Rants from the Hill: Hedgehog comes to the High Desert

Welcoming a fifteen-million-year-old animal to the Ranting Hill

 

“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert.

For a solid year now our eight-year-old daughter, Caroline, has been imploring us to get her a pet hedgehog. Nobody in the family can reckon where she got this idea in the first place—“hedgehog” has certainly never crossed my mind, let alone my lips—but it is deep within the grain of her nature to grasp an idea and refuse to let it go. Like a weasel or gator with jaws clenched, Caroline is incapable of giving up, a quality that makes her both difficult to live with and also, in some small, important way, my hero.

As Christmas approached, Caroline redoubled her efforts to get me to relent on the hedgehog, which meant that the hedgehog “discussion,” as my wife Eryn still insisted civilly upon calling it, had devolved into a Neanderthal battle between two of the most stubborn people ever to walk these bare, dry hills. Tenacious little Caroline tried every angle; I was equally unyielding.

“Dad, hedgehogs are the coolest animals ever to be on earth. Wait until you see how cool. It’s going to blow it out your mind!”

“Honey,” I replied, “we have hens that don’t lay eggs, a cat that won’t chase mice, and a dog that drools in gallons rather than ounces. The last thing I need is another useless pet to take care of.”

“Well, Daddy, I’m not sure I care for your attitude,” she observed coolly, turning one of my pet locutions against me.

“Honey, why can’t you just want a cellphone, like a normal kid?” I asked.

“Because normal kids want phones, like you said. But I’m unique! And a hedgehog is unique, so it’s definitely the thing for me,” she answered.

“Where did you learn the word unique?” I asked.

“Yeah, most kids my age don’t know it. That’s part of what makes me unique,” she insisted, a little proudly.

This standoff continued well into December, when Caroline came to us with what was billed as an important family announcement. She hated to have to go against our wishes, she declared, but she had decided it was necessary to skirt our opposition and instead ask Santa Claus to bring her the long-desired hedgehog. As evidence of her determination, she displayed her letter to Santa, which included the following appeal: “plese plese plese even though my mom says it is vary vary vary unlikely and my dad says did you bonk your head? PLESE PLESE PLESE get me a H E G H O G [followed by ten giant exclamation points].”

Letter to Santa.
Caroline's letter to Santa Claus. MICHAEL BRANCH

Well, this was a new angle, and I was nonplussed. Eryn, who is both more intelligent and also quicker than her husband, wisely observed that Santa communicates regularly with parents, and that there’s practical collaboration, even in the magic that is Christmas morning.

“We’ll see,” said Caroline, defiantly. “Santa knows my heart.” And with that she spun on her heel and returned to her room, where she immediately planted her shoulder against the side of her dresser and, like a football player driving a tackling dummy, began to shove it away to make room for the hedgehog’s cage. Nothing we said made a lick of difference. This feisty little mule saw her new pet as a fait accompli, and so she remained perfectly resolute. “Santa knows my heart,” she repeated firmly.

In an essay I once referred to parenting as “the art of improvisation,” but it might just as well be glossed as “an interminable series of Catch 22s.” Eryn and I now faced a choice that seemed epic in significance. Through pure stubbornness, Caroline had placed us at a checkmate in which our “choice” was reduced to getting a hedgehog or blowing the lid on the Santa myth. How is it possible that parenting so often provides us with this kind of “choice”?

My wife remained respectful of my desire to live a long, happy, and entirely hedgehog-free life, and it pains me to confess that it was I who caved. One night after a few tumblers of sour mash, I told Eryn that I wasn’t prepared to be remembered as the guy who murdered Santa. “I don’t want the blood on my hands,” I said, in a moment of profound cowardice. “Please get a damned hedgehog.” And with that I poured another drink.

Arrangements were made, money changed hands, and on the morning of December 25 there was, beneath the tree, that most precious of Christmas miracles: an unwanted pet. When Caroline raced out to the living room to see that, indeed, Santa knew her heart, the look on her face conveyed a sublime combination of pure joy and “I told you so,” which I suspect is the only way pure joy can be improved upon.

Christmas morning.
Caroline gets her Christmas wish. MICHAEL BRANCH
Knowing just enough about captive-bred hedgehogs to suspect they’d likely make a terrible pet, especially for a kid, I tried to lower Caroline’s expectations without dampening her enthusiasm.

“CC, I’m really happy for you. But you need to know that this isn’t a warm and fuzzy pet, like a bunny. This guy is spiny, reclusive, and nocturnal. He might be hard to love.”

Eryn looked at me and smiled. “Well, Daddy,” she said, “there’s somebody else in this house who is spiny, reclusive, and nocturnal.”

