Autumn brings out the mammal in us all.
By Sunny Bleckinger
Martin Melchers lives somewhere on the far east of town. Gerard de Vries lives next door to me. Melchers, city ecologist, writer of seven books on Amsterdam’s animals, is relatively very well-known. De Vries, retired civil servant, not so much.
Over the phone, Melchers tells me about the city hedgehogs, which are now busily preparing for a potentially cold winter. ‘In the autumn, they get as round and thick as possible,’ he says. ‘There’s an abundance of fruit and nuts falling from the trees, which they like, but they also catch worms, snails, mice. They eat everything.’
Later that afternoon, De Vries invites me over for tea and random conversation, a fairly regular occurrence between us. When I arrive, he’s unpacking three large shopping bags, mostly from Albert Heijn. ‘It’s hamsterweek,’ he says, pulling out three jars of mayonnaise, four cans of pineapple and two kilos of brussel sprouts. It’s not the first time I’ve considered De Vries to be the human version of a hedgehog, but this morning’s talk with Melchers brings the idea to the foreground.
De Vries and hedgehog. Both are round, slow moving and full of charm. Both give the initial impression that they require help of some kind–extra food or proper shelter perhaps. But after a closer look, it’s clear that they are content and very capable of caring for themselves.
It seems every time I visit De Vries, he’s foraging in the kitchen, looking somewhat lost, perhaps forgetting what he was searching for, until his short fingers grasp the item in question. ‘Ah! Bitterkoekjes,’ he exclaims, pouring them into a bowl on the table. As he happily crunches away, pushing the bowl towards me, I wonder about other similarities.
Melchers said that people near Amsterdamse Bos often give cat food to the hedgehogs, because they’re worried that they’re not getting enough to eat before the cold sets in. ‘That’s fine,’ he says, They like it. Just don’t give them milk. They get horribly sick from that.’
De Vries has a long list of equally elderly women around town who drop by, usually bringing him an abundance of baked goods, half of which he later passes on to me. ‘It looks lovely,’ he confides in me, ‘but the doctor says I shouldn’t have so much sugar.’
Melchers also told me that, after reaching proper plumpness, the hedgehogs get ready for hibernation. They already have their spots picked out They gather leaves in their mouth and carry them over to make little nests. Then, when the time is right, they crawl in, and completely cover themselves with leaves. They’ll sleep there usually until the first days in March.’
Like a lot of people, as the days grow colder, De Vries develops less interest in leaving the house. His beard thickens, and his layers of clothing multiply. Though, in the two years I’ve known him, he seems to have maintained the same plumpness, regardless of the season.
He proudly holds up a baby jacket with the gloves sewed on. His grandson–a favourite topic of late–has come down with a cold, and De Vries is convinced that it’s because he always throws off his mittens. ‘So I bought him this for Sinterklaas,’ he beams.
‘Every year,’ Melchers said, ‘we find young hedgehogs that look miserable because they haven’t yet learned how to get through the winter. Fortunately, the really pathetic ones are taken to a hedgehog shelter, until they’re strong enough to go out on their own.’
I never considered it before, but all his family members–those I’ve met–apparently share the hedgehog trait: round, sweet, short fingers and bad eyes.
Unsure of how De Vries would take the analogy, I ask him what he thinks about the city’s hedgehogs. ‘They are very likeable,’ he says, ‘but not very graceful. They come out at night, bump into things, knock over potted plants, always scratching the ground for worms. More tea?’ he asks, while spilling it on the table in an attempt to refill my cup. ‘Yes, very likeable.’