Was it your singularity, my prickly friend, or mine
that drew us warily together this blue fall morning?
Deep on the trail to White Ledge, in the shadow of Chocorua,
within a dense beech-oak-maple-hemlock shieling
where the last drop ends and the long last climb begins,
there we took each other by surprise.
There you appeared, jauntily waddling down the path
in my direction. At first glance (no offence intended)
I took you for a small, fat, black, and very shaggy dog.
How strange, I thought, for such an unkempt unaccompanied mutt
to whiffle through this almost virgin woods. On spotting me,
you stopped and defensively puffed out your quills
like a mega-sycamore ball or stepped-on stonefish. Never before
have I had such good look at porcupine, uncrushed and free.
For a long moment, some 20 feet apart, each of us curiously but
cautiously stood our ground. Gently, coaxingly, I tried to tell you:
You can relax, I won’t hurt you, I want to be your friend.
You peered at me with your tiny amber eyes, almost as if you
saw into me. Slowly you unpuffed your ivory-tipped quills,
then turned, and nonchalantly ambled into the woods,
your flat, prickly, beaver-like tail trailing behind you.
“Please come back,” I whispered, seductively as I could.
And to my astonishment, you gradually circled and came back
onto the trail, a bit closer than where you’d left it.
With barely a glance at me (you will recall)
you crossed the path and headed for a strange large pile
of lichen-studded stones: like the ones old farmers used to
build walls with, to keep their livestock in and strangers out.
But no remnants of such walls were here in view. I wondered whether
that mini-pyramid of weathered stones might once have marked
the ancient burial site of Chief Chocorua’s long lost tribe: a good-natured people,
first befriended, then exploited and finally exterminated by my forefathers.
(For am I not the 8th great grandson of the Pilgrim Fathers?)
With footing nimble as a bear, you clambered deftly up
that telltale mound of rocks until you perched, sentinel-like,
on the topmost stone. From that vantage point you gazed
down at me: proudly, placidly, with a querulous look
that neither welcomed not repelled. I wanted to be closer.
Wondering how near you’d let me come, I sat down and inched
myself toward you. As I drew closer, you again grew wary
and turned your back on me, your dark, dart-quivering tail
ready to lash out. But when I sat stone-still once more, again
you turned to face me. By now we were only four feet or so
apart, looking into each other’s eyes.
Squirrel-like, you hunched, your front paws tucked against
your chest, your long-clawed feet angled awkwardly inward
like a shy child’s. Studying each other, we sat that way
for the best part of an hour. Your only movement was to now and then
brush with a paw the thirsty mosquitoes from your eyes.
I did the same. But now it was you who began to speak:
faint mutterings punctuated with high-pitched grunts or clicks,
or perhaps the soft chattering of your small razor-sharp teeth.
Best I could, I answered you in kind. Longing for connection,
as slowly as the hand of a clock I reached out my hand until my fingertips
were no more than three feet from your whiskers, just out of reach
should you change your mind and try to lash me with your tail.
When at last I lowered my vacant hand you silently
turned sideways, inviting me admire your wizened profile.
With dignity you arched your back and fanned out your quills
in a display as grand as a love-lorn peacock … or the headdress of
an Indian chief. Even your tail, hanging down the rock behind you,
resembled a quill-adorned Indian braid. In my mind’s eye, I saw
in you the noble reincarnation of Chief Chocorua, who –
when the remainder of his tribe fled to the still unspoiled boreal
of Canada – had chosen to stay behind with his 10-year-old son
to guard the sacred burial grounds of his ancestors.
That choice of course cost him his life. Pursued by soldiers up the mountain,
he lept to his death from the peak that still bears his name.
Old and weathered porcupine, on looking at you I found myself
asking your forgiveness. Forgiveness not only for the genocide of Chocorua
and his tribe, but for the plundering by my greedy tribe, of the forests,
of the oceans, of the earth, of the atmosphere, and of the germ of life itself,
forgiveness for the white-man’s crusade to shame and tame nature
(including our own instinctively caring and convivial nature);
above all, forgiveness for our rupture of the mysterious circle of life:
that singular bloom of diversity in which you and I
and all who live and die are ever part: ever brothers, sisters lovers
– even as some of us dine on one another –
for we are all of the same blood, the same root.
Forgive me then, my prickly friend, for what we call
Civilization. For I, too, am its doing and undoing, a vector
of the Earth’s demise. Accept my love and imagination
as the spirit moves you. But keep your little javelins ready.