A porcupine was looking down at me. Six feet overhead, he or she (I couldn’t tell) was sitting on a limb spreading from a young tree — a quiet creature with thick, soft, dark fur and dark eyes. They had a rounded face, upright and alert. Long silver guard hairs stood up from their forehead and down their back, and their back legs were frosted.
They brought me up standing. I somehow hadn’t known porcupines can climb trees — after some 40 years sharing the woods with them. It turns out they climb very well, and they can explore much higher into the canopy than this one. And I had almost walked right by.
I was coming up the cave trail along the river at Field Farm. The afternoon was moving between sun and cloud, and the snow from last Friday’s storm lay four or five powdered inches deep, and it was quiet here along the stream and the limestone overhang. I’d left most of the tracks of cross country skis and snowshoes behind when I came into the woods.
After a moment, the porcupine seemed to decide they didn’t feel like being looked at. They moved back to the trunk and around behind it, and they backed straight down, holding on with feet and hands — and when they reached the ground, they came down onto their back legs, standing upright against the trunk.
Then they turned and walked quietly away through the snow, up the path, toward the river. They didn’t tense up, and they never made a sound, so maybe they were a she. I’ve read that porcupine quills are fixed, so they’ll only pierce something that touches the porcupine (or tries to take a bite out of one.) They sound like remarkable constructions.
This porcupine seemed calm about our meeting, purposeful, agile and sleek. I watched her walk out of site toward the river bank, and I realized only then that the tree below the branch where she had been sitting was mottled pale where the bark was stripped away. She had probably been looking for food at the tale end of winter.
How does she keep warm in these cold nights? And how did she get her name? I know what porc means in French, but was there really a European forebear of mine benighted enough to look at a supple creature like her and think she looked kin to a pig?
(Unfortunately, yes, spined pig is exactly what porcupine means, and I’m looking now for more names. With all the artists who have worked with quills over the centuries, surely she must have more accurate ones. I’m finding from some sources that the Navajo, the Diné, call her dahsání, the old one high up, as in a tree, and the Kanien’kehá:ka, Haudenosaunee or Mohawk, call her anêntaks, bark eater. The Ojibwe would call her agaag, qâk … and I don’t yet know what their name means.)
I kept thinking about her as I looped back through the woods, across the river and along the edge of the hayfields. I had the path to myself now. A line of trees stood out slender and dark, and the ridge beyond them had softened into slate blue in a haze of incoming snow.
I met the eyes of the bronze women in the guest house garden, as they sat with their knees drawn up, and I thought I’d had a generous share of magic for the day.