“If you go slowly enough, six or seven months is an eternity—if you let it be—if you forget old things, and learn new ones. Even a week can last forever.”
Rick Bass, Winter

"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
Albert Camus

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Part II: Day 51: Porcupine Love

A few weeks ago Zoe found a porcupine hanging from our backyard maple tree and was not all that happy to see him.  She yelled at him for the better part of an hour until he climbed back down in his sleepy, plodding way and hopped into the back and beyond.

I had never seen a porcupine up close before.  Once, I pulled a baby porkie's spines from Zoe when she was still a puppy, so my one intimate contact with this critter wasn't a positive one--although in retrospect, Zoe and I got off easy from that close encounter when you consider that most dogs who square off with porcupines have to be put under in a vet's office so that the quills can be surgically removed.

For today's post I've invited Erin Siracusa, the St. Lawrence University class of 2012 valedictorian, a fine writer and naturalist, to submit a little excerpt from her senior honors project about porcupines.              

The Porcupine

by Erin Siracusa

Tuesday mornings are “porkie wrangling” mornings, at least that’s North Country vernacular for the so-called catch and release tactics of biologists who harass porcupines. A short drive brings you to the edge of the Kip Tract, a parcel of forested wetland in the St. Lawrence River Valley. There are fourteen Havahart® traps along a prescribed path which winds through the undergrowth, all of which have been baited with half an apple the night before. The narrow footpath is easy to lose in the dark, often altogether disappearing for a few meters before reappearing on the other side of a swampy bog. But in the early light of sunrise there is a certain anticipation as you move through the woods, adjusting the weight of your pack across your shoulders and smearing bug dope, the mosquitoes already singing musically in your ear.
            It usually takes two people to handle a porcupine. One will squish it in the corner of the trap with a large metal object that looks like a multi-pronged fork and the other will, with utmost care, inject the porcupine with a mixture of ketamine and medetomadine. After a few minutes the porcupine will cease to exhibit the physiological responses associated with an animal under threat. Its quills will no longer erect and its tail will cease the sharp slapping motion. Effectually, the porcupine will be immobilized. In that space of time we will have created a moment in which we can pull smelting gloves up to our elbows and pick up this porcupine, this wild animals that we have stunned with our chemicals. We can run our bare fingers through its short dense underfur, we can measure it and weigh it, we can take a clipping of its ear and insert a PIT tag under its skin with a 12-gauge veterinary needle. We can poke and prod its genitals and put ointment in its still-open eyes so they don’t dry out. We can clip electrodes to its lips and stick needles under its skin and run an electric current through its body in order to determine its mass body index.
            We do all this because we care about these animals, because we want to know how much fat they’ve stored and if they will make it through the long North Country winter, because we have a human preoccupation with obtaining knowledge and understanding the way the world works. We do it because these animals are poorly studied and even more poorly understood, because myths create misunderstandings and misunderstandings alter the shape of our interactions with the world. Because porcupines are killed as a nuisance species and a pest and most of the time hunters have no idea what they are killing. They kill porcupines because they are in the way, because they are slow and easy targets, because porcupines eat their maple trees and damage their sugar shacks or because they protect themselves from an overcurious dog.  In doing this we break a barrier, we cross a line. Quills say get this close and no closer and we disregard that warning. I cross a line of objectivity when I hold a baby porcupine to my chest and watch it wake with the lethargic movements of a drug-induced sleep. We create a space in which the laws of nature are altered. We chase these porcupines around the woods with their drunken, stumbling movements, their motor function still impaired from the remnants of drugs in their system, plucking them off trees like misbehaving toddlers, afraid that they will get hurt if they try to climb too soon.
Erin and her porcupine muse
            The thing is, when you come down to it, porcupines are cute, with their softly furred faces and dexterous hands. I find my self rather enraptured at the way they lumber ungracefully about the woods after being drugged, occasionally tipping unceremoniously onto their side, as if the weight of the left-half of their body were just too much. And the soft way their pink tongue might poke out at the side, licking the outer edges of their lips in a roundabout, lizard-like way. Sometimes I talk to them, coo to them like a mother might to a child taking their first steps. They become surprisingly human-like in the way they sit on their haunches with their forepaws in the air, gracefully handling flowers and catkins between tapered claws. We name them: Jack, Eva, Carlos, Lyra, Stekel, Sage, Godzilla, Beba, Mira, Aspen, Zena, Roze, Tater Tot. I even smell them sometimes, when I’m far from the woods, their dark, musky smell. It comes to me in the way that odd snips of memory do, a flash, an essence of something that isn’t there, but you desperately wish was. And I am reminded of the way that porcupine quills burrow under the skin, their tiny barbs gripping with every muscle contraction, lucidly clutching onto tiny fibers, unparalleled in their ability to sink in, to disappear slowly until one day you hardly realize how deeply they’ve found their way into your life.

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