“That’s right,” chimed in eleven-year-old Hannah, “and we still love you.”

As we rolled into the New Year, I found myself not only reconciled to “Uncle Hedgie,” as Caroline had named the little beast (though it might be Aunt Hedgie, for all we knew), but in fact fascinated by him. First of all, there was no denying that the thing was, to use a four-letter word that I’ve tried in vain to scrub from my personal lexicon, cute. He was a spiny little ball—larger than a baseball but smaller than a softball—with handsome salt-and-pepper coloration on his long spines. His small ears were delicately cupped and jet black, like a bat’s. The little eyes, glossy and bulbous, were also black. His face consisted of a long, narrow snout which, although not very porcine, had given rise to the “hog” part of his name. The tip of the snout was polished black, with small nostrils, and graced with long, downward-curving whiskers. Hedgie’s nose twitched constantly, suggesting an intelligent suspicion of the lumbering apes that gawked at him.

Uncle Hedgie
Uncle Hedgie joins the family. MICHAEL BRANCH

Of course I also admired his bad attitude. He spent almost all his time hiding under a piece of cloth. He was only active in the middle of the night. He didn’t enjoy being handled, and he never hesitated to prick up his spines when he was grouchy, which was most of the time. In a world full of pets bred to be affectionate and loyal—a saccharine world of kittens and puppies—here at last was an honest misanthrope. His best trick, which he performed at the slightest irritation, was to hiss loudly and convulse forward into a perfect ball of spines—one in which it was impossible to locate his face or his ass, or even to know whether he was in possession of either. This ability to become utterly spherical is why, in Alice in Wonderland, the White Queen commits the indignity of using hedgehogs as croquet balls. Back on this side of the looking glass, I can only imagine that a predator, upon seeing this prickly ball of trouble, might just scratch its head and walk away. In fact, I envied Uncle Hedgie this unassailable form of self-protection, and found myself wishing that I had the capacity to deploy something like it during meetings at work.

Hedgie ball
Uncle Hedgie balling up. MICHAEL BRANCH

The Ancient Greek poet Archilochus observed that “The fox has many tricks, and the hedgehog only one, but that is the best of all.” But Archilochus obviously lived in a time before toilet paper, because our hedgehog did have a second trick, and it was his best. Uncle Hedgie loved to stick his snout into a cardboard toilet paper core (which I slit to prevent it from lodging on his noggin), after which he staggered around waving it in the air like a tiny, spiny drunk. How could I not like this little guy?

I didn’t confess it to the family right away, but I had also been nerding it up by reading about hedgehogs. First of all, there were no living species native to the Americas, which is why we Yanks celebrate Groundhog Day in place of Hedgehog Day, a holiday that has inspired drunken revelry since the time of the ancient Romans. What intrigued me most was the ancient pedigree of the species. Despite his weird appearance and even weirder behavior, this animal hadn’t changed much in the past 15 million years. Given my own idiosyncratic behaviors, I was inspired with hope at the idea that weird had been working so well for so long. Hedgie wasn’t as ancient as a sponge or a jellyfish, but 15 million is a lot of evolutionary birthdays for a mammal. Think of local critters like coyotes and bobcats, which are a few million years old at best.

In fact, the hedgehog is so old that his resemblance to the porcupine and echidna is simply the product of convergent evolution, which is a fancy way of saying that because this is a world in which we might all do well to be covered with protective spines, different species developed this physiological defense mechanism through completely unrelated evolutionary paths. Uncle Hedgie is a mammal, just like you and me—only he’s been around forty or fifty times longer than we have. I couldn’t help but respect how antediluvian this little thing was, and I came to feel that having Uncle Hedgie living with us on the Ranting Hill was the equivalent of sharing our bathtub with a sturgeon or coelacanth.

If Santa knew Caroline’s heart, she herself knew her mind. She honestly wanted nothing more for Christmas, and having received Uncle Hedgie was entirely thrilled. Unlike most grownups, Caroline always knows what she wants in life; also unlike us, she is satisfied when she gets it. She loves to play with her unique pet—at least, such play as is possible with a cranky pincushion—and she takes excellent care of him. For my part, I like that having a hedgehog around forces me to remember how ridiculously young we humans are as a species, and how few of our current, mostly infantile, behaviors are likely to be sustainable for the next 15 hundred years, let alone 15 million. When Uncle Hedgie looks me in the eye, I detect in his glare an unmistakable message: “Back off, sonny. I’ve been doing my thing since you were in evolutionary short pants.” If, in the impossibly distant future, humans are still around—and can do things like convulse into a perfect ball of spines—then we will have earned the right to cop an attitude of superiority. In the meantime, I’ve decided that Uncle Hedgie has earned not only Caroline’s affection, but my respect.

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