I make a phone call to enquire about the hedgehogs. It might be their last few days of feeding before they retreat for the winter. E. has been feeding them small packets of cat food from Aldi, the food is snuffled up in 20 minutes. He wears a headlamp to try to photograph them. The problem is, the minute he illuminates the beam, it frightens the wee beasties and they run back into the undergrowth. “I’ve not seen them for a few nights,” he tells me, “I think it’s getting close to hibernation time.” There are three of the spiny nocturnal mammals – that he knows of – and they live under the bamboo in the back garden. An ‘array’ of hedgehogs, is the given collective noun. Last time I visited we turned up rocks to look for frogs. We found some, along with slaters, beetles, spiders, newts – all things that lie beneath, quietly minding their own business until we disturbed them. Like the hedgehogs, some of them will be going for the big sleep any day now; the frogs moving into compost heaps, under decking, amongst dead wood. E. has a pond, so they could go down to sleep in the silty bottom. Lying beneath.
What lies beneath Edinburgh’s old town is a whole other underground network of streets. If you walk up the Royal Mile, approaching the Castle, you are walking atop a warren of streets, frozen in time since the 17th Century. There are underground vaults and hidden passages that the everyday tourist mightn’t be aware of. These days you can take a tour to go beneath and see the narrow streets with tenement houses on either side, stretching up to eight stories high, all quietly preserved under the city. It is spooky.
Hidden things, be they creepy-crawlies that make us squirm, or ghostly buildings in the darkness, teach us a good lesson. At this time of the year, when the days shorten and darkness tightens around us, we might think about little acts of hibernation, about going within, and slowing down. As the days contract, so maybe do we: more time indoors, reading, cooking, sleeping. And maybe when we are out and about we’ll notice more by slowing down.
Ten years before he died, Thomas Hardy’s published a poem entitled ‘Afterwards’. He wrote it in the form of an elegy to himself. Apparently it was read at his memorial service. Besides being the ultimate act in forward planning, it is a poem that makes me think about the slower pace of winter, quietude, paying attention and noticing the little things.
‘Afterwards’, by Thomas Hardy
“If I pass during some nocturnal blackness, mothy and warm,
When the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn
One may say, “He strove that such innocent creatures should come to no harm,
But he could do little for them; and now he is gone.”
If, when hearing that I have been stilled at last, they stand at the door,
Watching the full-starred heavens that winter sees,
Will this thought rise on those who will meet my face no more,
“He was one who had an eye for such mysteries”?”