April 2014

My spiky visitor

We all have some echidna-like characteristics. When we sense that our vulnerability is in danger, something akin to fear rushes to the surface and we respond by raising a spike or two, writes Judith Scully.

BY Judith Scully

Occasionally an echidna makes its way across the top level of our back garden. By suburban standards it’s not exactly a garden, more a weedy stretch of rocky land bordered by a thin wire fence.

Slowly this lumbering, waddling ball of spikes explores ant hill possibilities and pokes its beak-like snout and long tongue into interesting little dirt hillocks hoping for a tasty worm or two. It mightn’t look it, but this echidna is a royal creature. It shares its ancient lineage with the platypus, both of them the world’s only egg-laying mammals.

While I stay out of sight, he or she seems oblivious to my quiet fascination and camera. But if I was to approach, however quietly, it would be a different matter. Sensing danger, the echidna would curl itself into a tight ball to protect its vulnerable belly, leaving just those pointy tipped spikes exposed in a show of defence bravado. It’s like the “What-me?-I’m-not-really-here-look” my one-year grandson gave me the time I caught him on the verge of de-booking the bookcase! We pretend for all kinds of reasons, all of them protective of our comfort and safety.

He, or maybe it’s she, is not in a hurry to get anywhere in particular. Home is somewhere hidden – maybe a hollow log lying undisturbed for years on a neighbouring property, or possibly under a shady shrub down by the creek. It’s a space for one and neighbours are not welcome, because echidnas are loners.

But here’s the paradox: echidnas don’t recognise boundaries. My echidna appeared through a gap in the undergrowth from the house on the left and eventually made its way through to the unfenced land on the right and… who knows where after that. They are free spirits, space lovers and all of it theirs, somewhat like toddlers or teenagers – human beings you love dearly but who have no use for time as the rest of society observes it. They leave their belongings in a house-wide trail and live for the next exciting moment. Without even trying, they raise the spikes of boundary-respecting parents and others.

We all have some echidna-like characteristics. When we sense that our vulnerability is in danger, something akin to fear rushes to the surface and we respond by raising a spike or two. Our self-image is in danger and we rush to protect its fragility. Someone has the audacity to question a cherished belief and we rush wordily to its defence.

Over a lifetime we collect quite an armoury of sharp responses to be used when we feel under attack. Whether they are expressed in echidna-silent body language, or the spitting, snarling response of possums protecting their territory, the message is loud and clear. We either attack or curl up into a hurt ball and blame somebody, anybody.

We work hard to hide our weak spots from others and maybe even from God. We see them as tender, very personal and somehow shameful. But still we come to their defence. It takes maturity to recognise that tucked up in the hurt there might be an invitation from God to drop the defences and accept the vulnerability. After all, that’s what we profess when we make the sign of the cross.

A Stanley Spencer painting depicts Jesus sitting in a wilderness setting, gazing peacefully at a scorpion exploring his cupped hand. It tells me that despite my fear of life’s stings, I am held in love. In the same way, my outer suburban echidna makes me smile and feel somehow protective of it, spikes and all. Maybe that’s the way God sees each of us, kind of cuddly in spite of our unseemly rush to defend our vulnerabilities.

Judith Scully

Judith Scully is a retired pastoral associate. She lives among the gumtrees in Warrandyte Victoria, where she posts on her website WORDS from the Edge judithscully.com.au. Her first book, "A Gentle Unfolding", will be published in August 2018.

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