| School of the Woods|
|by William J. Long|
|Through vivid depictions of a dozen family groupings, the author demonstrates that mother animals and birds often train their young in order to supplement their natural instincts. The deer and her fawns, the black bear and her cubs, the fishhawk and her nestlings, the keen-eyed heron, the stupid porcupine, and the mighty moose are some of the animals whose teachings are described in this book. Ages 10-14 |
UNK WUNK THE PORCUPINE
RUSTLING in the brakes just outside my little tent roused
me from a light slumber. There it was again! the push of
some heavy animal trying to move noiselessly through the
tangle close at hand; while from the old lumber camp in the
midst of the clearing a low gnawing sound floated up through
the still night. I sat up quickly to listen; but at the
slight movement all was quiet again. The night prowlers had
heard me and were on their guard.
One need have no fear of things that come round in the
night. They are much shyer than you are, and can see you
 that, if you blunder towards them, they mistake
your blindness for courage, and take to their heels
promptly. As I stepped out there was a double rush in some
bushes behind my tent, and by the light of a half-moon I
caught one glimpse of a bear and her cub jumping away for
the shelter of the woods.
The gnawing still went on behind the old shanty by the
river. "Another cub!" I thought—for I was new to the big
woods—and stole down to peek by the corner of the camp, in
whose yard I had pitched my tent, the first night out in the
There was an old molasses hogshead lying just beyond, its
mouth looking black as ink in the moonlight, and the
scratching-gnawing sounds went on steadily within its
shadow. "He's inside," I thought with elation, "scraping
off the crusted sugar. Now to catch him!"
I stole round the camp, so as to bring the closed end of the
hogshead between me and the prize, crept up breathlessly,
and with a quick jerk hove the old tub up on end,
the creature inside. There was a thump, a startled
scratching and rustling, a violent rocking of the hogshead,
which I tried to hold down; then all was silent in the trap.
"I've got him!" I thought, forgetting all about the old
she-bear, and shouted for Simmo to bring the ax.
We drove a ring of stakes close about the hogshead, weighted
it down with heavy logs, and turned in to sleep. In the
morning, with cooler judgment, we decided that a bear cub
was too troublesome a pet to keep in a tent; so I stood by
with a rifle while Simmo hove off the logs and cut the
stakes, keeping a wary eye on me, meanwhile, to see how far
he might trust his life to my nerve. A stake fell; the
hogshead toppled over by a push from within; Simmo sprang
away with a yell; and out wobbled a big porcupine, the
biggest I ever saw, and tumbled away straight towards my
tent. After him went the Indian, making sweeping cuts at
the stupid thing with his ax, and grunting his derision at
my bear cub.
 Half way to the tent Unk Wunk stumbled across a bit of pork
rind, and stopped to nose it daintily. I caught Simmo's arm
and stayed the blow that would have made an end of my catch.
Then, between us, Unk Wunk sat up on his haunches, took the
pork in his fore paws, and sucked the salt out of it, as if
he had never a concern and never an enemy in the wide world.
A half hour later he loafed into my tent, where I sat
repairing a favorite salmon fly that some hungry sea-trout
had torn to tatters, and drove me unceremoniously out of my
own bailiwick in his search for more salt.
Such a philosopher, whom no prison can dispossess of his
peace of mind, and whom no danger can deprive of his simple
pleasures, deserves more consideration than the naturalists
have ever given him. I resolved on the spot to study him
more carefully. As if to discourage all such attempts and
make himself a target for my rifle, he nearly spoiled my
canoe the next night by gnawing a hole through the bark and
ribs for some
 suggestion of salt that only his greedy nose
could possibly have found.
Once I found him on the trail, some distance from camp, and,
having nothing better to do, I attempted to drive him home.
My intention was to share hospitality; to give him a bit of
bacon, and then study him as I ate my own dinner. He turned
at the first suggestion of being driven, came straight at my
legs, and by a vicious slap of his tail left some of his
quills in me before I could escape. Then I drove him in the
opposite direction, whereupon he turned and bolted past me;
and when I arrived at camp he was busily engaged in gnawing
the end from Simmo's ax handle.
However you take him, Unk Wunk is one of the mysteries. He
is a perpetual question scrawled across the forest floor,
which nobody pretends to answer; a problem that grows only
more puzzling as you study to solve it.
Of all the wild creatures he is the only one that has no
fear of man, and that never learns,
 either by instinct or
experience, to avoid man's presence. He is everywhere in
the wilderness, until he changes what he would call his
mind; and then he is nowhere, and you cannot find him. He
delights in solitude, and cares not for his own kind; yet
now and then you will stumble upon a whole convention of
porcupines at the base of some rocky hill, each one loafing
around, rattling his quills, grunting his name Unk Wunk!
