King of the porcupines
I read Ernest Thompson Seton’s book "King of the Grizzlies" many times when I was a kid. In it, a hard luck bear endures many trials and becomes an invincible, solitary giant of the Rockies. In the book’s final section, a young female bear develops the trick of climbing the trees that the now-aged behemoth marked, placing her own markings even higher. Fearing this new rival, the King of the Grizzlies limps away to a lonely outpost, deposed.
Those of you who read this column regularly will know why I have been remembering this story lately; for the past two years this column has shared the events in the life of Fretful the porcupine. From what I have observed of the waning stage of his life, I know he must once have been a porcupine to be reckoned with. This spring, however, I wrote of his ignominious ouster by his young rival, Big East. After recuperating from his battle injuries, Fretful returned to the woods on April 6. He had stopped eating the acorns and apples I offered, and it would be a month before the earth would provide the greens his worn teeth could manage. I suspected I would not see him again.
On June 19, my neighbor Lisa called. Fretful was in their yard. I arrived at Alan and Lisa’s in time to see the hind end of a porcupine disappearing into the woods. "Fretful?" At the edge of the woods I could see the porcupine had stopped and turned around. Fretful.
I have never before seen a wild animal in such ramshackle condition. Like all porcupines in early June, he had lost his fur and was left with only quills. This accentuated his general scrawniness and the patchy distribution of said quills. His muzzle was lean and hoary. When he leaned to one side to scratch with his hind foot, I could see the saggy old-man skin of his belly. Still, his expression was alert and friendly. After listening and sniffing the air a bit, he gave his customary humming greeting, strolled over, accepted an apple and settled down to eat. After eating the better part of two apples, he climbed a big hemlock for a nap.
That evening, some dear friends who had visited with Fretful during the winter came over to see Dandelion the Dreadful, the orphan baby porcupine. Shortly before they arrived, Lisa called to let me know that Fretful had returned. It would be a two-porcupine night! David, Melanie, Isabelle, Margaretta, and I headed down to visit Fretful. I decided to bring Dandelion along in her crate to see if the two would be interested in each other. I had seen Fretful exchange friendly greetings with a young porcupine before, so I did not expect any aggression.
The evening light was low and golden. We found Fretful resting in the branches of a small apple tree. The sunlight lent a glory to the old beast. His nostrils flared as he sampled the aroma of strange porcupine. When he climbed down to join us, he made the rounds, offering a greeting to each person. Dandelion, however, received no acknowledgement.
Eventually I let Dandelion out of her crate. Fretful ate an apple. Dandelion nibbled some grass and shoes, and then wandered over to climb in my lap. The porcupines, old and young, ignored each other studiously. After 10 minutes had elapsed, Dandelion decided to recognize that there was a large, unfamiliar rodent in our company. She puffed herself up, swished her rear in Fretful’s direction, and began to squawk. Fretful, sitting two feet away, paid her no heed. Dandelion resumed her local explorations. At last the two decided to greet each other with a nose sniffing. Porcupines communicate volumes with olfactory cues. I am sure Dandelion’s scent shouted "young female porcupine," a message Fretful would have found intriguing once. Since his tumble down the porcupine hierarchy, it might be that he was more attuned to the nuanced notes of "vigorous," and "dreadful." Alarmed, he turned and hustled away.
The next night Fretful was again grazing at the edge of Alan and Lisa’s lawn, and was happy to have an apple. Lisa was the first to hear another animal foraging nearby. Though the other browser remained in the dense vegetation, it came close enough that we could see it -- a second porcupine in robust health. Fretful continued his apple eating, but did I notice him shaking? Was it because of the cool of the night and his scantily clad condition? When he finished the apples, he returned to the milkweed patch and began eating in a frantic manner, trembling and hurling curses at his perceived rival before hurrying back to the woods.
The situation cannot have been too dire, for Fretful returned to the same yard for two more nights. On the third night he moved back to the milkweed patch below my house. He stayed in the area for at least a couple of nights, based upon tracks in the milkweed and a report from the neighbors, but then wandered on again.
Now that summer forage is available, I expect I will see Fretful again, though like the fallen King of the Grizzlies he will no longer have the luxury of relaxing as sovereign of a choice territory. Here’s what I hope the final chapter of King of the Porcupines includes: The aged porcupine returns to his familiar milkweed patch, and after relaxing with old human friends, detects the scent of a dreadful porcupette, but this time the dominant message is welcoming. In this tale, the young female is not the trickster, but offers some morale-boosting camaraderie. Heaven knows she needs some guidance from an elder. This week I had to call my emergency team with the 30-foot ladder for an evening treetop rescue. I doubt this ever happens when a proper porcupine role model is available.
That’s the ending I’d like to write, but of course the porcupines will decide. You’ll read it here.
Patti Smith is a naturalist at the Bonnyvale Environmental Education Center. The View From Heifer Hill, a feature on the nature of our region, appears in this space the first Saturday of each month. Patti welcomes your feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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