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School of the Woods by  William J. Long
Table of Contents


 

 

UNK WUNK THE PORCUPINE

[217]

A
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 better; so [218] 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 wilderness.

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, [219] trapping 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.

[220] 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 [221] 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, [222] 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 [223] 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, malodorous [224] 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.

[225] 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 he [226] swings this weapon with the vicious sweep of a rattlesnake.

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 flip [229] 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 [230] 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.

[231] 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 the shore.

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 quill [232] 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 [233] 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.

[234] 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 [235] the 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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