Unk Wunk! and doing nothing else all day long.
You meet him to-day, and he is as timid as a rabbit;
to-morrow he comes boldly into your tent and drives you out,
if you happen to be caught without a club handy. He never
has anything definite to do, nor any place to go to; yet
stop him at any moment and he will risk his life to go just
a foot farther. Now try to drive or lead him another foot
in the same direction, and he will bolt back, as full of
contrariness as two pigs on a road, and let himself be
killed rather than go where he was heading a
 moment before.
He is perfectly harmless to every creature; yet he lies
still and kills the savage fisher that attacks him, or even
the big Canada lynx, that no other creature in the woods
would dare to tackle.
Above all these puzzling contradictions is the prime
question of how Nature ever produced such a creature, and
what she intended doing with him; for he seems to have no
place nor use in the natural economy of things. Recently
the Maine legislature has passed a bill forbidding the
shooting of porcupines, on the curious ground that he is the
only wild animal that can easily be caught and killed
without a gun; so that a man lost in the woods need not
starve to death. This is the only suggestion thus far, from
a purely utilitarian standpoint, that Unk Wunk is no
mistake, but may have his uses.
Once, to test the law and to provide for possible future
contingencies, I added Unk Wunk to my bill of fare—a vile,
 suffix that might delight a lover of strong
cheese. It is undoubtedly a good law; but I cannot now
imagine any one being grateful for it, unless the stern
alternative were death or porcupine.
The prowlers of the woods would eat him gladly enough, but
that they are sternly forbidden. They cannot even touch him
without suffering the consequences. It would seem as if
Nature, when she made this block of stupidity in a world of
wits, provided for him tenderly, as she would for a
half-witted or idiot child. He is the only wild creature
for whom starvation has no terrors. All the forest is his
storehouse. Buds and tender shoots delight him in their
season; and when the cold becomes bitter in its intensity
and the snow packs deep, and all other creatures grow gaunt
and savage in their hunger, Unk Wunk has only to climb the
nearest tree, chisel off the rough, outer shell with his
powerful teeth, and then feed full on the soft inner layer
of bark, which satisfies him perfectly and leaves him as fat
as an alderman.
 Of hungry beasts Unk Wunk has no fear whatever. Generally
they let him severely alone, knowing that to touch him would
be more foolish than to mouth a sunfish or to bite a
peter-grunter. If, driven by hunger in the killing March
days, they approach him savagely, he simply rolls up and
lies still, protected by an armor that only a steel glove
might safely explore, and that has no joint anywhere visible
to the keenest eye.
Now and then some cunning lynx or weasel, wise from
experience but desperate with hunger, throws himself flat on
the ground, close by Unk Wunk, and works his nose cautiously
under the terrible bur, searching for the neck or the
underside of the body, where there are no quills. One grip
of the powerful jaws, one taste of blood in the famished
throat—and that is the end of both animals. For Unk Wunk
has a weapon that no prowler of the woods ever calculates
upon. His broad, heavy tail is armed with hundreds of
barbs, smaller but more deadly than those on his back; and
 swings this weapon with the vicious sweep of a
Sometimes, when attacked, Unk Wunk covers his face with this
weapon. More often he sticks his head under a root or into
a hollow log, leaving his tail out ready for action. At the
first touch of his enemy the tail snaps right and left
quicker than thought, driving head and sides full of the
deadly quills, from which there is no escape; for every
effort, every rub and writhe of pain, only drives them
deeper and deeper, till they rest in heart or brain and
finish their work.
Mooween the bear is the only one of the wood folk who has
learned the trick of attacking Unk Wunk without injury to
himself. If, when very hungry, he finds a porcupine, he
never attacks him directly,—he knows too well the deadly
sting of the barbs for that,—but bothers and irritates the
porcupine by flipping earth at him, until at last he rolls
all his quills outward and lies still. Then Mooween, with
immense caution, slides one paw under him, and with a quick
 hurls him against the nearest tree, again and again,
till all the life is knocked out of him.
If he finds Unk Wunk in a tree, he will sometimes climb
after him and, standing as near as the upper limbs allow,
will push and tug mightily to shake him off. That is
usually a vain attempt; for the creature that sleeps sound
and secure through a gale in the tree-tops has no concern
for the ponderous shakings of a bear. In that case Mooween,
if he can get near enough without risking a fall from too
delicate branches, will tear off the limb on which Unk Wunk
is sleeping and throw it to the ground. That also is
usually a vain proceeding; for before he can scramble down
after it, Unk Wunk is already up another tree and sleeping,
as if nothing had happened, on another branch.
