I’ll start this by being completely honest. Lockdown has been an absolute blessing for me. It’s given me an opportunity to take my time over making sense of a monumental change in my life that had started not even a year prior to the pandemic situation, and figure out what I need to do in able to move forward and use all of these circumstances to my advantage.
A short while back, at the age of 35/36, I was diagnosed first of all with ADHD and later on with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). I wasn’t especially surprised to learn about these things as they had been affecting me my whole life, but it was still initially a little jarring to realise that my suspicions were in fact correct and there was no escaping that now.
To condense the last 10 years of my life into a short paragraph, I got my degree in animal biology and ecology back in 2009, after finding it a lot harder than I had expected. It was for that reason that I quietly shelved my goals of going on to get my MSc and PhD and pursuing a career in science. I spent the next decade working as an artist, burnt out from that completely around about last year, right in between the aforementioned diagnoses and, whilst trying to figure out what on earth was next for me, I turned my focus to one of the things that has been a lifelong passion of mine. Spiders.
I have kept spiders for almost 20 years now, sometimes just one tarantula, sometimes lots of different types of spiders, but they’ve been present in some capacity ever since I was 17 or 18. After moving somewhere with more space at the beginning of last year, my collection had expanded significantly to almost 200 spiders of all different types. I decided to start an Instagram account to post about my spiders as whenever I posted anything to do with them anywhere else, I got a load of the usual ‘kill it with fire’ responses which I find grating, to say the least. I started to focus my attention on studying them a lot more closely. I invested in my very first DSLR and macro lens and set about learning how to use it. That in itself unlocked a whole new level of appreciation for them and I quickly became hopelessly, irretrievably obsessed. With new photos popping up on my Instagram feed every day, sometimes multiple times a day, they seemed to be gaining rather a lot of interest from other enthusiasts, photographers, keepers and even arachnophobes who were consciously working on overcoming their fears. This was a bit of a revelation for me & definitely a motivation to do more! I took it to Twitter as well and began posting there too, where I ended up meeting a lot of arachnology folk who were either studying towards or already active in the field I had always quietly dreamed of being involved in myself. Actually working with and researching spiders. And that’s where lockdown comes into play!
My diagnoses, my creative burnout, my newfound love affair with macro photography, people taking an interest in learning about the spiders I was posting, the pandemic… all of these things combined resulted in a major lightbulb moment. It all came into view! I AM cut out for academia. I have work to do and a drive to do it. I have a goal that I shelved back in 2009 that I want to pick back up and pursue with a vigour I would never have had without all of the events of the past 10 years. I am going to go back to my education. I am going to get that Masters and see if it leads me to a PhD. I am going to dedicate myself to studying arachnids and passing the knowledge I gain through doing so on to the public and helping people understand more about these fascinating, beautiful, charismatic and critically important creatures with which we share our space. Lockdown has given me the opportunity to gain a laser sharp focus on my goals and start formulating a plan of action to get me there. It had given me the clarity of mind to begin that journey now, from my own home, by actively involving myself in science communication and sharing the fascinating things that I see both outdoors in nature and here in my spider room. I breed several exotic spider species and have had the opportunity to document everything from courtship, to mating, to egg development and hatching, spiderling growth and development… everything. Not only do my breeding projects give me material to work with in terms of outreach, arachnid advocacy and education, but they also make a small contribution to the trade in this country that largely relies on wild caught imports. If I can produce captive, responsibly bred spiders, then hopefully, that’s a few less imports required. It’s not going to end the import of spider species and other invertebrates, but if it lessens the demand even slightly, then I’m ok with that.
I have also gotten more heavily involved in monitoring my local arachnid fauna and contributing to recording schemes such as that run by the British Arachnological Society, and have helped found the Hertfordshire Spider Group. Volunteering my time to help with outreach via these organisations is both rewarding and a source of great peace of mind for me, but also another useful addition to my application to continue my education. Lockdown has given me the time and freedom to head out to my garden and not have to keep an eye on the time for any reason. I can go out day or night, armed with specimen vials, a pooter, a sweep net and my camera. It’s given me the time to sit and watch. Prior to this, when the usual daily grind was in effect, I’d go out and scramble about, trying to find as much as I could in the amount of time I had allotted to collections specimens. Now, I can go and find a spot to sit in and wait for them to come to me. I can observe behaviour and the comings and goings of all sorts of creatures, from one spot. That has shown me so much more than a quick scout about for specimens to bring indoors ever has!
As everything I do at present is voluntary and my ability to work has lessened significantly over the past couple of years, lockdown has also given me the time to figure out a few ways to support my work, and how to drum up a bit of interest from people who follow what I do on social media. As a result of this, I am now working towards funding my work with spiders & saving towards my education via a Patreon page. I post lots of my photography work there as well as breeding project updates, spider facts, species and family profiles, info about fieldwork and techniques that can be used by anyone at home to find spiders in their own gardens or surrounding areas, and other such resources. I am trying to build an active community of spider appreciators over there and have a couple of reward tiers for anyone who wishes to sign up to make a monthly contribution. That said, I don’t want any of the information I post to be paywalled, so 90% of my posts there are publicly accessible with no pressure to sign up at all. The reward tiers are there for anyone who wishes to show their appreciation and are priced extremely low in order to hopefully keep even the bonus content accessible to everyone. It’s only been active for just under 2 months and has already proven to be a lot of fun. I’m hoping that my social media and this Patreon project will enable me to extend my commitment to shining a more favourable light on our arachnid neighbours to people all over the world and not just here. With all that said…I’m actually dreading lockdown ending. This has been such a valuable period of realisation and growth for me personally, but more importantly I’m hoping that as normality returns (or the ‘new normal’, whatever that turns out to be), society’s increased interest in and awareness of the natural world doesn’t begin to wane.
I would like to thank Matt for the opportunity to contribute to his wonderfully insightful guest blog series. It has been a pleasure reading everyone else’s entries!
Tea Francis (I am an aspiring arachnologist, naturalist and science communicator focusing on showing people the wonderful world of spiders and other arachnids. I am also an illustrator, currently shifting my focus from pop-culture and human history to natural history and scientific illustration.)