Of Porcupines and Men


I know a few things.

For example, I know that with my instance of Parkinson’s disease, my balance is often times off kilter, and I tend to be even clumsier than I’ve always been, prone to trips and falls too frequent to enumerate.

I also know that dogs and porcupines can be a bad match, and that a snout full of porcupine quills can actually be fatal, that innocent curiosity can kill the canine.

Sure, I know plenty of other things, too. But it was these two little tidbits that rose to the forefront of my consciousness this afternoon.

Let me explain:

My sister and I both own pieces of property in Northwestern Wisconsin, our two cabins about one hundred yards apart on the same dirt road.  Across the road is a large farm field. Last weekend, my sister called me up and told me that while walking down the road she observed a dead porcupine in the tree line between the road and the field, right across from my cabin. I was concerned, because I and my wife and our two dogs were planning on spending a long weekend starting today, at the cabin, and as I’ve already mentioned, I know what a bad combination dogs and porcupines, alive or dead, can be.

So the first thing I did upon our arrival today was to make sure my dogs were safely secured inside the cabin while I, with shovel in hand, walked across the road in search of a dead porcupine. My intent was to find said porcupine and bury it before my dogs found it and answered a question whose answer is one of the many things I don’t know but would just as soon not find out: are a porcupine’s quills as dangerous when the porcupine is dead as when alive?

It didn’t take long for me to find the deceased porcupine, right where he’d breathed his last, in a small thicket of underbrush next to the trunk of a small tree. He was, I guess, an impressive figure, at least as far as I supposed when compared to other porcupines, about two or three feet long and thick. Actually, he was pretty much a non-descript combination of fat and quills. I decided to dig the hole for its final resting place out in the open, on the edge of the farm field, about fifteen feet from where its lifeless hulk lied.

I went to work, kicking the spade into the muddy and rocky and root-ridden clay until I had a hole deep and wide enough to cover the substantial girth of the deceased. Satisfied with my work to that point, I had one more thing to figure out: how do I move the body the fifteen feet from under the tree to in the hole I’d just dug? It occurred to me that I wanted to avoid any contact with the ex-beast, one, because I didn’t want to get a snout-full of quills any more than I wanted my dogs to, and two, it’d been dead for at least a week, and was probably riddled with disease-carrying maggots and or other deadly micro-bacterial monsters.

Then I remembered that in my garage I had a half-sheet of plywood, four foot by four foot that would be the perfect size.  I’d shovel Porky’s corpse onto the plywood and then carry it to its grave, where I’d drop him in, say a few respectful and profound porcupine-ish words over him, and then cover him with the blanket of earth that he’d soon dissolve into and become one with.

It was a good plan.  Off to my garage I strode. There was the sheet of plywood, only it wasn’t the four by four foot piece I remembered, rather, it was an odd size, about three by six foot. No big deal, I thought, and returned with the plywood to the lifeless mass of Porky.  I set the plywood down right next to him. I then put the spade on the other side of Porky and half rolled and half lifted him onto the plywood, where he sat, close to the edge but secure on the plywood so long as I held it level.

There’s the rub.  It turned out that holding the awkward dimensions of the plywood with the additional ten pounds or so of inert mass balanced on it level would be more difficult than I had planned, especially when I remembered what I knew, that my sense of balance these days isn’t all that great.

This knowledge was heightened when, while walking away from the tree and the thicket towards the hole I’d dug, I felt my left foot get caught on a root in the ground beneath me, and I felt myself lurch forward. I saw very clearly the mass of quills and decomposing porcupine flesh directly in front of me, and I felt my face surge forward, and I realized, even if I dropped the board, that if I fell forward, my face would end up in Porky’s quill-filled brisket. My life flashed before my eyes, as I’ve known with some certainty for some time now that whenever it is I die, whenever my number is up, it will undoubtedly be in the form of some bizarre and embarrassing death.  It occurred to me right there that getting killed by a dead porcupine would qualify on both counts.

Fortunately, I was able to right myself and remain vertical long enough to get Porky to his final resting place. I tried to think of something to say, something that a porcupine would appreciate, but it struck me that all of the porcupines I’d ever seen over the years (and there’s been a few) never did anything; about all I’d ever seen them do was sleep. It occurred to me that one thing I didn’t know was how to measure porcupine meaning, how to judge a good one from a bad one. I had no idea how to eulogize a porcupine. I placed my hand over my heart and muttered something about dust to dust, quills to quills.

Then I filled in the hole and went back to my cabin and released my hounds. They ran and played happily, oblivious to the danger I’d shielded them from, and to the ultimate sacrifice I’d almost paid to keep them safe.

Hero, you say? Well, if the shoe fits, so long as I keep the laces tied …

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