It was 3am. The highway heading north through the desert was jammed with traffic: The headlights of armoured troop carriers, Humvees, fuel and supply tracks. The entire US invasion force was entering southern Iraq from Kuwait.
A single missile exploded in the starlit sky above us as it was hit by a defensive missile. A minor shock, but one which reminded us forcefully of our defencelessness as unarmed journalists trying to film the Iraq War as independent, unembedded correspondents.
Earlier that day we had found a set of tank tracks leading from the desert through a gap cut in the heavily fortified boundary fence. We dared not take it, as it might have been mined.
There was no way into Iraq other than driving the same road as the invading army, risking attack from the remnants of Iraqi forces and Fedayeen guerrillas who were still active.
We spent the last hours of that night at a small desert farmhouse just inside Kuwait. At first light, we were to wake and try to cross into Iraq and into the raging war zone yet again.
I didn’t say anything to my fellow journalists, but I felt a nagging sense of dread at what lay ahead. As the others bedded down on sleeping bags on the floor, I walked out into the patch of desert brush that lay around the edges of the tiny house.
I was alone with myself, and my unexpressed fears. I could never openly admit to them, but I could not stop them flowing through my mind. I would follow that road in the dawn light. I had committed to this course of action, but I couldn’t suppress the anxious feelings of vulnerability inside.
My fears were meaningful and even healthy – a self-protective mechanism against the real dangers that lay only a few hours ahead of me. They left me mentally weakened, though, and secretly unsure of myself, not the right state of mind to be entering a combat zone in, and I couldn’t easily accept myself for feeling this way.
I came to a low, scrubby bush in the pale, moonlit sands. Beneath it was a small hole in which something was moving. I took off my headlamp and shone the beam down into it.
A tiny, pink-nosed hedgehog peered half-blindedly into its bright glare.
I shifted the beam so that it shone indirectly at the side of the creature. It gazed up at me with its dark, round eye from inside the comfort of its sandy lair.
The bright, perplexed eye of my hedgehog reminded me of something profound… was a reminder of a consciousness greater than that of our human shortcomings.
I had never seen a hedgehog before, and, somehow, through the inner haze of my real uneasiness, I felt a sense of joy course through me at this unexpected, life-affirming happenstance. It was both an unnatural and a natural reaction. This tiny creature offered me an opening back into my own psyche.
In its tiny and I’d like to think, curious, but certainly somewhat equally fearful eye staring up at me in turn I found a hold on normality, a reminder of the world that was not war.
It offered me a glimpse of life beyond the mind-swarming distress I was struggling with. It took me back subconsciously to that psychologically necessary inner childhood world of fairy tales and anthropomorphic animal characters. I didn’t think of that clearly then. I simply marvelled for a few brief moments in the beauty of this desert encounter.
The hedgehog burrowed down into its burrow, leaving me alone under the desert stars, somehow reinvigorated with a welcome calmness.
In its brief appearance, that hedgehog took me back to an older time in my soul. A time of safety, dreaming and promise that I found from time to time in stories, amid the sadnesses of my parents’ divorce in my early childhood.
Some of those childhood certainties are indeed illusions. We cannot, and must not, stay children forever, but the bright, perplexed eye of my hedgehog reminded me of something profound, more important than half-remembered daydreams. It was a reminder of a consciousness greater than that of our human shortcomings.
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I make no special claims of deeper, mysterious connections, but those brief moments shared with a hedgehog in a cool desert night on the very edge of war are a reminder that we humans and our doings – often far too brutal – are not the world entire unto ourselves, without need of or regard to the fragile net of wonder that surrounds us.
There is a magic inherent in the creatures we share our planet with – a powerful enchantment that animals remind us to look for, and to find, if we are willing, within ourselves. DM