Other prowlers, with less strength and cunning than Mooween,
fare badly when driven by famine to attack this useless
creature of the woods, for whom Nature nevertheless cares so
tenderly. Trappers have told me that in the late winter,
when hunger is
 sharpest, they sometimes catch a wild-cat or
lynx or fisher in their traps with his mouth and sides full
of porcupine quills, showing to what straits he had been
driven for food. These rare trapped animals are but an
indication of many a silent struggle that only the trees and
stars are witnesses of; and the trapper's deadfall, with its
quick, sure blow, is only a merciful ending to what else had
been a long, slow, painful trail, ending at last under a
hemlock tip with the snow for a covering.
Last summer, in a little glade in the wilderness, I found
two skeletons, one of a porcupine, the other of a large
lynx, lying side by side. In the latter three quills lay
where the throat had been; the shaft of another stood firmly
out of an empty eye orbit; a dozen more lay about in such a
way that one could not tell by what path they had entered.
It needed no great help of imagination to read the story
here of a starving lynx, too famished to remember caution,
and of a dinner that cost a life.
 Once also I saw a curious bit of animal education in
connection with Unk Wunk. Two young owls had begun hunting,
under direction of the mother bird, along the foot of a
ridge in the early twilight. From my canoe I saw one of the
young birds swoop downward at something in the bushes on the
shore. An instant later the big mother owl followed with a
sharp, angry hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo! of warning. The youngster
dropped into the bushes; but the mother fairly knocked him
away from his game in her fierce rush, and led him away
silently into the woods. I went over on the instant, and
found a young porcupine in the bushes where the owl had
swooped, while two more were eating lily stems farther along
Evidently Kookooskoos, who swoops by instinct at everything
that moves, must be taught by wiser heads the wisdom of
letting certain things severely alone.
That he needs this lesson was clearly shown by an owl that
my friend once shot at twilight. There was a porcupine
 imbedded for nearly its entire length in his leg. Two
more were slowly working their way into his body; and the
shaft of another projected from the corner of his mouth.
Whether he were a young owl and untaught, or whether, driven
by hunger, he had thrown counsel to the winds and swooped at
Unk Wunk, will never be known. That he should attack so
large an animal as the porcupine would seem to indicate
that, like the lynx, hunger had probably driven him beyond
all consideration for his mother's teaching.
Unk Wunk, on his part, knows so very little that it may
fairly be doubted whether he ever had the discipline of the
school of the woods. Whether he rolls himself into a
chestnut bur by instinct, as the possum plays dead, or
whether that is a matter of slow learning is yet to be
discovered. Whether his dense stupidity, which disarms his
enemies and brings him safe out of a hundred dangers where
wits would fail, is, like the possum's blank idiocy, only a
mask for the deepest wisdom; or whether he is
 quite as
stupid as he acts and looks is also a question. More and
more I incline to the former possibility. He has learned
unconsciously the strength of lying still. A thousand
generations of fat and healthy porcupines have taught him
the folly of trouble and rush and worry in a world that
somebody else has planned, and for which somebody else is
plainly responsible. So he makes no effort and lives in
profound peace. But this also leaves you with a question,
which may take you overseas to explore Hindu philosophy.
Indeed, if you have one question when you meet Unk Wunk for
the first time, you will have twenty after you have studied
him for a season or two. His paragraph in the woods'
journal begins and ends with a question mark, and a dash for
what is left unsaid.
 The only indication of deliberate plan and effort that I
have ever noted in Unk Wunk was in regard to teaching two
young ones the simple art of swimming,—which porcupines, by
the way, rarely use, and for which there seems to be no
necessity. I was drifting along the shore in my canoe when
I noticed a mother porcupine and two little ones, a prickly
pair indeed, on a log that reached out into the lake. She
had brought them there to make her task of weaning them more
easy by giving them a taste of lily buds. When they had
gathered and eaten all the buds and stems that they could
reach, she deliberately pushed both little ones into the
water. When they attempted to scramble back she pushed them
off again, and dropped in beside them and led them to a log
farther down the shore, where there were more lily pads.
The numerous hollow quills floated them high in the water,
like so many corks, and they paddled off with less effort
than any other young animals that I have ever seen in
water. But whether this were a swimming lesson, or a rude
direction to shift and browse for themselves, is still a
question. With the exception of one solitary old genius,
who had an astonishing way of amusing himself and scaring
all the other wood folk, this was the only plain bit of
forethought and sweet reasonableness that I have ever found
in a porcupine.
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