Saturday, December 6, 2008

Third Guy's Pants

Porcupine, Erethizon dorsatum.

Image from a deck of Audubon Mammals Knowledge Cards (as was Shirley’s moose). Audubon’s porky seems a little threadbare. Perhaps drawn from road kill, for likely E. dorsatum was among the first North American mammals to experience that fate, even prior to the internal combustion engine. A horse-drawn anything moves faster than a porcupine.


I’m rather fond of porcupines. They are included on the plate (Plate 19) entitled, “SOME ODD MAMMALS” in the Peterson Field Guide to the Mammals of America North of Mexico, and that in itself is enough to validate my fondness for them. Other “ODD MAMMALS” members include Aplodontia (Mountain Beaver), Armadillo, Opossum, and National Symbol (regular Beaver), all of which are great.

Porcupines conjure many childhood memories. My first knowledge of them was as dead things beside the highway, for alas, they are not good with cars. I would yell at my mom to “Pull over!” so I could get a close look at a carcass. And surprisingly, unless we were in a hurry to get somewhere, she would. I recall a particular porcupine on the way into town that we stopped for almost every day, as it gradually disintegrated into the gravel. At last there was nothing left but a few quills, which we collected in an envelope.

They would chew on the steps of the cottage we were renting. Because it wasn’t our cottage, we let them. My father would wake me and shine a flashlight on them. They were definitely more fun alive in the dark than dead in the daylight. With the flashlight beam he would pursue them back into the forest.

A few years later, I was sharing a tent at a summer camp with my friend John and a third guy whose name I don’t recall, but I remember he was a slob whose house-keeping failings cost us dearly in the daily tent inspection rankings. This was one of those large, canvas tents stretched over a wooden frame, and with a plywood floor raised above the ground on blocks. One night, when for some reason third guy was away, John and I were startled awake by a grinding noise that seemed to fill the tent. Something was eating the floor from below!

We both knew, for we were both Nature Boys. Porcupine! We grabbed flashlights and a paddle to prod the porky with, more to get him out in the open for a good look than anything else, and then John had the brilliant idea of wrapping the paddle in something that would collect quills. We cast our flashlight beams around the tent. Third guy’s messy bunk. Third guy’s pants!

We poked porky and out he shuffled, and in the moonlight we chased him along the tent line, excitedly (but gently, I hope), patting him with the pants-swaddled paddle. He was not fast, but was focused; he knew where he had to get, and made a beeline. We chased him to the forest edge, where he climbed a tree. Out of paddle range, he chattered his teeth at us and made sad, cat-like, almost-human baby noises that made us feel kind of rotten.

The next day we spent our spare time taking turns plucking quills from the pants. The quills were dangerous, and the pants suspect. The long, pale quills were easier to remove than the short, dark ones, which were nasty and seemed equally sharp and skin-penetrating at either end. I remember the sweet, pungent smell (yes, I’m certain it was the quills), and the oiliness of some that made them harder to pull. I remember the pain of being punctured.

There were probably hundreds of quills, and we didn’t get them all. Third guy never saw his pants again.

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Postscript: What's so great about porcupines? See and hear here. A video to warm your heart.


1 comment:

Aunt Debbi/kurts mom said...

Revenge by porcupine quills. Only boys at camp could have come up with that one.