I have just had a moment, possibly indicative of senior ones to come, when I tried to check online for more updated information on a subject about which I had written, only to find all the references were to my writings about the subject … which makes me fear I might have made it all up.

And if it were not for the photographs I took at the 2007 Rocky Mountain Hedgehog Show in Denver, Colorado, I might be even more befuddled. But the photographs tell me that I was there and I did witness the International Hedgehog Olympic Games.

In fact, here are a few:

The reason I am back in the world of hedgehog shows is twofold – I am in the middle of writing a book about the iconography of hedgehogs for Reaktion and there is a chapter on domestication. So I wanted to see how things were doing in the amazing world of hedgehog-petdom in the USA. The other reason is that the latest show is about to begin, so if you find yourself within spitting distance of the Double Tree Hotel in Denver, get yourself to the Show.

One thing that did amaze me was the detail with which those who assess the ‘quality’ of hedgehogs on show have gone. The International Hedgehog Association now recognises 92 colour varieties! Salt and pepper, cinnamon, apricot, chocolate … the hedgehogs all begin to sound quite appetising.

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Very rarely do I feel that I have been in the vanguard of anything. There was a time when I was one of few people talking about the emergence of genetically engineered trees, and the threats to the environment that an unfettered release might cause. I felt then that I was on the wave. Everything else, well, I have either just been part of a pack, or ploughing a very lone course.

But now, I am thrilled to have assisted in the beginning of a new craze that is sweeping the globe at an unprecedented rate. No longer are people looking for esoteric celtic knots or the names of their children/loved ones/cities of conception. Mum, love, hate and ironic anchors are no more the tattoos of choice. The new tattoo is … well … I hardly need say … the hedgehog.

I received an email from Eryka Blank – the delightful mystery of emails is that you can have so little idea of who you are in contact with. I had no idea of country or age – just that she had read my book in its US incarnation (always a good starting point) and had been attracted by the images at the bottom of each page, so much so she was contemplating having one done as a tattoo. I sent her some larger copies of the pictures – the originals were done by the great artist David Shephard – and asked that if she did get a tattoo done, she send me a photo. And she has, along with a note explaining more about her and what motivated her … so here she is:

And here is what she had to say about herself:

“I agree, our tattoos should be friends.  I live in Madison, Wisconsin, and grew up in Cedarburg, Wisconsin.  I am in my third year of college studying Communications Arts emphasis on Global Communications, and a theater minor.  I have always loved the outdoors and critters, and I constantly surround myself with pets.  I love books like ‘Watership Down’ and ‘Life of Pi’.  I can’t remember how I got interested in hedgehogs, but I did quite a bit of research on them, have a  pet hedgehog (named Phinneus), and am a member of the Hedgehog Welfare Society.  I short story I wrote titled ‘Burberry and the Fox’ is appearing in the Nov/Dec issue of the Hedgehog Welfare Society newsletter.  Last winter and spring I get receiving mysterious packages (I suspect my parents may have had a hand in this) with little plush hedgehogs and hedgehog books.  One of these was ‘The Hedgehog’s Dilemma’.  I loved reading your book and every time I saw one of the little inked drawings on the bottom of the page I thought what a great tattoo it would make.  I judge art by whether or not I would be willing to get it tattooed on myself.  The little hedgehog is actually my fourth tattoo (the others are a circle of Beatles lyrics on my upper back- “Pools of Sorrow Waves of Joy are Drifting Through My Opened Mind”, a fiery colored swallow on my leg, and my beloved dog’s paw print on my ankle) and didn’t hurt much.  It stung a little, but was no worse than getting a shot from the doctor.  I thought, what better animal to have staring fiercely out of my arm at everyone? Eventually I want to get the whole arm that the hedgehog is on turned into a full sleeve of critters- air, earth, and water all represented. I hope whatever you get tattooed on your other leg is as worthy as your hedgehog!

Personally, I have a great fondness and respect for cheetahs, birds (like swallows and sparrows), and otters.  In fact, I think a river otter will be my next tattoo.  Whatever you choose I can’t wait to read about it in your next book.

Thanks,

Eryka

P.S. I recently did a speech on the history of the relationship between hedgehogs and humans for my speech class and I found your book to be an excellent reference!”

And as Eryka suggests, I am in the market for a new tattoo – but this is a serious one, one based on a competition that has already begun. There are advocates for different species all clamouring for my attention, trying to win me over to their particular animal. What will it be? Badger? Dolphin? Solitary bee? House sparrow? Owl? Otter? Water vole? Dragonfly? Fox? Porpoise? Robin? Bat? Any other suggestions?

Yesterday – 2nd February – is a day that has grown in significance for hedgehog lovers all across the USA as the nineteenth century tradition of Groundhog Day morphs into Hedgehog Day. It is a day that has attracted many appellations, Candlemas of Imbolc for example. And it is a special time of year in the northern hemisphere as it marks the halfway point between the winter and spring solstice. For pre-industrial societies this would be seen as a significant turning point for those enduring the privations of the leanest months of the year.

Groundhog Day is perhaps most recognised from the delightfully deep and funny film of that name starring Bill Murray (you might have to trust me on the deepness, just watch it with a Buddhist!) in which he plays a tv weatherman forever stuck in a repeating day, having to present the event at Gobblers Knob … I had better explain. The idea behind Groundhog Day is that if the animal casts a shadow when it is yanked from its slumber, this indicates that a further six weeks of winter are to follow.

But where did it come from? Well, there is an old British poem that includes:

If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Come, Winter, have another flight;
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Go Winter, and come not again.

