you hauled them onto the pile.

I used to amuse myself drawing a mental map of the great Garbage Peaks Range in my neighbourhood, where every block had its own trash-mountain reaching skywards.

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#10. HUNTER ON THE PETALS. Again near Hell Skool. A really unpleasant neighbourhood was enlivened in Summer by the appearance of unkempt thickets of flowers in a few places along a noisy, ugly road. They self-seeded & thrived & I was so miserable at school that I took to sneaking out in work time to take pictures of the blooms — and the charismatic little spiders that lurked on them, waiting for prey.

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#11. DEADLY DAISY. The flowers attract the bugs, straight into the waiting fangs of these opportunistic predators. This was in the same flower jungle as the shot above.

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#12. THE HUNTER & THE HUNTED. That’s me looking down on a predator in the Hell Skool flower jungle while taking this shot from under & through the flower. Tricky!

This attitude extends to roadsides, vacant lots, creek banks and verges of all kinds. And on the one hand it’s disgusting, but on the other there’s lots of edge, that permaculture concept that this site describes thus:

The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system. 

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#13. RAINY DAY EMBANKMENT. A typical experience for me in Korea: taking a picture of a bug or flower, while a local or two walks past, staring at & studying me without embarrassment.

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#14. HAN RIVER RESIDENTS. I walked long stretches of the Han River banks in Seoul over a couple of days in the Summer of 2013. One day soon I’ll finish the post about that walk, which involved countless mighty bridges and lots of unkempt, spider-rich pathways.

Let’s define “productive” here in broader terms than usual. Those neglected edges might not have always been pretty, but they meant a lot more variety than what you’d find in some overly managed garden-scapes.

I guess those messy edges were the hedgerows of Korea, where the wildlife pushed from the uniformity and relative sterility of the fields found a place it could be left alone to thrive.

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#15. THE JOY OF SPIDERS. An orb-weaver appears to be in danger of getting trampled beneath an incoming tide of pharmaceutically enraptured Korean kids. It’s actually not that much of a stretch: as in Japan, kids with butterfly nets are a common sight in Summer, & bugs of all kinds keep a low profile if they can. Gimhae, July 2013.

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#16. DAECHEONG SUNRISE. I have a small series of variations on this shot, taken at dawn on a local bridge as I headed to Yulha for a weekend photo odyssey among the paddies. This was as good as Daecheong Creek ever got — it’s a breathtakingly ugly waterway, degraded within an inch of its life.

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#17. YULHA, SPIDER COUNTRY. Beyond the paddies, the monotonous ranks of tower blocks that characterise urban Korea. But between & edging the paddy monocultures, wild little jungles of weeds and shrubs supported an encouraging variety of wildlife. Here I saw giant bullfrogs, butterflies, mantises, spiders by the dozen and on one occasion each, a roe deer and a mustelid (weasel family member) of some kind.

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# 18. LIFE IN THE TUNNEL. I had to walk this miserable, wet, pedestrian tunnel along the Daecheong bank when I slumped towards Hell Skool or the rice-paddy haunts of Gimhae. About as charming an experience as this picture suggests.

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#19. YONGJI-BONG HIKERS. This was the biggest local mountain, quite a magnet for hikers — I climbed it several times. I found numerous routes up, and the forest covering its steep flanks gave me a much needed wildlife hit — hard to believe that the other jungle of apartments & roads was only an hour below.

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#20. WEED STALK HIERARCHY. A dragonfly & a spider come to some kind of arrangement near Daecheong Creek, half an hour from home.

And among that wildlife were the spiders. I always enjoyed their ornate webs (when they weren’t stuck to my face in the dark). The symmetry and timeless perfection of their designs, their wildness and suggestion of darkness and menace, were perfect counterparts to the rice monocultures, the sterile apartment towers, the ever-ongoing construction projects.

I think most of all I enjoyed their inability to be tamed.

After dragonflies, I’d say spiders ranked near the top of my list of photographic subjects during my two-year stay in Korea.

These are some of my favourites.

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#21. A DRAGONFLY DIET. Dragonflies were my one undying love in Korea, and it was rare to see their dominance as predators challenged. But a few times I saw a spider of a certain size making a meal of one. This was above a bamboo-forest road constructed near the Nakdong River. See my post ‘A Journey Into the Cosmos‘ for more shots of that spot.

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#22. SUPPERTIME IN THE BAMBOO GROVE. A few hours after the above, I walked this path in the dark, heading for the train home, and came uncomfortably close to getting face-webbed (or worse) a few memorable times.

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#23. IN THE WOODS, DEAD MAN’S PEAK. A little local mountain I often hiked, home to this pair, whose web has snared a few falling leaves. Early Autumn, 2013.

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#24. AT HOME IN THE COSMOS. A delicate little fella in a self-seeding cosmos jungle not far from home.

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#25. AUTUMN ARACHNID. Nearing the end of my two years in Korea, I ad-libbed an adventurous all-day walk over & beyond Yongji-Bong & down towards the coastal town of Jinhae. This beautiful specimen overlooked the path as I approached the town. November 2013.

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote

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15 Comments

  1. Fascinating creatures, and yet they make me a little uneasy. Are they dangerous? Would love to photograph them. And once more, that imagery with “web sticking to your head in the dark”, oh.. that gives me shivers 😉

    • Most of the webbed spiders are not too dangerous for humans. I’m far more creeped out by the crawling, stalking spiders, of which we have a couple of dangerous varieties in Australia, the funnel-web being the worst, and the red-back — one of which I once found walking across my living room floor!

    • Thanks, Kate, I love that one too — I really enjoyed subverting the messages I found in Korea, which really wasn’t too hard most of the time!

  2. I must admit I am a bit addicted to dragonflies. They can be very frustrating to photograph though! A very interesting post once again. Your blog is one of a kind really. Not many people can combine wildlife, culture of another country and such a wonderful way with words! Thanks for the great read and the wonderful pics.

  3. amoralamusement says

    I like the photograph. Korea has some nasty banana spiders…mother of god those creatures!

    • Sorry for the criminally late reply, Ellen. I was blog-averse for a while but hope I’m coming good again.

      Yes, if there was one thing I learned to do in Korea, it was to refine my observing skills.

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