Lessons from a porcupine
Nights were frosting already when the porcupine came down the hill and started nosing around our yard. This year, I started explaining to the porcupine how my mood generally follows the trend of the season. I told him I’d like him to understand a little about the condition of the world and how that relates to the earth’s cyclical tendencies.
Since the porcupine stayed a while, I assigned him a gender and began to love him. Alone in the day, husband at work and the children at their activities, I sought the porcupine’s opinion, not just about the weather and what he thought about the flux in the Supreme Court, but also about important things, like the meaning of shelter and protection and nurturing.
Because I wanted the porcupine to reciprocate my affection, I started to compliment him. I remarked on his skill at camouflage in the sagebrush. Another day, I said I respected his audacity when he lumbered across the open yard in the middle of the day. I mentioned that he retained a look of dignity, even while freeloading under our shed. He did not seem anxious about the coming of winter, I told my friends, describing the porcupine’s puttering ways and his refusal to rush.
Then, the porcupine ate my spinach. The day I removed the protective covering from a young patch, he chomped it down to the roots. He was indifferent, sitting at the edge of the plot, pulling up each dark leaf and consuming it in a demonstration of eating as just another chore.
We had a talk. I explained how I had planted the spinach mid-August in hopes of a spring harvest. Did he understand nothing about conservation and restraint? The porcupine sat through my lecture, or maybe he stood through it; I realized I couldn’t tell the difference. The land was barren around us, the grass dry, the earth going hard with cold. The porcupine did not shy from eye contact, pitying me, burdened as I was with reasoning, logic and emotion, while he ate the last bits of green.
It was my fault. I had practically invited him to devour my crops, speaking to him in those soothing tones for weeks, nurturing his dependency as surely as I nursed my own, letting the season slip away.
"It’s bad behavior to eat people’s food," I told the porcupine. "No way to show your gratitude." I scolded him while I squatted a few feet away. A snowstorm was building over the mountains, grey clouds stacking up like so much regret, heaving their shadowy shoulders. "We’re not going to let you stay here forever," I said.
The next day, my neighbor drove down to see if he could find some wire in our barn. "You want me to shoot that porcupine for you?" he asked. He pointed to where the animal was scratching around a pile of rocks near the swing set. "He’s gonna cause you a heap a trouble, you know. Get under your car and eat your brake lines, chew the paint off your shed."
Little wisps of snow starting to lick around our ankles. I looked to where my spring spinach had been. The porcupine looked at us, his nose pointed and sniffing the air, his eyes dots of black indifference.
"I kinda like that porcupine," I admitted. It was the cultural equivalent to declaring a love for cockroaches or rats. "He’s cute," I pointed out. "And he poses for photographs, turns his head so you can get his better side."
My neighbor nodded, and thanked me for the wire.
A week later, we herded the porcupine into a box. My husband pushed at him gently with a snow shovel, and I held the box on the ground until the porcupine walked in. The kids cried as we drove up the county road a mile to place where we like to cut wood. "What if we never see him again?" They wailed from the back seat in the way of children who have learned to anthropomorphize small animals with the help of their needy mothers.
When I opened the box, the porcupine didn’t even look at me. He was content with his nose in the corner like a humiliated child. We finally had to lift an edge of the box and dump him out.
I waited for him to do something unusual. Particularly, I would have liked for him to stand on his hind feet and wave good-bye. I wanted that porcupine to mean something. But autumn was over, and he had to find food, and maybe a home. He wasn’t concerned about me. He walked away, uphill through the inch or so of snow and disappeared under a tangle of aspen logs.