According to one history of Groundhog Day, conquering Roman legions brought the tradition of a hedgehog being the key player in this act to Germany where it took root and followed the earliest settlers to the New World. But the absence of hedgehogs required a replacement – and that is where the rather un-hedgehog-like groundhog came into the equation. So was born the legend of Punxsutawney Phil, whose ceremonial appearance now attracts tens of thousands of visitors to his burrow on Gobbler’s Knob.

Such an important date is this newly minted Hedgehog Day that it is has become the most significant day in the spiky calendar, with at least two people I have met having arranged their weddings to coincide with the hedgehogs.

But has it the remotest grounding in fact? Advocates have spoken of the writing of Plinius (Pliny the Elder) in support of the story. Plinius repeats a story first recorded by Aristotle claiming that the hedgehog does have prophetic powers over the weather. Apparently it is possible to discern the direction of the weather by looking at the way hedgehogs establish their nests. They are alleged to have two entrances, and block up the one that points towards incoming inclemency. So there is at least some ancient connection between hedgehogs and the weather … but still no evidence that there was ever a hedgehog day in classical times.

And it is not as if there is any agreement on when hedgehog day actually is. For example, in New Zealand it falls on 10th September; Ogden Water, near Halifax in West Yorkshire have chosen 5th November to call hedgehog day; Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough council held a hedgehog day on 10th August; the Isle of White declared that the 17th June was National Hedgehog Day and on top of that we have the British Hedgehog Preservation Society’s Hedgehog Awareness week, that runs in early May each year. Strikes me that we should make every day hedgehog day.

Does all this diminish American Hedgehog Day as an idea? Well not really, every ceremonial occasion is a human construct. Every tradition or religious festival, whether it is Easter, Eid, Diwali or Yom Kippur is just made up by people at some point in history. Traditions are important components of societal glue, and I like the fact that we are at liberty to create our own. And then it will be down to the wonderful power of natural selection of the fittest – some ideas will, like species, fall by the wayside as inadequate in the face of newer, fitter models. Perhaps Hedgehog Day will take on a life of it’s own. Perhaps in years to come there will be archaeologists investigating the roots of the dominant, hedgehog-based, religion, excavating the holy site of Gobbler’s Knob. Perhaps I have been spending too long among these people.

As part of Jaar van der Egel (the Year of the Hedgehog) in Holland, I was invited over to give a talk (and also enjoy a few days of delightful peace in the flat of my friend Mina … there is a restaurant selling rotis that supply a mouth tingly, stomach distending heaven just a short walk from her one-time squat in an exclusive neighbourhood).

So, the talk  – and also the Year of the Hedgehog, I might as well contribute something about that event. But first the talk and my concern about potential meanness. I like to think that I am quite sensitive to the impact I have on people – if I have offended anyone, I really hope it is because I intended to do so … but after my very favourite ‘performance’ … my talks sometimes become a little more than just a lecture – and this one was great as they gave me over 90 minutes to talk, and I kept people happy, laughing (with, not at, I hope) and in their seats ’til the end.

But, as I met many people coming to chat to me on the way out, one man came up to me with obvious agitation. I had offended his wife – an American – and the cause of offence was my references to my time in America at the Rocky Mountain Hedgehog Show.

Now, there may be a few of you who have not yet read my book, A Prickly Affair, but just in case, here is a brief synopsis of a surreal few days:

I was invited by the wonderful people of the Hedgehog Welfare Society and the International Hedgehog Association to give a presentation at the biennial hedgehog show in Denver, Colorado about the campaign I had been involved in to stop the cull of hedgehogs in the Uists.

The hedgehog show is very like Crufts, with some obvious differences. And essentially, the cutest hedgehog wins. Now these are African pygmy hedgehogs (usually a mix of Atelerix albiventris and Atelerix frontalis) – not our western European hedgehogs (Erinaceus europaeus) – our hedgehogs are totally, completely and utterly NOT appropriate as pets. In fact I would argue that neither are the Pygmy hogs (which, interestingly, are about the same size as most of the other 14 species of hedgehog … apart from the lardy-butts among the hedgehogs, ours!) … however, in the USA there is a body of people who are obsessed with their pet hedgehogs. I wrote a rant for the Guardian about this.

Where was I … ok, the show – after I had done my talk and witnessed the winning hedgehog be presented with a rosette many times its size, I was asked if I was staying for the International Hedgehog Olympic Games … now you know how sometimes you will (well, at least I will) say things that are obviously not true, as a joke …. well, I was wrong – utterly serious the IHOG.

In fact I will post something just about the IHOG because it it worth the attention.

There was so much stuff that I found strange – the animal communicator, Dawn Wrobel, who claims to be able to speak to not just hedgehogs but also the ghosts of hedgehogs past … in fact I heard her telling a couple that she had been told by their current pet hedgehog that the reason it was so disturbed was because the ghost of their cat used to sit beside its cage and complain that it had been so jealous of the attention the previous hedgehog had received.

I did a little research about animal communication and am as yet unconvinced by its efficacy … and alarmed at the costs of courses. However, I believe there are some people who are able to empathise better with non-human animals – and wonder if this is the beginning of the slippery slope to a belief in animal communication.

Back at the talk, I also talked about the Rainbow Bridge ceremony … and the valedictory to all the pet hedgehogs that had died in the previous two years. I caused guffaws of laughter with talk about the fund-raising extremes of some of the maggot-eating pet owners … all in all, we had fun.

But the offence? I think, and hope, it was due to a mis-understanding. At no point had I said, or meant to say, that this was all the madness of Americans – more that it was a delightful madness of a few specific people, as part of the a particular community. There is a risk when telling a story that the impression comes of a broader generalisation than is intended. And I am now going to make sure that the only times I cause offence are when I really mean to cause offence!